An affectionate spoof of the Universal Frankenstein series of horror films from the 1930s and early 40s, appropriately shot in period-style black and white, Young Frankenstein (1974) is writer/director Mel Brooks’ tribute to the undying legend of the Frankenstein monster, played for laughs with a superb cast that wrings every ounce of parody out of the source material. The film almost immediately became a cult hit, and is frequently revived today; what makes the film so effective is its combination of visual stylization, coupled with Brooks’ irresistible Borscht belt humor. This, in short, is slapstick comedy at its finest, and one of the funniest films produced in American during the 1970s.
Actor Gene Wilder, who collaborated on the screenplay of Young Frankenstein with Brooks, plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who continually insists that his name is properly pronounced “Frahnkenstein,” and avoids any mention of his infamous ancestor. As Young Frankenstein opens, Frederick Frankenstein is working as a lecturer at an American medical school, but soon news arrives that he has inherited his grandfather’s ornate castle in Transylvania. Arriving to claim his birthright, he meets Inga (Teri Garr), who will become his assistant; Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), a stern taskmaster who urges him to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps; and Igor (Marty Feldman), a hunchback whom Frankenstein soon presses into service in his experiments.
In short order, Frankenstein and his motley crew of associates have whipped up a new monster (Peter Boyle), assembled from the body of a recently executed criminal, but handicapped by an “abnormal brain” that makes him unpredictably violent. Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars, in a parody of a role made famous by actor Lionel Atwill in the original films) is suspicious of the activities in Frankenstein’s laboratory (which used the original “mad lab” equipment designed by Kenneth Strickfaden for the original 1931 film, and its subsequent sequels). When the monster escapes, he is briefly befriended by a blind hermit (Gene Hackman), but is soon recaptured by Frankenstein, who dresses him in white tie and tails and teaches him to sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” for a group of amazed fellow scientists.
More plot complications lead up to an obligatory happy ending, but the film’s real strength lies in its deep respect for the original Frankenstein films, starting with director James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), and continuing on though Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and director Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939). Brooks’ film borrows plot elements, characters, and situations from all of these films, and yet manages to remain both fresh and funny entirely on its own terms.
Much later, Brooks would transform Young Frankenstein into a successful Broadway musical, but the 1974 film version is easily the better production, and is often screened at “midnight matinees” in film theaters around the world. Brooks parodies the Frankenstein legend, but at the same time, he is faithful to it, resulting in a film that even purists can enjoy, and one of the most successful comedy films of all time.