While Mel Brooks was filming his hit Blazing Saddles, he recalls a day when he was having lunch in his trailer out in the desert. He noticed star Gene Wilder sitting out in the sun. Wilder was writing on a yellow, legal pad, and Brooks asked what he was doing. Wilder said he had an idea for a movie. Then he shared the premise with Brooks: the grandson of Victor Frankenstein (who famously pronounces the last name as Fronk-un-schteen because he’s embarrassed of his family’s legacy) finds out that he’s inherited the family castle and needs to go claim it. When doing so, he finds his grandfather’s books and decides that bringing a monster to life isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Walls and Whale
Brooks loved the idea and wanted to work on it. Wilder responded that he could on one condition—he couldn’t be in it. “I said, ‘Am I such a bad actor?’’ says Brooks. “He said, ‘No, but you’re always breaking the fourth wall, and you’re always surprising, and there’s a lot of anarchy in you. I don’t want it to be a crazy comedy. I want it to be a real movie with natural comedy,’” says Brooks. He agreed. Brooks co-wrote the movie with Wilder, directed it, and even provided some voices for it. But he didn’t act in it. That was just fine with him.
Brooks and Wilder were going for a satire of the 1931 movie Frankenstein directed by James Whale. As a result, they wanted to film it in black and white. Brooks says that if they had made the movie in color, they would have to make the monster green. “We said, ‘If we make the monster green, it’ll be [like] a Halloween mask,’” says Brooks. “It will not have the gravity. It won’t have the depth. It won’t have the power of the James Whale movie.”
Classic No Color
Brooks lost the first deal to make the film when he refused to allow Columbia Pictures to make it on color-fuse stock. While they would show it in black and white in the states, they wanted it to be in color for the foreign release. Brooks refused.
Alan Ladd, Jr. had just taken over 20th Century Fox. After reading the script, he agreed to give a green light to the flick—black and white and all.
Nearly four decades later, Young Frankenstein shines. Brooks says it’s because he and Wilder agreed that if it made them laugh that was what mattered. They refused to pander to the audience because he says “I realized if you do it for you, the audience really appreciates it because they’re so much smarter than people in the business think”.
“It’s still a smart, deeply intelligent, bright movie. The audience gets it, they appreciate it, and it always works,” says Brooks. “It works to this day…If I go someplace, somebody will always yell, ‘Young Frankenstein rules!’…The only thing that is really heartbreaking about this movie is that people are seeing it on a much smaller screen than it’s intended for. I loved it on the big screen.”
Fun Facts About Young Frankenstein
1. The laboratory equipment used in the movie is from the original 1931 film Frankenstein. Mel Brooks says that Kenneth Strickfaden, the man who created the props, still had them in his garage. When they found out, Strickfaden dusted them off, plugged them in, and they all worked. “I asked [20th Century] Fox if we could rent them, and give him a decent sum of money,” says Brooks.
2.. Brooks’ favorite time during the making of the movie was lunch. It’s not because he was hungry. It’s because he would sit around with Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, and Marty Feldman, and they would all share stories about their lives. He remembers Kahn talking about how she originally wanted to be an opera singer and then someone thought she was funny and gave her a comedic role. She then became a comic actress instead. Oh, to be a fly on the wall…
Mel Brooks is There, and He Isn’t
3. Mel Brooks sometimes didn’t direct, but rather, let the actors and actresses have space and do what came naturally. Brooks says he told them to “Play it like a play. I’m not going to chop it up. I’m not going to say cut. You’re going to talk for 10 minutes, and I’m not going to interfere. Just keep doing it.” Some fun scenes that resulted: when Garr remarks to Wilder that he hasn’t touched his food, and he begins to jam his hands into it saying, “There. There. I’ve touched it!”
Another is when Feldman says, “I’ll never forget what me father said to me at times like this,” and then he just pauses and doesn’t say anything. It wasn’t until Wilder asked, “What did he say?” that Feldman responds. “He wasn’t supposed to get that line,” says Brooks, speaking of Feldman. “But he had the guts to just say nothing.”
4. While Mel Brooks wasn’t in the movie he provided voices for it. Brooks did the voices for the werewolf, a cat getting hit by a dart, and Victor Frankenstein. “But I did [them] for real,” says Brooks. “I didn’t try to make them funny. I tried to mimic the guys that originally did Frankenstein. I tried to mimic them.”
Michele Wojciechowski is the award-winning author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box, writer of the award-winning humor column, Wojo’s World®, and a not-yet award-winning stand-up comic. Like Mel Brooks, she never panders to the “lowest common denominator” audience. Check out her website at www.wojosworld.com.
moon photo courtesy Linda Xu of Unsplash.