Later this year, Mel Brooks’ brilliant homage to the Universal monster movies Young Frankenstein turns 40. Having spawned a successful Broadway musical and inspired countless other spoofs, this send-up of the original Frankenstein films remains the gold standard against which many comedies are judged. Rightfully so. If only Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer paid more attention to what makes it good, we wouldn’t be plagued by so many terrible spoofs out there now.
The Blu-ray of Young Frankenstein features Brooks’ frank commentary of the film, examining the contributions of co-writer Gene Wilder as well as many fond memories of the cast – most of whom are no longer with us.
Brooks may have changed direction from filmmaking to work on the Broadway stage in recent years, but his expertise at making a timeless comedy is detailed here.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Commentator: Mel Brooks (director, co-writer)
1. The film was originally to be produced at Columbia, but the studio only greenlit a budget of $1.75m. Brooks said it was impossible to shoot the film with that budget, demanding at least $2m, maybe more. The production ended up moving to 20th Century Fox, where it grossed almost $90m.
2. Brooks insisted that Gene Wilder get top billing as the writer because he came up with the idea to make the film during the production of Blazing Saddles. Wilder was responsible for many of the running gags in the film, including the mispronunciation of Frankenstein’s name.
3. Brooks purposely shot the movie as James Whale did the original Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. He used many wide shots, almost never zoomed in, and chose only to move the camera with minimal effect. Brooks also used techniques from German expressionist directors Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau.
4. Liam Dunn, who plays the old man getting kicked in the balls during Frankenstein’s lecture, was originally a casting director who later took up acting. He had emphysema (and passed away only a few years later) during the filming of his scene. The crew always asked if he needed anything at the end of every take, suggesting orange juice or oxygen. Instead, Dunn would always ask for a cigarette. It was a different time.
5. Gene Wilder was notorious for breaking character and laughing during filming. Several key moments resulted in Brooks needing to punch in for a close-up to edit out the laughter. In particular, after Frankenstein stabs himself in the thigh with a scalpel, Brooks had to cut to a close up of Wilder saying, “Class dismissed” in order to avoid seeing the actor laugh. Reportedly, Cloris Leachman was often upset with Wilder for cracking up during their scenes because it ruined what she considered her best takes.
6. In order to keep himself from laughing during takes, Brooks stuffed a handkerchief in his mouth. So Wilder wasn’t the only one with the problem.
7. Teri Garr’s mother was the wardrobe mistress on the film, which is only a little bit creepy, considering how many low-cut outfits she wears.
8. Brooks provided sound effects for the film, including the wolf that howls during the carriage ride to the castle, the screeching cat that gets hit by a dart, and the voice over of Victor Frankenstein when the characters discover the lab.
9. Cloris Leachman did her own make-up for the picture, and she decided to include a wart on her chin. When asked by Brooks why she did this, her response was, “for character.”
10. The first two skulls seen on the shelves in Victor Frankenstein’s private library (“3 Years Dead” and “2 Years Dead”) were real skulls. The third one (“6 Months Dead”) was made by the production. The fourth one (Marty Feldman as Igor) was one that, according to Brooks, “only God could make.”
11. Most people did not get the “Damn your eyes!” joke in which Feldman breaks the fourth wall and says, “Too late” because few Americans knew the original phrase that was mostly used by the British.
12. The production tracked down Kenneth Strickfaden, who built the electrical equipment for the original Frankenstein. They found all the equipment in his garage and asked he they could use it for their movie.
13. The notes on the brains in the Brain Depository are written by Brooks.
14. The glowing face effect of the Monster (Peter Boyle) during the lightning storm was achieved by placing a light bulb inside a mold of Boyle’s head and adjusting the brightness with a rheostat.
15. Brooks specifically wanted the actors who played the villagers and officials in Transylvania to speak with British accents. He did this as a joke because the films made during James Whale’s time often had people speaking with British accents, even if the film was set in Germany or Eastern Europe.
16. Peter Boyle’s make-up was green, which looked pale white when photographed in black and white.
17. There were sixteen takes of the scene in which the Monster chokes Frankenstein, leading into Frankenstein choking Igor. Brooks shot them as long master takes but had to use close-ups to cut them together.
18. Brooks chose the name of the genius (whose brain Igor dropped) as Hans Delbruk because it sounded very similar to “Mel Brooks.”
19. At the time of release, few people recognized Gene Hackman as the old blind man. Hackman got the part because he played tennis with Gene Wilder, who told him about the film. Hackman specifically asked if there was a part for him because he wanted to try comedy.
20. Brooks fought Wilder down to the wire over whether they should include the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” sequence. Brooks felt it was too ridiculous and out of character for the picture.
21. One of the villagers yelling at the Monster through the bars of the prison cell is actually named Clement von Franckenstein.
22. Brooks calls the scene in which Madeline Kahn arrives at the castle one of the best and worst days of his life. He thought it was great because the cast was delivering comedy gold. He thought it was terrible because practically every line caused the actors to start laughing.
23. The only death in the movie occurs when the Monster kills the guard that was tormenting him in jail. Brooks felt this was necessary to heighten the emotional impact and intensity of the final act.
Best in Commentary
- “I like cheap jokes” / “There’s some cheap jokes here that I’m ashamed of.”
- “Will someone tell me where a distinguished audience of neurosurgeons and scientists found vegetables to throw at the monster? Where did they get that? That was one of what I call my logical liberties.”
- “The movie is just as emotional as it is funny. And that’s why it’s lasted so long. Because emotion does counts. Movies can’t be just be rat-tat-tat-tat silly funny. They’ve got to have some human basis for the humor.”
- “I do everything in a movie to please me. And if it pleases me, then I think it’s good. And if it doesn’t please me, I think it stinks!”
Young Frankenstein is my favorite Mel Brooks movie, and it’s always nice to have an excuse to watch it. With Brooks flying solo during the commentary, he stays on point most of the time, only diverting when he wants to watch a scene unfold. The trivia he drops can be insightful, but it will often be somewhat mundane, such as when he identifies who wrote which joke.
There’s a bittersweet nature to the commentary as well, as there is watching the film in any context. After all, most of the main cast has passed away. Brooks even says, “I’m crying as I look at these credits.”
The best part of the commentary is the breezy attitude that Brooks takes while talking about the film. It’s clear that he makes these movies to make himself laugh, and he’s lucky enough that most of the time others find it funny as well. The man may have stumbled a bit in his later years of filmmaking, but this look into his heyday of the 1970s was enjoyable to hear.