YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) – Like father, like son

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I maintain that, next to the original The ProducersYoung Frankenstein is Mel Brooks’ most beautifully realized work.

Why? Because it has heart.

That might sound like a radical statement to those who regarded the movie as simply (simply?) a comedy classic. And yes, there is no shortage of literally breathtaking comedy scenes here — all you have to do is mention them. The Frankenstein monster pounding out “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Coffee and a cigar with a blind man (a superb cameo from Gene Hackman). Horses’ dramatic reaction to the name Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). The list goes on and on.

But you know what? For all of its sublime spoofery, what I take away most from the movie is the oddly touching relationship between scientist Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder at his finest) and his zipper-necked creation (try and do more with a nearly dialogue-less role in a sound movie than Peter Boyle did).

The movie opens by demonstrating how dismissive Frederick is of his ancestor’s supposedly insane past. But Wilder brings gravitas to even this opening scene. Is Frederick truly that dismissive of his heritage, or is he afraid he’ll be drawn to it? There’s subtext beneath the satire.

And when Frederick is trapped in a locked room with his raging creation, he has no choice but to play nice with him. And it’s almost as if, despite his John Barrymore-like presence, Frederick owns up to having as much misfittiness as his erstwhile “son.” Is there another Brooks movie that truly cared about the well-being of its characters as much as this one?

Brooks has perfect pitch here, letting the rest of the cast play their shtick to the fullest in counterpart to the dysfunctional-family stuff. Marty Feldman as pixish “Eye-gor,” Teri Garr as Frederick’s fulsome assistant, Madeline Kahn as his stuffy fiancee, Leachman as the castlekeeper with a past, and Kenneth Mars as the spokesman for the town’s lynch mob, all contribute beautiful grace notes of comedy throughout.

But seriously — are comedy viewers not at least subconsciously touched by the connection that Frederick makes with Ol’ Zipper Neck? If you doubt my theory, note how Brooks never quite hit the comedic heights after this one, and how writer-director Wilder tried a similar take on family Freudianism (The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Brother) and never even came close.

A generation of movie makers who were raised on Mel Brooks comedies has long since proven that movie spoofs can concentrate strictly on genre parody and never have to concern themselves with being touching. But Young Frankenstein proved that it certainly doesn’t hurt.

 

 

My tenuous connection to PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE

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Happy Halloween! The following is a very personal and, as such, potentially boring story. If you’re not interested, feel free to sign off. But a blog is a place to share one’s history, so here’s a small piece of mine.

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To most people, Plan 9 from Outer Space is esteemed simply as one of the best worst movies ever made — full of wooden dialogue, shots that don’t match, and hubcaps pretending to be flying saucers. But its writer-director, Edward D. Wood Jr., would probably be pleased that he inspired me in some small way.

In the summer of 2005, I was doing what I could to get by after having suffered a nervous breakdown two years previously. One day, for no particular reason, I bought a cheap DVD of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I had first viewed the movie 25 years earlier on TBS after having read about its gloriously trashy reputation.

As I watched the movie again, I listened to its silly dialogue, and in my mind, I started shouting comebacks to the actors a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When the movie was over, I thought to myself, “I gotta write this down.” Blessed be the Internet, for I was easily able to find a transcript of the movie’s script online. I printed it out and red-marked it all over the place, and then I “adapted” it into my own script.

So now I had my own version of the movie. What to do with it? I converted into into stage-play format and tried to shop it around town. But you’d be amazed how tightly sewn up the local theater clique is — at least, our local theater clique. They claim to want to try something different, but in the end, they do productions of either public-domain works or the thousandth production of The Odd Couple.

I finally found a very adventurous local venue named Boomtown Theatre, managed by a self-described local gadfly named Stephen Dare. He liked the script and was willing to take on the production, even letting me share in the profits. For Stephen’s willingness to stick his neck out for a completely unknown quantity, I’ll be forever grateful.

The story of getting this production together would be a great story in itself. But with the help of Stephen, his crew, and a very fine cast (including my two children, who were naive enough to take speaking roles), we managed to do a really good show, performing all throughout the second half of October. The attendees responded very well to it. One of them even asked me to autograph his play program.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the show, and it provides me with a special memory. (If you’re really interested, click here to visit a website that I created at the time to promote the play.) To anyone who has any kind of dream of performing, I say: If you believe in it, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. There’s always a way to make it happen, and I’m living proof of it.

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