Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Frankenstein Young and Old

Even though it is a comedy, Young Frankenstein in its conception and treatment as a film carefully incorporated the previous versions of this story of a scientist who tries to create life from death, and instead creates a monster who is also an innocent, hurt by rejection.

 In the early 19th century, machines were just beginning to transform life in unpredictable ways, and the first faint theories of evolutionary change were arising. Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818, though the revised form of today came out in 1831. Some may consider it an early horror story, but in his history of science fiction, The Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss calls it “the first real novel of science fiction.” “Frankenstein is a triumph of the imagination,” he writes,” more than a new story, a new myth.”

 That myth was extended by director James Whale with his 1931 film Frankenstein and his 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, both retelling parts of Shelley’s original story, and both now considered film classics. A number of sequels followed, moving farther and farther away from the original story, ending with the 1948 comedy, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. 

 Though the film Young Frankenstein is now more associated with Mel Brooks, it actually started with its star, Gene Wilder. He recalled seeing the early Frankenstein films as a child, and began developing a story he titled Young Frankenstein.

Then his agent suggested that he make a film with actors Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman —basically because the agent now represented all three of them. Wilder said he had an idea that might work. He finished a short film treatment and got a studio interested. He suggested Mel Brooks for the director and for his co-writer. Boyle was cast as the monster, and Feldman as Igor.  Wilder played the young Dr. Frankenstein, the mad scientist's grandson, now a distinguished medical expert in America.

 Many of Wilder’s ideas were crucial to the film. The first pages he wrote were the Transylvania Station sequence. He invented and fought for the “Puttin’ On the Ritz” tap-dancing sequence with Dr. Frankenstein and the monster. He consciously played off events in the James Whale films for his comic inventions.

 But as a writer Mel Brooks stressed the importance of a strong narrative, and as a director, he insisted on visually honoring the classic James Whale films at the same time as they were being satirized. Crucial to this approach was filming in black and white, which the studio fought against before ultimately surrendering.

 Though the film is filled with classic gags, it is also very closely based on the Whale films (mostly Bride of Frankenstein) and the original novel, including lines taken directly from Shelley.
Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Gene Wilder, Teri Garr in Young Frankenstein.
Other prominent parts played by Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars,
with a memorable appearance by Gene Hackman.

 On the set the biggest problem for virtually everyone was to keep from ruining shots by laughing. This extended beyond the actors to the camera operator and the crew. Brooks distributed handkerchiefs for crew members to stuff in their mouths to stifle audible laughter. He used one himself.

 Released in the 1974 Christmas season, Young Frankenstein was an immediate hit. Its combination of beautifully heightened black and white cinematography and vaudeville-style humor remains a singular achievement. Mel Brooks is among those who consider it his best film as a director. Brooks says it is Gene Wilder’s best performance. That might be true of the other actors as well. Almost 40 years later, it is both a classic and a cult favorite.

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