When the young(ish) heir to the Frankenstein estate comes into his inheritance after a lifetime of struggling to rise above the legacy of his grandfather, Victor Frankenstein, he travels to Transylvania with the intention of finding his grandfather’s private research. Upon discovering the lab he becomes obsessed with recreating his most controversial experiment. Young Frankenstein, part parody and part homage, showcasing Mel Brooks’ trademark humor and rejection of subtlety made this film as much a classic as the original 1931 Frankenstein.
Gene Wilder began toying with the idea that would evolve into Young Frankenstein around the time he found success in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) in 1972. In Making FrankenSense of Young Frankenstein, Wilder said “I took a yellow legal pad and a blue felt pen and I wrote down on the top, ‘Young Frankenstein’. I didn’t know what it meant then.” He goes on to talk about sitting down and writing out what would happen to him if he were the great grandson of Beaufort Von Frankenstein.
He asked himself, “Why Frankenstein?” He was influenced by Young Edison, which he had seen as a child. He also drew influence from the Frankenstein films which scared him as a boy, primarily the original film and Bride of Frankenstein, but also Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein. Wilder wanted to write a satire of the original film and end it his way- where the Monster gets the girl and Dr. Frankenstein gets thrown off a precipice.
Not long after coming up with the initial idea Wilder’s agent, Mike Medavoy, called and asked about doing a movie for him (Wilder), Peter Boyle, and Marty Feldman. Wilder told him about Young Frankenstein and Medavoy was on board. He (Medavoy) had recently started representing the three actors and he thought a Frankenstein spoof was a great idea. He also thought it would be good if they could get Mel Brooks to direct. Wilder didn’t think Brooks would direct anything he hadn’t come up with himself, but gave Medavoy the go-ahead to ask. Later, Mel Brooks phoned up Wilder and asked him what he (Wilder) was getting him into. Wilder’s response was, “Nothing you don’t want to do.” He also had a condition for Brooks if he wanted to direct- he couldn’t appear in the film. Mel’s habit of breaking the fourth wall and “winking” at the audience would have been all wrong for the film. Brooks agreed to the terms, but his voice did end up in the film 3 times: as the howling wolf on the way to the castle, as the voice of the original Frankenstein when Frederick finds his personal library, and again as a screeching cat during Kemp's interrogation of Frederick during a game of darts.
During the script writing process, there was really only one big argument between Brooks and Wilder. The source was the Puttin’ on the Ritz scene in which Frankenstein puts on a show for the townspeople to show how far the Monster has come. Brooks saw the scene as pure conceit on Wilder’s part and didn’t want to film it. Wilder had argued his case for awhile when Brooks suddenly said “Okay, it’s in,” simply wanting to see how hard Wilder would fight for the scene. If Wilder had rolled over without much argument, the scene would have been wrong for the film. The scene has become a favorite among fans.
Producer Michael Gruskoff initially took the script to Columbia Pictures where he presented executives with an estimated $2.3 million budget. Brooks wanted to shoot Young Frankenstein in black and white to mimic the original Boris Karloff film. Around this time in 1973, studios had moved to shooting in color and there weren’t any companies that still processed black and white film. Supposedly, Columbia execs wanted a color picture because Peru recently started showing color films and would only release black and white in the United States to appease Brooks. Brooks (probably correctly) assumed that the Columbia execs would screw him over and refused. Brooks told Gruskoff that he couldn’t do the film for less than $2.3 million and wouldn’t shoot in color. Gruskoff moved the picture from Columbia to 20th Century Fox where Michael Ladd Jr. jumped at the chance to make the film. With Brooks signed on to direct and co-write the script, the pair got to work expanding Wilder’s idea into a usable script.
While Gruskoff was scouting locations to film, casting began. Roughly half the main cast was already assembled thanks to Mike Medavoy.
As noted earlier, Gene Wilder got his big break in a Woody Allen film, but had done 9 or 10 movies prior to that (including Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Blazing Saddles) and multiple TV shows along the way. He went on to co-star in a string of movies with fellow comedic actor Richard Pryor and co-starred in three films with his third wife, Gilda Radner, among many other acting credits.
Peter Boyle signed on to play The Monster. He made a big impression on Wilder when he showed his childlike personality and pretended to catch butterflies when music played. Boyle had made about a dozen films before then. He went on to have parts in Taxi Driver (with Robert De Niro) and Johnny Dangerously (with Michael Keaton), but is probably best known for his role as the cranky father, Frank Barone, on Everybody Loves Raymond.
Marty Feldman, who became Igor, had written and acted in several television shows; Young Frankenstein would be his first major film. He later re-teamed with Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and with Mel Brooks on Silent Movie.
The role of Inspector Kemp was filled by Kenneth Mars, who was signed after he agreed to a bit of odd costuming. Mars and Brooks had a discussion in which Mars asked if it would be too much for Kemp to wear a monocle over his eye patch. Before his death in 2011, Mars primarily did voice over work for movies and video games including several Land Before Time entries and games such as Fallout and Kingdom Hearts.
Young Frankenstein also became the first big film for Teri Garr, who portrayed Inga, the lab assistant. She'd read for the role of Elizabeth but wanted the role of Inga. She was told if she could come back with a German accent, she’d get the part. After a stint on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Garr based her character’s accent on Cher’s wig maker. Garr hasn’t been active since 2011, but like some of her co-stars she has done voice overs and TV appearances.
Madeline Kahn initially read for Inga because Gene Wilder thought it was the better part. She wanted to be Elizabeth and made Wilder eat his words. Kahn later re-teamed with Brooks on High Anxiety and History of the World, Part 1. She had a successful film and television career until she tragically lost her battle with ovarian cancer in 1999.
Rounding out the main cast, though her part is small, was Cloris Leachman, who played the kooky and disturbing Frau Blücher. Her career up to that point had consisted mainly of TV shows and TV movies. She’s still active in film, television, and voice over work.
During filming, Gene Hackman approached Wilder asking if there was some small part he could play. He was most likely expecting some small walk-on part with maybe one line. What he got was the role of the Blind Man who offers a little kindness to the Monster. Before he retired from acting, he had roles in Mississippi Burning, Superman (as Lex Luthor), Enemy of the State, The Birdcage, Welcome to Mooseport, and more.
Gruskoff, having secured lots at both Fox and MGM to film, worked with cinematographer Gerald “Gerry” Hirschfeld and set designer Dale Hennesy to realize Wilder and Brooks’ vision. Though Fox had agreed to shoot the film in black and white, they were still a little hesitant. European movie distributors didn’t like black and white film and the studio was also thinking ahead to showing the film on television. However, they gave the green light; Hirschfeld worked with the processing lab to get the best look and execs liked the dailies. Hirschfeld had gone into filming with the understanding that Brooks wanted to recreate the look of the original Frankenstein and was shocked when Brooks told him the look was all wrong. Brooks and Wilder had failed to mention that they wanted to satirize the look, meaning more dramatically lit wide shots with exaggerated highs and lows that set the mood and brighter lit close ups so the physical aspect of the jokes could be seen. “Comedy should be bright,” Brooks would say. Over the course of a few weeks, Hirschfeld keyed in the look that Brooks wanted but continued to play with it and wound up impressing him.
Mel Brooks found out that Ken Strickfaden, who had done the original laboratory set on Frankenstein (1931) still had the pieces in his garage. Strickfaden had maintained them all those years and allowed Brooks and Wilder to rent them for their film. Strickfaden also received the screen credit he hadn’t gotten for the original films. Wilder took special relish in the lab sequences since he was such a fan of the original Frankenstein. In interviews, Wilder said he felt like a kid playing mad scientist and had a hard time not smiling when on that set.
Strickfaden came on set and installed the pieces, ensuring proper performance. Dale Hennesy designed mammoth sets for the film. In the hall and lab, the ceilings were close to 30 feet high, making the sets cavernous and lending an unnerving feeling that helped the actors. It’s easy to imagine the cast in a real castle instead of roaming around on a sound stage. Exteriors and the Transylvania Station were shot on the MGM back lot. Little details like the gargoyles and stone detailing made the sets feel more real.
According to producer Michael Gruskoff, actually filming the movie was easy since the cast “gelled” as a true ensemble. He often had to leave the set because he would ruin shots by laughing. One of the camera men had the same problem.
The actors were constantly cracking each other up and ad libbing dialog, especially Feldman. He had been surreptitiously moving his hump from side to side over a week or so before the cast caught on. Igor’s shifting hump was added to the script. The gag was reused in Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights in the form of Prince John’s roving mole. The “walk this way” gag was added after watching Feldman play up for the crew. Despite some reported disagreements over the bit getting cut, audiences loved it.
The scene where Elizabeth arrives at the castle needed multiple takes because the actors couldn’t help laughing. Every time Feldman bit the fox fur he was left with fur in his mouth, one take ended with Feldman collapsing with laughter on the luggage. Cloris Leachman, on the other hand, played it straight during her scenes and busted out laughing afterward. In the first two clips of this outtake reel, you can see her holding it together while her co-stars lose their composure.
In Making FrankenSense of Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder recounts how Mel Brooks would “tug at the reins” of each of the actors when he wasn’t getting what he wanted. The cinematographer would watch during filming and see a good take, but Brooks would talk to the actors and the next take would be better. This would go on until Brooks got the best out of everyone, then moving on and leaving the technical things to the experts..
Bill Tuttle, makeup creator on Young Frankenstein, created a plastic model of Peter Boyle’s head for the reanimation scene. We see lightning arcing around the body before a close-up of a glowing head. The effect of the glowing skull was created by placing opaque plastic pieces within the plastic and back-lighting them. The light was on a dimmer switch so they could make it pulse. On movie posters, you see that the Monster is green. He was, in reality, colored green with contoured makeup to bring out his features so they’d show up better on film.
In several interviews, Mel Brooks' editing process was described as a series of mad editing sessions with him locked in a booth. He would go out on the lot to grab secretaries and anyone else he could find to screen the films because he didn’t trust the execs to give him an honest reaction. He would watch the audience during the screening and determine where they were getting bored as well as which jokes and gags fell flat. The original cut, which ran for nearly 2 and a half hours, was panned by test audiences.. Brooks apologized and told them to come back and he would give them a movie that was about 90 minutes. He cut huge portions of the movie out, including a part where Frederick plays a recording left by Beaufort Von Frankenstein for his family. The message starts skipping and Beaufort is left repeating “up yours.” So, after all the whittling and changes we got the masterpiece we know and love so well.
Young Frankenstein premiered on December 15, 1974 and audiences loved it. It quickly became just as popular as Blazing Saddles, which had come out in February of the same year. Audience flocked to the theaters to see it.
The film made Mel Brooks a major Hollywood player and set Gene Wilder up for his hits in the late 70s and 80s. Young Frankenstein has remained a staple on cable television and is still run in movie houses across the country. A musical of the film written by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan had its first performance on August 7, 2007 and is still running today.
2018 will mark the 44th year of Young Frankenstein. It’s hard to believe that it came out so long ago and that we have lost so much of the fantastic cast. I’d like to take a brief moment to remember Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, and Kenneth Mars. Each one of them brought something special to this film and left a legacy that will hopefully go on for another 40 years.