Before we leave Frankenstein too far behind, I invite you all to take a look back at 1974 and Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein.” It was not the first comedy inspired by Shelley (see “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”), nor will it likely be the last (considering the likelihood of unintentional hilarity in the upcoming “I, Frankenstein”), but I feel that taking a look at a Mel Brooks work is never a wasted effort. Brooks’s repertoire as a director, writer, and actor almost entirely consists of parodies of just about every popular movie genre, from Westerns in “Blazing Saddles,” to sci-fi in “Spaceballs,” to historical epics in “History of the World, Part I” (there’s no “Part II”). In this case, in addition to parodying the horror genre (before the “Saw” movies, mind you), I acknowledge that “Young Frankenstein” is more a parody of the numerous film and stage adaptions of Frankenstein that came before it. But since I have seen none of them, I will attempt to examine what Brooks possibly hoped to extract from Mary Shelley’s work – for, as you can see in this interview, he claims to have had the book in mind while writing the “basic script.”
First, I recommend you watch the trailer, for it presents the tone of the film well:
The plot of the film, as you may have been able to tell, is not exactly close to Shelley’s story. It is, admittedly, a kind of sequel: The audience is introduced to Frederick Frankenstein (played by the glorious Gene Wilder), the grandson of Victor Frankenstein (a curious enough detail in itself, for it implies that Victor had a child sometime with a woman not killed by his monster). He is so embarrassed by the association with Victor that he insists the famous name be pronounced “Fronk-en-steen.” His life changes when he inherits the family estate in Transylvania – a Gothic castle more at home in a Dracula movie. Gone is Ingolstadt and its inspiring atmosphere and professors. Instead, Frankenstein finds he has essentially inherited Igor, the grandson of Igor (the impeccable Marty Feldman, who I argue steals the show), a beautiful assistant named Inga, and the housekeeper whose very name inexplicably terrifies horses. Soon joining the gang is Frankenstein’s fiancee, similar to Shelley’s Elizabeth in name only, for she is a vain actress (and eventually marries the monster because of his dick – more on that later). Inevitably, Frederick reads his grandfather’s notes, screaming-ly realizes that “It — could — work!”, and uses lightning to animate a stitched-together, stereotypical Frankenstein monster, using a brain from “Abby Normal,” i.e. an “abnormal” brain, hence the monster’s serious lacking in mental capabilities. It takes a while for the monster to properly start living, but when it does, in short, he’s freed and causes trouble.
One of the primary changes that makes “Young Frankenstein” an entirely different tale than Frankenstein is that the monster possesses no human-like intellect (at least until the end). Without his desire for companionship and to join society, the monster can only wander and allow his instincts to guide him. For example, he comes upon a blind man living alone who treats him like a friend. If Shelley’s monster had found him, he could have finally been happy, for the man seems to have no children to burst upon the scene and ruin the illusion that the man is conversing with another human being. Yet Frederick’s monster cannot appreciate the man’s blindness like Shelley’s, and is even driven away by the man’s well-intentioned attempt at hospitality, which happens to be a cigar (this monster is afraid of fire). How Shelley’s monster would have reveled in such kindness!
What occurs to me when reading the interview is that Brooks’s memory of the book is not exactly clear. He says he and Wilder tried to “stay somehow emotionally true to the characters and events” while writing the script, yet goes on to say this: “You can call it father and son, the creator and his creation, that’s the real love story that Mary Shelley devised.” To put it bluntly, Brooks might have a funny definition of “love.” This statement is reflected in the film, for Frankenstein feels tenderly for his creation. It is true that the monster does not get a chance to kill anyone, but Frankenstein has no sudden realization of its repulsiveness, even though the monster is far more hideous than Shelley’s. As demonstrated in the video I shared last week, Frankenstein takes great effort to show the local townsfolk – who from the beginning distrust him, remembering the horrors of his grandfather’s monster – that his creation is not dangerous.
These efforts culminate in a risky, climactic procedure, mad-scientist style, that somehow transfers some of Frankenstein’s intellect into the monster’s “abnormal” brain. The thought of Victor sacrificing himself for his creature is simply impossible for me, for even if the monster’s mind was deranged, and Victor had the chance to fix it quickly after he gave it life, I am convinced he would not, out of sheer repulsion. Even more interestingly, the result of the sacrifice is that the monster is able to speak, nearly as eloquently as Shelley’s. It could be argued that Victor, too, gifts his monster with intellect and the ability to learn language far faster than a normal human, but it is more out of obsession than anything else, and certainly not love. Ironically, his ability to speak makes Frederick’s monster capable of fitting into society. He placates the mob that wants to destroy him, much like his counterpart in Frankenstein attempts to reason with his creator, and he is able to live happily ever after, complete with a mate: his creator’s fiancee.
The scene that inspires the monster and Elizabeth’s union would at best confuse Shelley, at worst horrify her, for it shows its age, and not in a nostalgic kind of way. First, let me inform you that Brooks is not at all above dick jokes. Hence, considering the size of the monster, one can only imagine the size of its “Schwanzstück” (he also seems to like featuring female, German characters so they can say things that). Back to the scene: before he can be lured back to the Frankenstein estate, the monster stumbles upon Frederick’s fiancee Elizabeth, finds her attractive, and has his way with her. (I think this is why I concerned for Elizabeth’s chastity when I read “I will be with you on your wedding night” . . .) The only way she gives any consent is by being impressed with his Schwanzstück, before and during — though I argue, considering modern standards and debate, and its uncomfortable nearness to the rape-related “it’s going to happen anyway, so enjoy it” argument, it is neither appropriate nor funny. The sexual desire of Victor’s monster is an issue lurking behind the monster’s request for a mate (see 156: “You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being.”), and the possibility of him inflicting sexual, and not just physical, violence is a valid one. Exploring it in a comedy, however, is not only disturbing, but also unproductive, for the violence is made light of. For while the monster’s girth is the reason she turns her back on her husband-to-be (who, I might add, is not faithful either — you saw how beautiful Inga is), she might have missed out. For what did Frederick from the transference with the monster but the monster’s dick. Because that makes sense. Though Shelley removed much of the scientific references in her rewrite, surely, at either stage of her life, she would have asked something akin to “Where’s the science in that?” And removing the science from Frankenstein, particularly when referring to the 1818 text, removes its core.*
*Just to clarify: I did not expect a Mel Brooks comedy to provide any major epiphanies about Shelley’s story, the characters, the human condition, etc. What I did expect was for it not to stoop to what amounted to a rape joke. I welcome your comments on the subject.
In conclusion, I recommend you watch “Young Frankenstein” to get a feel for the film versions that flooded theaters before 1970. If considered as a reading of Frankenstein, it becomes a highly inaccurate one. More generally, it is simply supposed to be funny, and though I argue there are very unfunny parts, it has its moments (especially watch out for Igor).
Additional note: I have read that in the 1831 rewrite, Victor loses his free will. For those of you who have read it, perhaps you could comment on this little scene:
Though Frau Blucher was actually manipulating him, so was it destiny after all? And what I find almost strange is the moment Inga, his assistant, hovers over him, her shadow falling across his bed, just like Victor’s late-night encounter with his newly-created monster. Thoughts?