Blazing Saddles is probably funnier, overall, with its willingness to go way, way, way over the top. Mel Brooks was breaking new comic wind in that one. (It’s hard to remember after films like There’s Something About Mary and American Pie just how shocking it was to have a fart joke in a movie. But it was, and also riotously funny.) But it was all over the place, there was really no plot, and the end pretty much collapses.
Not so with Young Frankenstein. Brooks is primarily a gag writer, and one of the best ever, but he has never shown any talent for art, in the sense of the look and feel of a film. Here, for the first and last time, he tried to get the look right, and with cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld (Fail-Safe) and production design by Dale Hennesy it all works. To me, it makes the jokes work much better to see them presented in the context of what looks like an actual B&W film from the ’30s. They used the original props and castle from the Boris Karloff Frankenstein. And this time, there is actually a story, something Brooks hasn’t fooled with much since The Producers.
“Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Mel’s trademark musical number—there’s one in all his pictures—is second only to “Springtime For Hitler” as a show-stopper. Has there ever been a better Igor—“That’s EYE-gore”—than Marty Feldman? The attention to detail is fantastic. The zippers on Peter Boyle’s neck. The Bride of Frankenstein hair-do. And the sight gags. Gene Wilder plunging the scalpel into his thigh, looking at it in amazement, then crossing his leg casually. And the other gags. The townspeople who all speak with English lower-class accents, and Kenneth Mars, whose German accent is so thick he can hardly even understand himself. The horses whinnying ever time somebody says “Frau Blucher.” The shoeshine boy in lederhosen on the train platform: “Pardon me, boy. Is this the Transylvania Station?” “Walk this way.” And young Dr. Frankenstein (“That’s FRAHNK-en-steen”) hunching along just like Igor. Madeline Kahn, one of the funniest women who ever lived (sadly, dead far too early), bursting out into “Oh, Sweet Mystery of Life At Last I’ve Found You!”
And there’s even one genuinely moving moment, at least for me. Entering the monster’s cell … (“No matter what you hear from in there, no matter what I say … don’t open this door!” And ten seconds later: “Open this goddam door, you idiots!!!”) … when he realizes the magnitude of what he’s accomplished … “Are you all right in there, Dr. Frahnkensteen?” “My name … is FRANKENSTEIN!”
Last but not least, Mel Brooks, maybe the worst ham actor in the world, isn’t in it. Sorry Mel, but it’s the truth.