Friday, September 16, 2016
Instead of a monster, I present the National Film Registry to you as a sophisticated, debonair man-about-town. Maybe.
What is it about Gene Wilder? This may seem like I'm trying to capitalize on his death, but there really is something about his ability to switch between gentle sorrowing and manic shrieking. I am amazed he never burst a blood vessel on screen – he certainly looked like he would a few times. And in Young Frankenstein, this ability is really turned up to 11. The black-and-white cinematography doesn't show off just how extraordinarily red his face could get, but it did show off how well he had mastered the early silent film-style of acting heavily with eyes, eyebrows, and twitches of the mouth, only to move into the classic early talkie mode of howling like a maniac. He really does seem like he could be descended from the Henry Frankenstein of all the early monster pictures... though in a slight continuity error between the book and the films, Frederick's grandfather is named Victor. Which is correct for the books, but in all the Universal pictures, he's named Henry. It's a minor inconsistency as such things go, especially because even though they don't have the old, abandoned mill that's in the original Frankenstein pictures, they do have the lab equipment. I've always found Mel Brooks very hit or miss, but Young Frankenstein is a hit for me because it's more absurdist comedy and less situational. It does have the famous “Walk this way” joke (which, interestingly, sprang from a Looney Tunes short), and a lot of Marty Feldman looking directly into the camera, but Eye-gor is the only character who appears to know that he is in a movie.
Maybe that's what bothers me about some other Mel Brooks movies. I don't know. This one is particularly full of running gags and rants, as well as a ton of references to the source material (“What else shall we throw in?” asks the little girl, making the Creature roll his eyes – film buffs may remember that the Creature in the Universal picture became distressed when there were no more flowers to toss in the water, and then threw in the little girl, who of course drowned. Or the hermit who offers cigars, which I thought was a silly gag the first time I saw the picture, but since I've seen The Bride of Frankenstein, I know really is a nod to the source. And I still wonder why on earth the hermit had cigars). More modern audiences may be rather offended at the scene between Elizabeth and the Creature, where her objections to the fact that the Creature has kidnapped her are overcome by her seeing his... schwangstugel. Though how exactly that transferred over is never really explained, and let me be the first to say I am really happy it was not. This is a film that shows off the comic genius of Gene Wilder and the proper way to reference source material in a parody (hint to all aspiring parody filmmakers of today: the fact that a thing exists does not mean that it is funny. You actually have to play up the absurdity of the existence of the thing).
It can be crude at times, but it does deserve to be on the National Film Registry for its attention to detail and loving craftsmanship of parody – not just because apparently having “Frankenstein” in the title guarantees a spot on the List.