Young Frankenstein
Some things just aren’t funny

by Judith W. Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 6, 1975, p. 12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

If Mel Brooks ever stops making movies (a consummation devoutly to be wished) he will no doubt have to let loose his adolescent frenzies on lavatory walls. The anarchic humor of TWELVE CHAIRS and THE PRODUCERS has degenerated into a hodgepodge of graffiti jokes and inane references to other films.

BLAZING SADDLES is an offensive film. “Good fun” does not redeem nasty little gibes at blacks, women, homosexuals, and home sapiens is general. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a silly, pointless film complete with underlying viciousness. Not only does Brooks ignore both the artistry and the social resonances of the 30s Frankenstein films he borrows material from, but he supplies absolutely nothing of significance of his own. The file, which includes stylistic and episodic references to FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, is a mass of sexual and anal innuendo. “Doodoo,” “poopoo undies,” and references to penis size evoke giggles only because Brooks has managed to corral first-rate comedians who are too professional to parody their own lines. That the women (Madeline Kahn and Teri Garr) are stupid twits could he considered homage to the drooping, beleaguered heroines of the 30s horror files, but since all the women in all his movies are stupid twits, it becomes difficult to see that particular slur as a reference.

Eric Bentley once pointed out, “Frivolous spoofing is one thing, and serious parody is another.” Perhaps a comparison of Peter Bogdanovich’s TARGETS, a sadly unappreciated film, and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN will illustrate Bentley’s point. Both filmmakers have made files winch refer to earlier film genres (Bogdanovich’s WHAT'S UP DOC? and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, for example, and Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES and THE PRODUCERS). Bogdanovich dissects in a serious and intelligent way the earlier films’ cinematic conventions and the relation between the early films and the society out of which they came. Brooks’ references to the earlier films are strictly superficial. In YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN he borrows lab equipment (the laboratory set is the original set), a few episodes (the meeting between the monster and the little girl, Frankenstein’s brief sojourn with the blind hermit), a few physical idiosyncraciea (Elsa Lanchester’s bride and the Inspector in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), wipes (which go up, down, sideways, and meet is the middle), and anachronistic iris in and outs (one heart shaped).

Either Brooks is incapable of understanding the original films’ relation to their social context, or he ignores it. Certainly he pays no attention to the early films’ occasional cinematic elegance. In TARGETS, Boris Karloff states that the monsters he played no longer have direct relevance to the present. He sees the psychotic killer am emblematic of contemporary social and moral chaos, just as Dracula and the mummy symbolized the upheavals of the early thirties. The killer (an attractive, blond young man), hiding behind a drive-in movie screen, picks off one by one the people who have come to see a Karloff rerun. The audience is slow to realize that they are being shot at. People silently sleep across their dashboards, ignored by those around them. The killer is himself isolated—he is at once the product of his era and symbolic of its fragmentation. When Karloff cows the killer with a silver-headed cane, Bogdanovich’s conscious reenaction of the traditional horror film’s symbolic nature becomes evident. Mel Brooks appears to have no such insight. His Frankenstein’s most significant attribute is his large penis. (“If he’s seven feet tall, then it must be ... hmm.”)

However, perhaps YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN’s and BLAZING SADDLES’ sheer lack of sense and their concentration on the absurd and the base can be seen as an index of the present. Recant films (for example, CHINATOWN, CALIFORNIA SPLIT, THE LONG GOODBYE, THE LAST DETAIL, THE CONVERSATION) contain a pervasive nihilism. Any endeavor is depicted as senseless and self-defeating. The protagonists come to recognize the essentially random nature of things. Continuing to cope seems infinitely complex and ultimately absurd. Mel Brooks’ screwy assortment of silly bits delivers such the same message. He creates a world in which nothing has moral or social significance, a world in which racism, sexism, and cruelty evoke titters rather than indignation.

To take up arms against a silly, rather dull farce may seen excessive. Yet. going after s mosquito with an elephant gun cakes some sense if the mosquito is malarial. Although it is a slapstick comedy. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN has little to do with Laurel and Hardy movies or the Keystone Kops one-reelers. Whereas the early slapstick comedians conveyed that human beings have it in them to act absurdly and can be terribly funny, Mel Brooks portrays people as absurd and degraded. The early comedians used their physical ability and a sort of naive trickery to survive the geometrically complex situations they themselves created. Brooks’ protagonists rely on an amoral cleverness. There is something repellent about BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Perhaps some things just aren't funny.