Monday, October 31, 2016

Young Frankenstein (2016)

by Mel Brooks

The first time I heard there was going to be a book about Young Frankenstein was on The Tonight Show when Mel Brooks came out to promote it. The large, coffee table format of the book make me think it would be short on text, but I ordered it anyway. Sure enough, even though I lingered over the pictures, it took less than an hour to get through it. It’s unfortunate, because a film of this magnitude deserves a far more detailed historical analysis than the People magazine sized remembrances about each actor and crewmember of the film. The text of Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film, even with the huge font and including the pictures, barely comes in at a disappointing 200 pages. And yet, because there really isn’t anything else out there, one can’t be too critical. Most of the text is written by Brooks himself, telling about how he cast the picture and vital role played by the rest of the major crew members. The book is also augmented by sections of an article by Loraine Alterman—the future Mrs. Peter Boyle—that she wrote for Rolling Stone magazine. The rest is mostly pictures, and there are some good ones.

Some of the photographs are clearly filler, screen shots that are accompanied by “scenes” from the film, really just tiny bits of dialogue with shots on either side of the page. The behind the scenes photos are really what the book is worth getting for, that and the text by Brooks. What I didn’t really know is that Brooks and Gene Wilder began working on the screenplay for the film while they were shooting Blazing Saddles. Rather than taking their hot hand from that film and rolling it into the next one, they hadn’t had any real box office success beyond The Producers, and had no guarantees that Young Frankenstein would even be produced. One of the things that could have enhanced the book is the original screenplay, which is actually more similar to the farce of Blazing Saddles than it would be the carefully crafted satire of the eventual film. And it was also surprising to learn that it was Brooks who reined in Wilder’s more excessive gags. But that is absent from the book as well. What there is about the way Brooks hired his cast and crew is ultimately satisfying if somewhat brief. Something else that it was good to hear Brooks admit is that this was his proudest creation. I’ve never liked the over-the-top, broad comedy of his other films, but Young Frankenstein was so lovingly created that it deserves the status of classic.

The way the principal cast came together was because both Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle were represented by the same agent as Gene Wilder. And of course it turned out that they were perfect together. I had heard some time ago that Brooks himself had thought about playing Igor, but he made no such reference in the book. Brooks lucked out that Alan Ladd Jr. had just been hired to run 20th Century Fox, and simply believed in shooting black and white the way the director wanted. His cinematographer, Gerald Hirschfeld had experience with the medium and was the perfect choice for director of photography. And I was also pleased to read Brooks heaping praise on one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the film, the score by John Morris. His main theme, the “Transylvanian Lullaby,” is one of the greatest horror music cues of all time. Coming off of the unexpected success of Blazing Saddles, the film was a smash at the box office and was ultimately responsible for making Brooks a bankable name in Hollywood. While he would never again reach the heights he achieved with this film, it is a testament to the genius of Brooks and Gene Wilder that the film has stood the test of time. Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film, while certainly not the book fans of the film would have hoped for, is still a loving tribute to one of the greatest horror-comedies of all time.

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