Saturday, June 11, 2016

Birthday Take: Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein" (1974)

Gene Wilder
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Gene Wilder
Born: June 11, 1933 (83 years old)
Nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay - Young Frankenstein (nominated)

The Take

The general agreement is that director Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein is among the greatest parody movies in history. I for one side with anyone who agrees with this. It could be that I watched the film in my formative youth and latched onto it. It could be that the 1931 version of Frankenstein is one of my all-time favorite movies. However, there's something that goes way deeper, and probably ignored for obvious reason. The screenplay falls into the "Adapted" category despite sharing very little semblance to the Mary Shelley novel in question. So why is that? It's largely because the film isn't a strict adaptation of a book or even the original movie. It's an adaptation of the original Universal Horror series, down to the use of the set from the original film.

It may be very hard to recognize this, especially if you're just going on a laugh-by-laugh assessment. Humor-wise, the films are disparagingly different, and are only funny in how Brooks manages to craft a scene with flawless direction. However, there's certain joy that comes with sitting through several mediocre sequels that came out in the subsequent decades of Frankenstein's success. The film was conceptualized by Brooks and Gene Wilder when they recognized how many Frankenstein movies there were. What's more impressive is the details that audiences decades later will most likely not know because they couldn't even tell you the sometimes uninspired name of those sequels (I can). There's small details that definitely suggest that in order to make a parody film work, they directly lifted scenes that were already absurd and applied them to a more coherent premise.

For instance, the man with the mechanical arm actually comes around four sequels in and is only explained to be physically impaired because of The Monster's violent rampage. Even the dartboard that is used was a prop in one scene in Son of Frankenstein. There was no deeper purpose, but Wilder's ability to add humor by hitting comical things off screen made it funnier. It's almost encouraging to suggest watching these films to get a mental checklist together of every reference. You'll find that it's way more faithful than anyone could imagine. Even if the film delves into silly, juvenile jokes that are about pronunciation - there's still a lingering sense that it's in character with the Frankenstein family lineage. One could even argue that Wilder's Frankenstein is a descendant of the many, *sigh* many Frankensteins that get caught up in the mess of these movies. In a way, this is a deliberate sequel as well as a friendly lampoon.

The idea of a parody movie nowadays is met with an utter hostility. That's to be expected. Some of them are just bad. However, Young Frankenstein definitely shows how these films could work. It may sound unpleasant, but it basically involves putting in the extra effort. One simply has to find a way not to make the jokes reference the movies, but make them fitting to the character first. Imagine if Wilder's biggest gag involved knowing what happened in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Audiences would be lost. Instead, they all feel congruent to the story that they're telling, and the results are amazing. While I have mostly been honoring detail, I think it should be noted that Brooks is also just a master director, and one who would seem more unassuming and underrated had he not managed to get the Blazing Saddles theme an Oscar nomination.

Of course, Wilder is also worthy of credit both on screen and behind. While his filmography is filled with impressive work, there's no denying what he does here. He manages to be over the top, often insane, without derailing the story. He throws in casual references to the old films that don't require previous knowledge. It's hard to judge how much is Brooks or Wilder, but it all coalesces together nicely, and its lasting impact in pop culture definitely seconds the motion of its genius. If you're thinking that it's just a parody of Frankenstein, think again. The 1931 film actually receives very little reference in comparison. It's almost a mockery of a franchise ran amok and on decreasing budgets. Thankfully, it is itself a well crafted ode to everything that worked about the films, even at their cheesiest moments.

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