Every so often an actor and a director build a partnership that allows both of them to perform at their peak as if the two were made to work together. Obvious pairings like De Niro and Scorcese or Bill Murray and Wes Anderson, but there is a more underrated duo that I want to discuss today, Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks. The two worked on three films together and while Wilder is beloved for playing Willy Wonka, their collaborations are Brooks’ best loved features. Wilder adds a hint of dignity to Brooks’ juvenile humor. After working together on The Producers, Wilder only agreed to join the cast of Blazing Saddles if Brooks’ next film was based on an idea Wilder had about a spoof of the old Universal Frankenstein. The result, Young Frankenstein, became both artists’ favorite film of their own.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), embarrassed by his grandfather’s notorious experiments, has spent his entire career trying to distance himself from his famous family, going as far as to change to pronunciation of his last name. He learns he has inherited his family’s castle in Transylvania and travels to inspect the property. When arriving in Transylvania he meets his grandfather’s servants: his lab assistant Igor (Marty Feldman), the housekeep Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), and the beautiful Inga (Teri Garr). Being in his granfather’s house inspires a change in Frederick, particularly after discovering his grandfather’s secret lab and his journal which detail his experiments. Frederick decides to continue his grandfather’s work and quickly set out to reanimate the dead. His first experiment is a success but his creator (Peter Boyle) quickly escapes and inadvertently terrorizes the townspeople.
While Brooks is not known for strong female characters, his casting of Garr, Leachman, and Madeline Kahn (who plays Frankenstein’s uptight fiancé) allows for their characters to transcend Brooks’ usual eyecandy and old hag archetypes. After working with Kahn on Blazing Saddles, she was Brooks’ first choice for Inga. However, after reading the script, Kahn asked if she could play Elizabeth instead. When Garr auditioned, Brooks told her to come back the next day with a German accent. She surprised him by immediately responding with the desired accent. By casting women who had wit as well as beauty, the characters are more fully developed, making a more enjoyable movie for all.
The cast and crew had such a good time on set that they didn’t want filming to end, leading to Brooks added additional scenes. However, the cast probably had too much fun, as the original cut was twice as long as what the eventually final cut would be. Brooks and Wilder reviewed the original cut and decided that for every joke that worked, there would be three that didn’t. The cut the lines that fell flat and the result was the much improved classic we know today.
The film’s legacy includes being list on the AFI’s list of the greatest comedies of all-time, along with Wilder and Brooks’ two other collaborations The Producers and Blazing Saddles. In 2007, Brooks tried to repeat the success of The Producers musical adaptations, by taking Young Frankenstein. Unfortunately, this was not the smash hit The Producers was and closed after a little over a year. However, the film inspired a more surprising musical success, as the line “Walk this way”, inspired Steven Tyler, who was struggling to come up lyrics for the future hit.