Young Frankenstein is a 1974 American comedy film directed by Mel Brooks. The film is a spoof of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the various film adaptations released by Universal Studios in the early 20th century. The film most notably parallels James Whale's 1931 adaptation from which the black and white film style, props, and look of Boris Karloff's monster were borrowed. Brooks' horror narrative is one dominated by hilarious interruptions with a focus on the original subject while also emphasizing the clichés of the horror genre throughout the 30s. Young Frankenstein was a box office hit and is considered to be one of the best comedies in American film. On the American Institute of Film's 100 Funniest American Movies of All Time list, Young Frankenstein ranks 13th. Due to the review of Brooks' work as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the National Film Preservation Board, Young Frankenstein was chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2003. Through adaptation and riotous humor, Brooks uncovers a side to Frankenstein which sparks an appreciation for the gothic and horror genres as well as adaptation culture.
Frederick Frankenstein is a neurosurgeon and professor at an American medical school. Frederick, a direct ancestor of Victor Frankenstein, seeks to escape the legacy of the mad scientist and goes as far as to change the pronunciation of his name to Frahnk-en-shteen. Frederick is engaged to an uptight actress named Elizabeth.
When informed that he has inherited his family's estate in Transylvania after the death of his great grandfather, Frederick travels to Europe to inspect the property and it met at the train station by a hunchbacked servant named Igor and a lovely young woman named Inga who is a personal assistant. Upon arrival at the estate, Frederick meets the forbidding housekeeper Frau Blücher, whose name, whenever mentioned, causes horses to buck and neigh in fright. Upon reading his grandfather's private journals, Frederick decides to resume his grandfather's experiments in transforming the dead. He and Igor steal the corpse of a large criminal, and Frederick begins to work on the corpse. Igor is sent to steal the brain of a recently passed popular historian, Hans Delbruck. When lightning strikes, Igor drops and ruins Delbruck's brain. Igor decides to take a second brain and returns with a jar labeled "Do Not Use This Brain! Abnormal," which Frederick transplants into the corpse.
Upon the rebirth of the creature, he is frightened by Igor’s lighting of a match and attacks Frederick. Frederick suspects that the brain that is inside the monster is not that of the historian. Once asked about the original possessor of the brain, Igor confesses that he supplied that of "Abby Normal.”
Inspector Kemp, a one-armed police official with a strong German accent visits the doctor on behalf of the town and demands that Frederick not create another monster. Upon returning to the lab, Frederick discovers that Frau Blücher is setting the creature free. After she discovers the monster's love of violin music, and reveals her own romantic relationship with Frederick's grandfather, the creature is enraged by sparks from a thrown switch, and escapes from the Frankenstein castle.
Frederick recaptures the monster after his encounters with a little girl and a blind hermit and locks the two of them in a room, where he calms the monster with flattery and fully acknowledges his own heritage by shouting, "My name is Frankenstein!" Frederick offers a show involving the creature following various simple commands to a crowd in a theatre. The demonstration continues with Frederick and the monster launching into the musical number "Puttin' on the Ritz," complete with top hats and tails. A stage light explodes and frightens the monster that charges into the audience and is captured by police. The monster escapes, then kidnaps and engages in relations with Elizabeth when she arrives unexpectedly for a visit. Elizabeth falls in love with the creature due to his inhuman stamina and his genital endowment.
The townspeople hunt for the monster. Desperate to get the creature back, Frederick plays the violin to attract his creation back to the castle. Just as the mob enters the laboratory, Frankenstein transfers some of his intellect to the creature who, as a result, is able to reason with the mob. The film ends happily, with Elizabeth married to the now sophisticated monster--with her hair styled identically to that of the female creature from The Bride Of Frankenstein, while Inga joyfully learns what her new husband Frederick got in return during the transfer procedure--the monster's physical endowment.
One of the most prominent themes in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that of identity. Mel Brooks transforms that theme with characterization and the execution of his film as a parody of the horror and gothic genres.
Frederick Frankenstein is a dynamic character living in the shadow of his infamous ancestry. As a doctor, Frederick becomes exasperated upon the mention of his mad scientist grandfather due to the effect on his reputation as a scientist. One of his students questions his pondering of his grandfather’s work and Frederick states that he only wishes to be known only for small scientific contributions and to conserve life rather than dabble in the creation of humanity. However, the viewer gets the sense that Frederick is somewhat curious as to the actions of his grandfather. When Frederick first reaches the castle and spends his first night in the bed of his deceased family member, he talks in his sleep and announces that he does not believe in fate; however, he later gives up to the person to whom he is speaking in the dream and begins a chant concerning destiny. As Frederick begins to learn more of his grandfather’s past, he falls into the role as a scientist fascinated with the reanimation of “lifeless matter.” Eventually Frederick comes to terms with his familial history and embraces it. In relation to the analysis of Shelley’s original work, Frederick’s feelings of shame toward his grandfather are justifiable. Victor Frankenstein is revered as a scientist with little regard for much other than himself and his reputation. Victor then evolves his identity issues from that of a scientist on a quest for great discovery and recognition to that of a less than adequate father figure for the monster that he creates. Culturally, Victor is criticized for his selfish actions and lack of attentiveness to the idea that he can create human life by way of his relationship with Elizabeth. Frederick experiences a kind of reverse evolution from that of Victor. In the beginning, Frederick realizes the madness associated with his grandfather’s actions. As the story progresses, Frederick becomes infatuated with the power and possibility which Victor describes in his writings and loses touch with the consequences of creating such a monster. Because he begins to place much of his personal value and the root of his reputation in the creation of this being, the indication of failure shortly after his experiment prompts Frederick to wish he weren’t alive. Once Frederick realizes that his creation is alive, he returns to the euphoric state in which he arrives after contemplating the creation of the being. With the infusion of comedy in the story, Frederick decides to capitalize on the monster’s ability to follow basic commands and his lack of intelligence through a stage act. The strange changes in Frederick’s character add to the comedic nature of the film. The exaggerated emotion and sporadic plots that form from Frederick’s quest for identity parallel Shelley’s work while also transforming the continuation of Victor Frankenstein’s story into one of light-heartedness. As the story ends, Frederick transfers part of himself into the monster, a metaphor for all of the work he put into the creation of the monster. The monster is an extension of Frederick Frankenstein. In return Frederick receives a part of the monster’s physicality that transports him from a life of psychological superiority to one of physical endowment.
The beginning of the film reveals the monster in an almost reduced role. Little of the monster’s emotions and psychology are explored with the film as it is a comedic representation of the Frankenstein family and the madness associated with their obsession with creation. Solely those around him define the monster’s identity. Igor conceives the basis for the monster’s physical appearance and Inga suggests that he be physically endowed. Before his creation, Frederick deems his physical appearance as “[crude, primitive, and grotesque]” but also refers to him as a man rather than a monster. As the character develops, we see little more development than the extreme fear of fire and an emotional expression of anger. Once Frederick expresses his intentions to love and teach the monster, more development is sparked. Unlike Mary Shelley’s novel, this adaptation seeks to produce a being reliant on nurture rather than one who is forced to rely on nature and oneself. Only once does Frederick question what he has done in creating the monster. However, rather than continuously referring to the monster as a mistake, Frederick lifts the monster up and prepares to nurture him into a feasible human. As the story reaches the climax, the monster is better suited to express emotions such as sadness and love. It is not until the end of the story when some of Frederick’s intellect is transferred to the monster that we find that the emotions were present all along. Simply the ability to express emotion in a sophisticated way was absent. Mel Brooks’ rendition of a Frankenstein sequel reflects how differently Frankenstein and his monster function. Frankenstein relies little on emotion and reason but articulates himself with sophistication and poise. Frankenstein’s monster knows little more than emotion and reason but is bound to a bumbling silence. The creature’s progression towards sophistication and Frederick’s regression to a state of humanity comparable to that of an infant is a direct reflection of the way in which one uses their identity.
Mel Brooks’ film also questions the identity of two genres through which the Frankenstein narrative is translated. The gothic is a genre dominated by the philosophical and psychological when expressed in narrative form. Horror is a genre of extreme emotion and exaggeration. Through the implementation of comedic interjections, Brooks challenges the seriousness of the identity of both genres represented in works of adaptation. In relation to the identity of the characters, Frederick Frankenstein represents the gothic genre with his flat philosophical conversations while the creature is a reflection of the emotionality of the horror genre. Though this may seem profound, Brooks seeks to deconstruct the identity dynamic with hilarious statements designed to make fun of the adaptations of the 1930s rather than evolve the story into something serious and innovative. The silly mood of the film places it in a prime position to inspire reflection upon film history and the art of adaptation.
Sound plays a substantial role in the execution of genre evolution. With thirteen chimes of the clock in the introduction of the film, the tone is set for a comedic representation of a Frankenstein adaptation. The music and the attraction of the creature to violin music relates to the heaviness of the gothic genre and its roots in the classic arts. Sound also enhances the horror genre with lightning, frightened horses, creaking, screaming, whispering, and eerie music in times of suspense. Brooks plays with the sound in order to produce an equal balance between the seriousness of the horror and gothic genres and the comic relief from the characters. In a stroke of genius, Brooks introduced the sound of Frau Blücher's name, which means glue in German, as an aspect of horror for even the animals involved. The accents also introduce parody of the setting of film adaptations apart from the visual. The inspector’s thick accent and the exaggerated pronunciations of Inga and Frau Blücher are German in origin. Igor’s accent is inherently British. Frederick Frankenstein has an American accent. The compilation of numerous accents reflects the ability of adaptation to move from place to place while maintaining the storyline. However, the accents do not match the physical location of Transylvania. Brooks mismatches accents and regions in an attempt to parody the lack of consistency in some adaptations of the 1930s.
Brooks makes a profound statement with the setting of the film. Frederick Frankenstein is an American and views European custom from an outsider’s perspective, much as Hollywood views largely European stories. The most noticeable element of the setting is the country in which the film is set: Transylvania. It seems as if certain adaptations confuse their gothic stories. Transylvania is the location of Count Dracula’s castle and has nothing to do with Victor Frankenstein and the creation of his monster. However, because the art of adaptation relies very little on the original story, Brooks is also emphasizing the evolution of stories through adaptation and the imaginations of numerous writers and directors. Brooks also uses the setting to parody the exaggeration of gothic and horror sets and props. Elements of the castle such as the knockers on the doors, the secret passageway, and the innumerable candles throughout the house are quintessential symbols of horror that are modified to contribute to the comedic aspects of Brooks’ parody. The props used in the film were created by the creator of those for James Whale’s Frankenstein or were borrowed from the set of the most famous adaptation of Mary Shelley’s gothic work. Brooks built upon the image of the gothic which American culture had built in regard to Frankenstein and implemented a humorous criticism of the American ethnocentric approach to gothic European culture.
Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein encourages lovers of film and literature alike to challenge the concepts and evolution of adaptations throughout the history of popular culture. The fusion of comedy and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein invites a new audience into the world of genre studies and the vast possibilities associated with the adaptation of gothic literature. Not only does Brooks produce a work that encourages the viewer to think, he also creates what is revered as one of the funniest American comedies of all time. The mash-up of lightheartedness and reworking of a culturally prolific story makes Young Frankenstein one of the most recognizable and significant in the history of adaptations of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.