Mel Brooks musical is opening in London’s West End this week. Having created one of the biggest shows of the past 15 years with his rollicking production of The Producers, he’s turned to another of his old movies: Young Frankenstein. Whether deliberate tie-in or canny cash-in, writer-director Brooks’ original 1974 film is also released this week.
Who cares about the motives, really, because any opportunity to revisit this exquisite and very funny comedy is welcome. It’s Brooks at his finest – with direction that is at once restrained and wildly emboldened – and it also features one of Gene Wilder’s best performances. The film is made with an artistry and sumptuous visual style that Brooks never equalled again, and it’s also an example of the director at his most daft and puerile: sophisticated and silly, a black-and-white art film with schlong jokes.
The film is a spoof – although that word doesn’t quite do justice to the loving craft on display here – of the 1931 movie Frankenstein in particular, and, more generally, the creaky horror movies made in that decade by Universal Studios. In a preposterous plot that’s played dead straight, Gene Wilder is Frederick, the American grandson of Baron Frankenstein, a neuroscientist who dismisses his Transylvanian ancestor’s experiments with reanimating the dead as hokum.
It’s Mel Brooks at his most daft and puerile: sophisticated and silly, a black-and-white art film with schlong jokes.
Except on returning to the family castle in Romania and teaming up with hunchbacked, bug-eyed manservant Igor (the great British comic actor Marty Feldman) and assistant Inga (Teri Garr, doing a lot with a thinly written role, the film’s sole weak point), Frankenstein is soon following in his grandfather’s footsteps, staging elaborate experiments to bring back to life a hanged convict.
It’s on some levels a pretty faithful retread of the horror classic (despite a nod to Mary Shelley in the opening credits, this is much more faithful to the 1931 movie with Boris Karloff than the source novel). In fact Brooks went to exacting lengths to capture the spirit of those old movies, most famously rebuilding Frankenstein’s lab with the props from the original film.
It’s as much homage as pastiche, but while this works as an immaculately fashioned tribute to a bygone era of filmmaking, it is also graced with Brooks’ runaway comic gifts. The gags often have a cumulative momentum; I can never tire, for instance, of Wilder’s pernickety insistence on pronouncing Frankenstein his way (Fronkensteen).
And sometimes the film reaches a kind of elevated absurdism that approaches genius: Frankenstein’s song-and-dance sequence with the creature (a surprisingly poignant Peter Boyle), performing Putting on the Ritz to an audience ofBucharest high society, is sublimely ridiculous.
The 1970s are hailed as an outstanding decade for American cinema, but the films we celebrate from that era tend to be darkly introspective, often violent (The Godfather, Taxi Driver). But it was also a vintage time for comedy, with the emergence of Woody Allen and Brooks. Unlike Allen, Brooks couldn’t sustain the critical successes but he deserves respect for kickstarting David Lynch’s career as the producer of The Elephant Man. I don’t know what to expect from the new musical, but for a stone-cold classic, the film is the week’s best release.
Young Frankenstein is in cinemas from September 27