[box cover]

Young Frankenstein

The Mel Brooks Box Set Collection

In this disc's production featurette, Gene Wilder puts his finger on a crucial factor in Young Frankenstein's instant success in 1974 and its enduring position at the top of the Mel Brooks canon. He says that everyone involved understood that what the script was about — beyond the obvious sendup of Universal's classic Frankenstein films of the 1930s — was not, "how can we make fun?" Instead, he says, it was "how can we make it real, which will make it more fun?" That's key wisdom in comedy, especially when you're going for satire. "It wasn't as if we were doing a burlesque," Wilder says. "We weren't doing the Three Stooges." Wilder, who initiated the concept and began writing the screenplay while he was in production on Blazing Saddles with director Brooks, knew that turning his boyhood love of those old films into a comedy meant using humor to honor the subject of his affection, not to rudely debase it for easy and adolescent laughs. (Although obviously, as any random chapter-skipping through the film demonstrates, not to the wholesale exclusion of soup-in-the-crotch gags, "What knockers!", and the variable applicability of "doo doo.") The happy result is an unswervingly funny yet loving and beautifully crafted homage, something more artful and lasting than the usual pull-my-finger farce or focus-grouped Scary Movie lowballer.

After being summoned to Transylvania to claim his inherited family castle, Wilder's modern-day Dr. Frederick Frankenstein ("that's Fronkonsteen") is met at the train station by "Eye-gor," perfectly handled by muppet-eyed Marty Feldman in his first Hollywood film. At first Frederick scoffs at his grandfather's "lunatic" experiments. But just as Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein couldn't deny the family destiny in his veins, Frederick feels compelled to revive his ancestor's famous work. With the aid of Teri Garr as his lovely assistant ("enormous schwanstucker"), the great Madeline Kahn's Elizabeth ("Taffeta, darling"), and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher (insert winnying horses), he accidentally plugs the "Abby Normal" brain into his zipper-necked giant. Giving the Monster body and soul (plus hat-and-cane dance moves) is Peter Boyle. Add Kenneth Mars as Police Inspector Kemp, and Gene Hackman in an uproarious walk-on as the blind man ("I was going to make espresso"), and you have a sensational ensemble cast with two or three career-best performances.

Young Frankenstein is still the best-written, most finely tuned and meticulously executed of Mel Brooks' comedies. Critic Andrew Sarris listed it in his Top 10 for the year, alongside Chinatown, The Front Page, and Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. Based on the movie's critical and commercial success, Fox's Alan Ladd, Jr. offered Brooks and Wilder a five-year contract. (Wilder's next project, this time as journeyman director, was The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, and Brooks' was Silent Movie.) Wilder and Brooks earned Oscar and WGA Award nominations for their screenplay, which rises above most of Brooks' (or anyone else's) other genre spoofs by not permitting the gags and parody to become an end in themselves. There's greater comic control here than in Brooks' later genre farces, which tend to rely more on facile burlesque and jokes with short sell-by dates. Spaceballs was obsolete even before it premiered in '87, but Young Frankenstein hasn't aged a day since '74.

As pure moviemaking, it's the richest of Brooks' films. Cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld's precisely exaggerated black-and-white photography captures the look and character of the James Whale films, right down to pieces of lab equipment from the 1931 original. In that respect and others, the production displays a professional polish and style unique among Brooks' body of work. As Brooks says on this disc's commentary track, "I watch it once a year and I always find something new in it." For his part, Wilder in his autobiography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, devotes more pages to Young Frankenstein than to any other movie. He says that making it "was the happiest I'd ever been on a film.... It was like a small breath of Heaven each day."

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This 2006 upgrade release, available singly and as part of Fox's "Mel Brooks Box Set Collection," is mostly identical to the previous edition from several years back — with one significant improvement. This time the very good 1.85:1 image is anamorphic, not flat. That by itself makes this an essential replacement disc.

Otherwise, all the good stuff from that older disc has been ported over to this new one. Brooks' director's commentary was recorded originally for the Laserdisc release, and you still have to track it down under "Language Selection" instead of "Special Features," but it's worth the search. Brooks is his usual effusive self, responding impromptu to cast members and scenes as they appear while dishing up production info, on-set memories, praise for his crew and cast, and generally enjoying the experience with us.

Further extras start with the thorough and cheery 1996 "making of" featurette (36 mins.). A gentle and generous Wilder heads up its interviewees, and he's joined by Gerald Hirschfeld, producer Michael Gruskoff, archival footage of Feldman and Leachman, and more. Chaptered topics include the scripting, casting, shooting in b&w, sets and lighting, working with Mel, and "tricks of the trade."

We also get seven deleted scenes (including the Actors' Parade that kicked off the wrap party), two bilingual Mexican TV on-set interviews (one with Feldman, the second with Wilder and Leachman in costume), outtakes, a vast library of production photos categorized under 19 subject headings, and original marketing reels (five trailers and three TV spots).

The sole letdown is that this edition adds, like electrodes to the neck, Fox's tired, shrill anti-piracy ad that starts the whole thing. Keep-case (slimline case in the box-set).

—Mark Bourne

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