Since 1910, there have been 57 films based on the famous Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus; beyond direct adaptations of the doctor and his creature, the “enduring cinemyth” of Frankenstein has influenced media far beyond the horror genre, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Looney Tunes to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of the best of these adaptations is the brilliant comedy creation of writer-director Mel Brooks and writer-star Gene Wilder: Young Frankenstein.
Young Frankenstein draws not only from the 1931 Frankenstein film and Mary Shelley’s classic novel, but it also took inspiration from the film sequels The Bride of Frankenstein and The Son of Frankenstein. Rather than another sequel in the series, Young Frankenstein satires the early Hollywood horror films. Wilder leads as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “FRONKENSTEEN!”), the grandson of the original mad scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (pronounced exactly as you would expect). It’s the original legacy sequel but as a spoof.
The movie follows Young Dr. Frankenstein as he visits the location of Victor’s original experiments when he inherits the family castle in his grandfather’s will. Initially ashamed of and distancing himself from his family’s mad reputation, he finds himself unwillingly drawn into the dark legacy after he discovers his grandfather’s secret lab notes detailing his work in creating life from dead bodies. Wilder’s manic descent into this obsession is a genius dual act of a rational scientist and a raving madman.
When creating this film, Brooks wanted to “salute the essence of Frankenstein,” referring to both the original novel and the earlier film adaptations. One of the most common criticisms of Frankenstein adaptations is the oversimplification of the monster into a two-dimensional beast that terrorizes innocent people. However, in Shelley’s original novel, he is eloquent and teaches himself to read. He longs for companionship and suffers from the doctor’s reckless abandonment.
The incredibly silly “Puttin on the Ritz” scene and the monster’s love of violin music tie into this hidden nuance, although the monster here (Peter Boyle) is considerably less than eloquent. “Puttin on the Ritz” almost didn’t make it into the film as Brooks thought it was too much, over the top. Wilder asked Brooks to humor him by filming the scene, and then they could cut it later. After seeing it shot, Brooks could only agree that it had to be included. “It was the best scene in the movie,” he says in the film’s 40th edition Blu-ray commentary.
Young Frankenstein both looks and sounds just like the films that it is parodying. The soundtrack, created by Brooks’ frequent collaborator John Morris (The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie) includes haunting violin, cracks of thunder, and the howling of wolves, reminiscent of early Hollywood horror classics. Furthermore, almost no daylight is shown in the film; instead, most scenes are nighttime or interior shots lit by fire and candlelight.
Many of the scenes in the film are specific callbacks to these earlier films, from the interaction with a little girl to the procurement of the brain (belonging to an “Abby Normal”). The monster creation sequence is one of the most iconic parts of the Frankenstein myth. To keep faithful to the 1931 film, Brooks tracked down Kenneth Strickfaden, who designed some of the original props, and discovered that he had kept many of the laboratory parts in his garage. He allowed them to use the props in the film, which gave the laboratory a wonderfully authentic feel with moving parts, creaking and swaying.
One of Brooks’ dealbreakers when pitching the film was that it had to be done in black and white. Studios worried that would affect box office revenue, especially in markets that had just gotten color films. Brooks refused even to film it in color, believing that if it were supposed to be made black and white in post-production, it would never happen. The original studio in talks to create Young Frankenstein was Columbia Pictures, but they refused to do it in black and white, so Brooks walked away and took it to 20th Century Fox, who embraced the idea wholeheartedly.
The movie ended up being both financially successful and universally acclaimed. That year, it was nominated for multiple Golden Globes, received Oscar nominations for Best Sound and Best Screenplay Adapted from Other Material, and earned a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. The film has earned a place on many “Best Comedy Films of All Time” lists.
Young Frankenstein remains one of the best adaptations of the Frankenstein myth to ever grace the big or small screen. The cast, also including Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, and, in a great cameo, Gene Hackman, bring their considerable comedic chops and go to town with outrageous affectations and genre-savvy jokes. This film both highlights the silly parts of the genre while committing wholeheartedly to the thematic and visual aspects of early horror. It serves as satire, sequel, and tribute to the Frankenstein films that came before it.