The first thing you notice about Young Frankenstein (1974) is that it is a throwback. If you are not familiar with how Mel Brooks went about making films, you might not fully grasp what is going on right away. You could take it for a classic horror movie of the 1930s, the kind of flick that used to get people into the theaters on Tuesday afternoon if for no other reason than to have something to do. No, Young Frankenstein is one of the better examples of Brooks’ genius for spoofing entire genres. He did it with Westerns in Blazing Saddles (1974), and he did it to Science Fiction with Spaceballs (1987). His movies contain a lot of innuendo as well, but overall they are lighthearted takes on types of movies that sometimes take themselves too seriously. You can see these elements at work in Young Frankenstein.
After the opening credits of Young Frankenstein, the first scene features a rotting corpse hilariously reluctant to give up a box which it is clutching. When it does, we then cut to a classroom where Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), pronounced “frahnkensteen” as he insists, is teaching a college course on anatomy. There enters an older gentleman carrying the wooden container from earlier. Once the class is dismissed, he introduces himself to Dr. Frankenstein and informs the professor that he has inherited his great-grandfather’s estate in Transylvania. Dr. Frankenstein sees the reputation of his European family as tarnished, hence the odd pronunciation of his surname, and is reluctant to travel there to see his new lands. Still, he feels he must, and after a stereotypical train platform departure from his fiancée Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), he is off to the land of mythical monsters. When he arrives, he is met by his new assistant Igor (Marty Feldman), emphasis on the “I” and eyes, and his attractive but dimwitted assistant Inga (Terri Garr). When they get to the castle, they are greeted by the mysterious Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), who is keen to see Dr. Frankenstein carry on his great-grandfather’s work. The mere mention of her name causes horses to whinny and rear up on their hind legs. It is her who lures Dr. Frankenstein to his great-grandfather’s secret laboratory. There he finds the book titled “How I Did It” containing all the formulas and research his predecessor had done in bringing living tissue back to life. Dr. Frankenstein is intrigued, and decides to go ahead with the experiments. With Igor and Inga’s help, he finds the corpse of a giant man. Unfortunately, the brain that he wants to put into the head of the Creature (Peter Boyle) is not the one of the saint and well-liked person he had preserved, for Igor dropped that one and ruined it. Instead, it is an abnormal one Igor finds next to it, the label for which he reads as “Abbey Normal.” Thus, when Dr. Frankenstein brings his creation to life with bolts of lightning, he is dealing with a crazed monster instead of a gentle giant. Still, Dr. Frankenstein is not willing to give up, and one thing he notices right away is that the Creature is soothed by music. The logical next step then, of course, is to start a song and dance act, with Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature performing together. It also serves to show off Dr. Frankenstein’s work to the public. While it goes well at first, as soon as there is a disruption due to brief fire sparked by one of the stage lights, the Creature goes crazy and attacks the crowd. Already there had been some suspicions in the nearby town of Dr. Frankenstein’s mad tinkering, and the charge is led by the one-armed Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) to keep the Creature under lock and key. It is not enough. It breaks free, kidnaps the visiting Elizabeth, and manages to get her to fall in love with his, er, prodigiousness. Still, the Creature is lured back to the castle one last time by Dr. Frankenstein, despite the villagers, led by Inspector Kemp, closing in on it. Once there, Dr. Frankenstein performs one last procedure, transferring some of his brain power for a bit of the Creature’s prodigiousness. In the end, a more intelligent Creature ends up marrying Elizabeth, while Dr. Frankenstein finds marital bliss with Inga.
Though Young Frankenstein is a comedy, the lesson about man attempting to create life can be taken in the same way as Mary Shelley’s source material. After all, the movie literally makes the claim to be based on her work. The long and short of it is that any attempt by humans to bring back the dead, or instill life, is doomed to failure. Put another way, we should not mess with powers we do not fully understand. Please do not take this as a Catholic showing his anti-science stripes. Far from it. Catholicism and science have had a long history of cooperation, whether or not you want to acknowledge it. Where Faith and intellectual inquiry diverge is in setting limits. Power over life and death is not our own. This is why the Church is not only against abortion, but any form of assisted suicide or procedure that ends a life that could otherwise be kept going. This is where science serves its use, when it can preserve life. You may make the point that Dr. Frankenstein is trying to preserve life, too. It is the initial experiment that is the problem. Whoever the Creature was, that person lived their life and it ended. It is odd to think that the soul of that person, wherever it is, could suddenly be wrenched from the beyond and placed back in the body. Existence, after all, is more than simply functioning organs. I will credit Dr. Frankenstein, though, for the care that he provides the Creature once it is created. He wishes to save it from destruction, and he sacrifices part of himself (even if there were some rather questionable motivations), in order to give the Creature a better chance at being in the world.
Strangely, I had never seen Young Frankenstein before recently, and I was glad to have finally done so. The innuendo mentioned above is certainly there, but it never gets vulgar. If a younger person were watching it, most of it would probably go over their heads. I would not recommend them seeing it, but I point that out to give a sense of the material. Like most Mel Brooks’ movies, it is slap-sticky in places. For you big-time movie buffs out there, you might notice in the opening credits where it talks about how the laboratory equipment was borrowed from original Frankenstein films. That is pretty cool in my book. Anyway, it is a fun take on a classic story that stands the test of time.