Throwback Thursday: Young Frankenstein Hits All the Right Parody Notes

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

A good parody will take something popular and put a funny spin on it. A great parody will do that with love. Today we have 1974’s Young Frankenstein, a great send-up of the original 1931 James Whale film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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Conceived by Gene Wilder and co-written with Mel Brooks, the film has stood the test of time and has even been made into a stage musical. Young Frankenstein is one of the rare Brooks films in which he doesn’t also play an acting role. Wilder reportedly didn’t want Brooks to act in the film because he would break the fourth wall, but what’s funny is that Brooks’ absence doesn’t stop the other actors from eye-rolling or winking at the camera to make sure you get the joke.

Coming hot off the heels of Blazing Saddles (one of my personal favorites), Wilder knocks it out of the park as the grandson of the original Dr. Frankenstein. Sickened by the things his grandfather did, he pronounces his name Frank-un-steen and refuses to acknowledge his lineage. That is, of course, until he is bequeathed the mansion on the hill that housed the original experiments. After reading his grandfather’s journals, Wilder’s character decides to pursue his ancestor’s dream of recreating human life. With the help of his assistants Igor (pronounced eye-gore) and Inga, and Frau Blucher, his experiments take on a life of their own (pun intended).

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Garr, Boyle, Wilder, and Feldman. One of them has really poofy hair.

The film is full of sight gags, sound gags, word play, exaggerations, and humorous situations; and the cast is all game. This ends up being a Who’s Who of who made people laugh in the ’70s and ’80s, with Marty Feldman, Terri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle, and Madeline Kahn all serving the movie well while trying to make their fellow castmates laugh. If you have the DVD or Blu-ray, definitely watch the outtakes and see how much fun the cast is having. That fun is infectious and makes it into the final film (even if the corpsing, thankfully, doesn’t). From Leachman offering Ovaltine to Wilder, to Feldman’s “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” to Garr’s, “Roll, Roll, Roll in the Hay,” the film finds the right balance between being over the top and being sincere.

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It’s time for charades.

The film also hits the exact right note on its scenic design: it uses many of the same props as the original 1931 film did, and the filming in black and white (with cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld) perfectly captures the original vibe. It’s one of the best-shot films in Brooks filmography.

If you haven’t seen Young Frankenstein, you should. I recommend staying away from the stage musical, however: The songs are shoehorned in and stop the acting momentum. All the really funny dialogue parts are pulled directly from the film. And you really can’t improve on the cast of the film, so why even try? (This is a rhetorical question – you shouldn’t). If you love the old Universal monster films and want to see them lovingly parodied, this is the film for you. It’s one of Brooks’ top five films. And Gene Wilder’s. And Cloris Leachman’s. And Peter Boyle’s. The list goes on, and there’s a reason for that.

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If you don’t laugh out loud at this scene, you might be dead inside.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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