The Younger Frankenstein Respects His Elders While Making Fun of Them
A Film Review of Young Frankenstein (1974) by Christopher Wostenberg
One definition of parody is a work of art that imitates the serious manner and characteristic features of a specific work or style of artist or genre. The art of parody can be observed in all forms of art. In literature with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels parodying the popular traveler’s tales and Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote parodying the knight’s tale. In music with J. S. Bach’s reworking of cantatas for Christmas Oratorio, Saint-Saëns The Carnival of the Animals, and Weird Al Yankovic making a career of parodying popular songs. In artwork with Frida Kahlo reimaging Da Vinci’s The Last Supper in her piece The Wounded Table, Gottfried Helnwein’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams putting actors into Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks diner. Therefore, it is no wonder that parodies exist within films as well, but like in other art forms, there are few that stand the test of time. Many current movie parodies contain short-lived humor that mocks a film or film genre that is popular at the moment, for example Fifty Shades of Black (2016) or 30 Nights of Paranormal Activity with the Devil Inside the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2013) or Superhero Movie (2008). The problem with these parodies is they are quickly-made movies that are a combination of low brow jokes on popular movies without much plots themselves. For this review I would like to focus on a movie that does a good job at parodying its source material while standing alone. That movie is Young Frankenstein which parodies the Universal Studio’s Frankenstein film series of the 1930s and 1940s.
Young Frankenstein tells the story of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who inherits the family’s Transylvanian estate. Initially, Frederick wants nothing to do with his family’s history as it is a black mark on his scientific reputation to be associated with the mad scientist that was involved in reanimating a corpse. But Frederick decides to take up his grandfather’s work after finding Victor’s secret laboratory and notes. From there the story follows the classic Frankenstein movie plot of creating a monster that wreaks havoc on the town.
The first time I watched this movie, I had never seen the original 1931 Frankenstein film or read the book by Mary Shelley. Like most young American teenagers, I knew the basic idea of the Frankenstein story from various references in popular culture. Even so, the movie was funny and a joy to watch, ranking high as one of my favorite comedies. Upon multiple viewings, and now having seen the classic 1931 version along with its sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), I consider Young Frankenstein a classic and a great example of a parody film done right.
At its core, Young Frankenstein stays true to the plot of the 1931 Frankenstein film and can be viewed as a sequel to the series. All the jokes, gags, and scenes come from the story and help to move the film forward. An example of this is when the monster visits a blind monk. This is a direct reference to the scene in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) where the monster comes across a blind hermit. The hermit shows the monster kindness by sharing a meal and teaching him words. In Young Frankenstein, the monster has a similar interaction where the monk, still showing kindness, accidentally pours hot soup on the monster and lights his finger on fire instead of a cigar. The scene helps to demonstrate the monster’s interactions with the world outside the lab. While the gags are common, comedy vaudeville tropes, they flow naturally from the plot of the movie. Lack of a complete story is my major criticism with other parody films and comedies in general. Too much time is spent on getting a laugh that the movies feel like a patchwork quilt of comedy skits in the vein of SNL with no overall substance. While on first viewing, this might make these films a laugh riot, it does not sustain rewatching. Young Frankenstein is like other great comedies, where it allows a story to be told and not have every moment needing to be a laugh.
Like I mentioned above, the film plays as a semi-sequel to the original Universal Frankenstein series of films. In order to do this, much effort was put into the details of the film to capture the look and feel of 1930s monster movies, even though the movie was made roughly 40 years later. Most notably was the decision to film it in black and white, which was a rarity in the 1970s for a major American studio release. The black and white filming creates a clear link to the previous films and builds the monster atmosphere. Additionally, many of the filming techniques popular in the thirties were used, including scene transitions with wipes, fades to black and iris outs, as well as opening credits with all the names presented as a list, further connecting Young Frankenstein to its predecessors. Finally, much of the scenery, props, makeup, and costumes were taken either taken from the original 1931 film or reproduced. An example of borrowing from the earlier Frankensteinmaterials is demonstrated by the laboratory set which looks fairly identical in all of the films. This makes perfect sense if Frederick Frankenstein inherited the lab from Victor Frankenstein, the original mad scientist. Altogether, this creates continuity with the rest of the Universal Frankenstein films, with the laughs coming from the actual scenes and dialogue.
Favorite Scene: While the movie is made up of many great comedic scenes that make me laugh, I had an easier time picking a favorite scene for this movie than I normally have. I love the scene where the monster is introduced to the public by Dr. Frankenstein. The monster demonstrates simple motor skills and follows directions by walking heel to toe. Next, Dr. Frankenstein and the monster perform a tap dance number to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” complete with top hats. On first viewing, the scene is a total surprise because it is well done and believable in the context of the film with both actors in full character. It shows the burlesque nature of the film by having a song and dance number, but with neither character being an exceptional singer or dancer. While the movie was made in 1974, it chose to take a popular song from the early 1930s, when the original Frankenstein film was made, for its show piece instead of something more contemporary. Needless to say, this scene always makes me smile.
Whether or not you have seen 1931’s Frankenstein, or any other version of Frankenstein, don’t let that stop you from watching an excellent movie in and of itself in Young Frankenstein. I believe it will make you laugh at least a few times while being a memorable film. Mel Brooks, the director and co-writer of the film, stated while Young Frankenstein was not the funniest movie he made, it was the best. With that said, bye until next time when I look at a film from the slice of life genre. I leave you with this quote from Galaxy Quest, “Never give-up, never surrender.”