Wednesday 27 September 2017

Reanimated: "Young Frankenstein"

Reissued to UK cinemas for one night only to coincide with a new West End stage version (which I see has had the inspired idea of getting Ross Noble to shuffle in Marty Feldman's footsteps as Igor), Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein now sits as far as away in time from us as it did from the films it so faithfully and affectionately lampoons. It's at least five minutes before anybody on screen tips us the wink this is meant to be comedy-horror rather than horror per se, during which you could - taking in the ominous titles, (gorgeous) black-and-white photography and high-walled castle sets - persuade yourself you were watching an original Universal production from the early 1930s. Even the slightly clunky exposition is true to the originals, setting up as it does a recognisable dramatic throughline: the vain attempts of Gene Wilder's New York-based medical professor Frederick von Frankenstein (pronounced, of course, Fronk-en-steen) to resist the nominative determinism that insists he wind up in a Transylvanian bolthole passing electricity through dead body parts. I suspect there will be newcomers who only really realise this is a comedy during FvF's cartride to the castle, with the introduction of Teri Garr's Inga ("Would you like to have a roll in ze hay?") and the immortal "Werewolf?"/"There, wolf" exchange. (Somewhere in there lie the origins of Look Around You's "Thanks, ants" joke.)

The bulk of the film is recomposed from tried-and-true showbiz schtick that may well go off like gangbusters on stage, and which in any event reveal Brooks and co-scenarist Wilder's status as keen scholars of comedy: the revolving bookcase bit looks like a new spin on the Marx Brothers' mirror business, and there are routines that, like some of the spare parts in the castle's basement, date back further than that ("Could be worse?" "How?" "Could be raining."). It has two of the best looks to camera since the days of Oliver Hardy: the cut to the monstrous Peter Boyle's face as the little blonde girl runs out of flowers and wonders what the pair of them should throw in the well next is only rivalled by the filthy look on Wilder's face as Inga asks whether there's any way she could give him "a little peace". It replays Shelley's blind-man scene as a clumsy waiter skit, with Gene Hackman and a solid-gold punchline; and it builds towards a musical number that mixes up the original movie with certain contemporaneous RKO productions in taking the monster to town, albeit in top hat and tails. The grand finale is bedroom farce that incidentally goes some way towards addressing the age-old pedant's issue of whether Frankenstein is the name of the doctor or the monster: here, it can be both, and also - Brooks being Brooks - the cue for a colossal, all-star, hall-of-fame dick joke. Given the extravaganza The Producers wound up becoming, it is sort of amazing nobody thought to put this on the stage before now - but that shouldn't detract from the primacy of what remains one of the great screen comedies.

Young Frankenstein returns to selected cinemas tonight. 

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