‘Young Frankenstein’ and Gene Wilder’s Neighing Legacy

Young Frankenstein is a key film in Wilder’s cinematic legacy, and we are part of Wilder’s legacy every time we quote (even "neigh") Young Frankenstein.

In 1974, my brother Bart and I fell in love with — and bonded over — Young Frankenstein, co-written by comedy geniuses Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder and starring Wilder. Our sibling-speak and career paths would never be the same.

When our mother told us to pile into the blue car — to distinguish in which of the two family vehicles we would be traveling — Bart and I simultaneously neighed. That was our homage to Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher (translated into “blue car”) and the film’s sound effect of horses whinnying in terror every time her name is mentioned. Whenever we heard the name Abby, we turned to each other and questioned “Abby Normal?”, a reference to Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) discovering that the Monster’s brain came from “Abby someone”, according to Igor (Marty Feldman). Of course, Frankenstein’s composure quickly disintegrates when he learns that he has implanted an abnormal brain in his husky seven-foot-tall creation.

Wilder’s incredulous-to-hysterical response made us giggle every time we recalled that scene. Despite growing older (as opposed to growing up), we retained our appreciation of Young Frankenstein. A large Young Frankenstein poster was a focal point in the family room of the first house Bart owned. When his toddler daughter hummed while she ate, we praised her “yummy sound”. Young Frankenstein quotes became some of our linguistic and cultural norms.

Wilder’s wide blue eyes and deceptively mild manner at the start of a scene hooked us, but his twisted perspective and determined focus made his roles so memorable that we watched his films, especially Young Frankenstein, decades after their first theatrical release. Although Bart and I routinely went to matinees together and shared the same warped sense of humor, we came away from multiple viewings of Young Frankenstein with far more than great lines or belly laughs. We began to understand the importance of comedic timing and line delivery, as well as Wilder’s patented shift from slow burn to frenzied outburst. Determining why a scene is funny and how Wilder made us laugh became important knowledge as we began to review films for newspapers, magazines, and academic journals.

Young Frankenstein also helped us appreciate the place of this Frankenstein adaptation within a long succession of monster movies tracing their lineage back to Mary Shelley’s novel. When Wilder’s Frederick shouts “It’s alive!”, the line harkens to the exclamation of Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein when his creation comes to life in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, which starred Boris Karloff as the Monster. Frederick’s lab looks very similar to Henry’s, in large part because Young Frankenstein copied it, down to including some props from the Whale film. Like its predecessor more than 40 years earlier, Young Frankenstein was filmed in black-and-white, part of Brooks’ tribute to Universal’s horror films of the ’30s. Scene transitions were also borrowed from that era; Young Frankenstein incorporates the iris, wipe, and fade-to-black methods of signaling a scene change.

This comedic classic glibly parodies horrific scenes from Frankenstein. The 1931 film features a scene with a little girl befriending the Monster and inviting him to play. They toss flowers into a lake to watch them float. Suddenly the Monster lifts the girl and tosses her into the lake, but she cannot float. Disturbed when the child does not surface, the Monster abandons her. Young Frankenstein turns horror into comedy. When a young girl asks the Monster (Peter Boyle) to play, she invites him to sit opposite her on a seesaw. When he does, the girl predictably is catapulted out of frame as the camera tracks the Monster watching her fly. The scene then cuts to the open window of the child’s bedroom, through which she sails to land safely in bed.

The 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein also influenced the look and content of Young Frankenstein. By the end of the film, Frederick’s former fiancée Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) has transferred her affections to the cerebrally-enhanced Monster. Her new hairdo replicates Elsa Lanchester’s white-streaked exaggerated beehive in Bride of Frankenstein. The scene that Gene Hackman, as Blindman, made famous in Young Frankenstein references a more serious blind man scene in the 1935 film, in which the Monster flees in terror upon seeing his companion light a cigar. In Young Frankenstein, the Monster patiently watches Blindman light his cigar and is then tutored on the way to light his own. When Blindman takes the Monster’s hand, however, he ignites the creature’s thumb instead of the cigar, leading to the Monster’s painful discovery that fire is bad.

In addition to paying tribute to the monster movies that preceded it, Young Frankenstein reminds viewers of the movie musical genre in the classic “Puttin’ on the Ritz” tap number. Reminiscent of the tuxedoed Fred Astaire dancing to this song in the 1946 film Blue Skies, Frederick and the Monster don tuxedos and try to suavely tap their way into the hearts of an audience predisposed to fear the Monster. The absurdity of this singing, dancing duo alone makes Young Frankenstein worth watching more than once.

More general movie tropes must be understood before a parody can be appreciated. Villagers with pitchforks and torches storming Frankenstein’s castle references the Whale film’s scene of vigilante justice, but the image of the fire-lit mob has been appropriated by many a film (e.g., The Phantom of the Opera) and television series (e.g., The Simpsons). Mel Brooks adds a personal touch to the mob leader. In his films, a German authority figure must be mocked; the best example is the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number in The Producers. In Young Frankenstein Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) incites mob violence. However, with his difficult-to-understand accent, he lacks the appropriate menace to be an effective leader. Nevertheless, the pitchfork-wielding villagers do manage to storm the castle and force Frankenstein into a rushed experiment to temper the Monster’s volatile personality by giving some of his own brain power to his creation.

A final scene shows the result of this experiment on the two couples whose relationships are developed throughout the film — Frederick and his lab assistant Inga (Teri Garr) and the Monster and Elizabeth. The now highly intelligent, calmer Monster is reading in bed when Elizabeth, now an Elsa Lanchester-as-Bride lookalike, struts into the bedroom with love-making on her mind. In the Frankenstein bedroom, Inga innocently asks what Frederick received from the supersized Monster in exchange for part of his brain. Wilder’s eyes grow larger and more intensely focused as he growls. Inga exclaims her joy and wonder before breaking into song to reprise “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life”, one of the film’s musical themes. What could have been a cheap sex joke became a fitting punchline because of Wilder’s animated face and ability to sell a sound effect.

Each member of the talented main cast has at least one quotable line. Like Wilder, castmates Kahn, Feldman, and Mars either had been or would be cast in another Brooks movie. Yet Wilder stands out. In Young Frankenstein he’s a master of physical comedy and the carefully timed line. He’s an unlikely leading man who wins over his true love.

Young Frankenstein taught my brother and me how the individually quotable lines, reaction shots, and loosely adapted Frankenstein plot can be transformed into #13 on the American Film Institute’s list of America’s 100 Funniest Movies. It helped us understand its place within cinematic history and the many sources from which it borrowed. Young Frankenstein in general — and Gene Wilder in particular — gave us a lifetime of shared smiles.

Since Wilder’s death was announced on 29 August, several writers have mentioned his enduring film legacy. Perhaps Wilder’s legacy is even simpler and more personal to his fans. Wilder taught us to appreciate comedy and the art of filmmaking. His performances stick with us and become part of our familial experiences as well as pop culture touchstones. We are part of Wilder’s legacy every time we quote Young Frankenstein or discuss it with our friends and family. A cinematic legacy is important, but the personable Wilder, with his concern for his audiences (especially the children who think of him as Willy Wonka), would likely be just as proud of a legacy of fans spanning generations.