‘Young Frankenstein’: Comedy Master Mel Brooks at the Peak of His Craft

The year 1974 was a rather big for then 48-year-old Mel Brooks. Seven years after his brilliant filmmaking debut with The Producers, Brooks made Blazing Saddles, one of the greatest comedies of the seventies and a genius spoof on the Western genre. But that very same year he filmed Young Frankenstein, another highly inspired parody, but also an incredibly solid proof of Brooks’ love and respect for the world of movies. By spoofing classic horror films such as James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, by using the actual sets and props from these movies, by showing a wide range of knowledge on the filmmaking techniques and customs of yesteryear, Brooks crafted a deeply humorous love letter to the works that inspired him and enticed him to make a name of himself in the world of film. Once again he joined forces with his favorite collaborator, the always eager actor Gene Wilder, as well as Madeline Kahn, but it’s peculiar to also see Gene Hackman here, who specifically asked to be included in the movie because he wanted to add comedies to his resume. Needless to say, he did a marvelous job.

Young Frankenstein is funny—if you watched Blazing Saddles or The Producers, this really goes without saying—but at the same time, it proves that Brooks was at the peak of his power at the time, always evolving, maturing and becoming more efficient in the usage of his material. The behind-the-scenes story of his battle with the studio to keep the film black and white deserves recognition because it shows his level of commitment to the project he obviously felt very passionately about. Young Frankenstein is one of Mel Brooks’ greatest, and quite possible his most technically accomplished work to date. In 1974, he was at the top of his game and firmly established his reputation as Hollywood’s most talented comedic director of the period. After all, not many filmmakers are capable of delivering two genius movies in a row, or even in a decade, let alone the very same year.

Screenwriter must-read: Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks’ screenplay for Young Frankenstein [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Young Frankenstein outtakes. Recorded from AMC’s backstory series in 2001.

Mel Brooks and Cloris Leachman reveal their favorite scenes at the Academy’s 40th Anniversary Screening of Young Frankenstein on September 10, 2014 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

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Mel Brooks was interviewed on 15 April 1975 during his visit to the UK to promote Young Frankenstein. The interviewer trying to keep Brooks under control is Mark Caldwell.

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Gene Wilder sat down with Robert Osborne at 92Y for a rare public appearance. He spoke about his disdain for the Willy Wonka remake, working with Richard Pryor and Mel Brooks, Gilda Radner, Young Frankenstein, and more.

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These photos were taken on the Young Frankenstein set by former Los Angeles Times staff photographer Marianna Diamos.

Writer Wayne Warga reported in the April 14, 1974, Los Angeles Times.

The castle looms dark and foreboding, a dead tree in a courtyard leading to outside doors with huge knockers. The kind of place where people must come to die. Frankenstein’s place. And this time the devout wish is that we’ll all die laughing. It’s Mel Brooks’ version of Frankenstein’s place. It’s impossible to tell how many versions of this classic tale have been made around the world, but certainly this must be the first one in which the monster has a zipper in his neck. The $350,000 castle, on Stage 4 at 20th Century-Fox, is an inspiration of the macabre, while the goings-on of its inhabitants are inspiringly silly. Brooks is shooting the film in black and white and is using cinematic techniques prominent in the late 1920s and the early 1930s. “It’s not satire, it’s a salute,” he says. “It says, ‘Mel Brooks Presents Young Frankenstein’ so the audience will, of course, know the comedy will go an inch or two further than one usually expects. But you can’t keep winking because it diminishes the melodrama. The melodrama has to be there.” Brooks at work is intense, serious and determined—in startling contrast to the inspired silliness of his films. Gene Wilder plays Frankenstein and, along with Brooks, is the co-author of the screenplay. “Gene walked in one day and said he wanted to do a picture called Young Frankenstein,” Brooks recalls. “I told him he was crazy. A week later we were writing it.” —Wayne Warga

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