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Friday, 7 October 2011

'IT'S ALIVE!!! Mad Scientists of the Screen: #2 Frederick Frankenstein (Young Frankenstein)

The second in a series of guest blogs from Theatre of the Damned’s very own mad scientist in residence, Dr. Ian Champion PhDEvil

Welcome to this second course of treatment plundering the vaults and re-animating the corpses of the long-dead Mad Scientists of the screen. This entry into the Hall of Infamy is one of my very favourites: from Mel Brooks's affectionate tribute to the classic Universal horror movies of the 30s Young Frankenstein (1974), it’s Gene Wilder as Dr Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the original demented doctor.


I adore the film and have seen it many times, and not least because of Wilder's intriguing reinvention of Frankenstein's character and journey (it was mainly his script and allowed not only his and Brooks' love of the genre, but also their natural warmth to bleed into the creation). He is a mad scientist who, unusually, begins the film rejecting the call of the 'Hero', as an American University medical lecturer who is in denial of his family's nefarious past. Frederick demonstrates, however, the all-important arrogance and self-determination among his surgeon's tools from the opening. He believes that by changing the pronunciation of his surname to 'Frah-nken-steen' and refusing to discuss his grandfather's experiments he can escape his destiny. Relentlessly badgered by a student's questioning of his family's work, Frederick finally explodes: 'My grandfather's work was doo-doo!' The other necessary quality in evidence for his later toils is his utter disregard for the treatment of subjects, reducing the long-suffering Mr Hilltop to a quivering wreck in a live demonstration of the nervous system.

It isn't long before the reading of a will sends Frederick to inherit his destiny in more ways than one. He is bequeathed Castle Frankenstein in Transylvania, as well as the manservant Igor (a jarringly over-the top but hugely entertaining Marty Feldman) and the luscious Inga (Teri Garr). Almost immediately, he is drawn to a curiosity of what exactly his father had been up to, helped by Igor's late night playing of the violin to lure him to the secret files of his ancestor, and the title of his grandfather's journal 'How I Did It By Victor Frankenstein'. There is a fabulously committed moment here where Frederick, having spent a lifetime ashamed of his heritage, realises that the crackpot old man was on to something. The grandson finally embraces the bloodline of Frankenstein and declaims, almost in shock: 'IT...COULD...WORK!!!!'

From here, the plot becomes the classic Frankenstein tale with one or two twists. There is the quest for the suitably hulking body of Peter Boyle, and Igor's bungling of the brain (believing the one he steals belonged to an 'Abby Normal' instead of 'Abnormal'. The monochrome cinematography of the movie is gorgeous in its shading, and wonderfully accentuates the laboratory scenes, actually re-created by Kenneth Strickfaden himself, the original designer of Universal's Frankenstein sets and tempted out of retirement by Mel Brooks.

Wilder gleefully shows us the passion and frustration of the mad scientist's single-minded pursuit as he wrestles with the tantalising problem of how to forge life from death. Looking on at his still-dead corpse, Frederick tries valiantly to mentor Igor in showing how to meet continual failure 'with quiet dignity and grace'....before launching himself with personal fury at the body screaming 'Son of a bitch bastard! I don't want to live. I do NOT want to live!!!'

The staging of the re-animation scene is one of a number of surprising sequences that Brooks and Wilder allow to be played admirably straight in what is for the greater part, a broad comedy. This is a technique that has influenced my approach to what is possible in comedy ever since. This stylistic confidence is absolutely thrilling in a comedy film and is very rarely attempted. Firstly, as Frederick ascends to the sky (and the Gods?) to harness the power of lightning to re-charge the monster's body, but also a little later in a beautifully tender scene between creator and creature. Having been paraded on stage in a bizarre top-hat-and-tails version of 'Puttin' On The Ritz' before an industry audience (a fantastically absurd and cold-blooded character idea in the script), Boyle runs amok and the young Frankenstein has to lure the creature back to the Castle. He subsequently volunteers to enter a room to restrain his revived but berserk creation, full of suppressed terror at possibly being killed by the homicidal hulk. A roar from the monster has him trying to flee, but he instructed Igor not to let him out no matter how much he pleads. Frederick's fate seems a bloody one...until he turns and actually studies this revived and confused overgrown child for the first time, and finds within himself the stirrings of fatherly protectiveness and compassion that take him and the audience by surprise. 'This is a good boy...' he intones soothingly as he caresses the head of his 'son'. Wilder and Boyle's playing of this tonal shift is so moving and perversely satisfying that everyone should see the film just for this tender and utterly sincere scene.

Ultimately, all ends well, as rather than the Castle being destroyed along with creator and creation, the mad scientist pulls off one more bravura experiment, swapping his brain with that of the monster. This results in Boyle transformed into a smoking-jacketed, urbane intellectual and gifting Frankenstein with the outsized 'personal proportions' of his offspring.

'Young Frankenstein' is a rich and loving tribute to horror film conventions, subverting them and at the same time faithfully following them, and in the role of Frederick Jr, Gene Wilder gives a performance of great range showing absurdity, icy resolve and operatic expressivess coupled with disarming subtlety - and all the while being true to the code of the Mad Scientist...

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