Recession Cinema: Young Frankenstein

Save your pennies, skip Film Forum and watch our classic pick on TV!

In our humble-ish opinion, the three funniest movies ever made are Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and, yeah, Ghostbusters, which, for a stretch at age 16, we watched pretty much every night, in the hopes that a close study of Bill Murray’s sarcasm, his composure and cool, especially during a disaster of biblical proportions, would teach us a better strategy for getting through high school. We should also mention Sherlock Jr., although Buster Keaton inspires marveling sighs more than actual guffaws.

But the funniest single moment ever in a movie? The hardest we ever laughed—practically until we puked? That’d be over halfway through Young Frankenstein, when … We’ll spoil that joke in a second. Here’s why else you should stay in and watch or rewatch Young Frankenstein, this Saturday night, at 8 p.m., on Fox Movie Channel:

1. Mel Brooks has gotten whorish in his old age, repurposing nasty early masterpieces, including this one, into easy, bloated musicals. But Young Frankenstein is recycled material of the highest sort: a parody that lovingly, meticulously re-creates ’30s horror films and then sneezes all over them. This is about as far as it gets from the broad, cheap-looking, “humor” franchise of Date Movie and Epic Movie.

Flipping by it on TV, you’d think it was a Universal classic. The sets and camera angles and black-and-white shots are all exactly right. You expect Boris Karloff to lumber in. You inch up on the edge of your seat. And then Igor’s hump migrates from one side to another. Or Gene Hackman, playing blind, lights the monster’s thumb on fire instead of a cigar.

2. We worry that Gene Wilder is as half-forgotten and underappreciated as John Adams, pre-miniseries. But the guy’s a genius. In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, he flips between delightfully clownish and clownishly menacing, so cruel and off-kilter for somebody in a kid’s movie you suspect his Wonka Bars share their secret ingredient with soylent green. It’s children! In Young Frankenstein, as the young brain surgeon who runs away from and then straight toward his family’s legacy as monster-makers, he is by turns exacerbated, angered, obsessed, seductive, put-upon, scared batshit, driven batshit crazy. It’s not a parody performance at all, which we mean in the best possible way.

3. Also, Wilder’s hair here is a thing to behold, a unique, squiggling construction, like a Frank Gehry building. It is stranger than Donald Trump’s, more lifelike than Joe Biden’s. It is a comb-over for a man with a full head of hair.

4. Young Frankenstein was filmed during the couple of months in 1974 when Terri Garr was the hottest woman on earth. We can’t explain it. Jacqueline Bisset was famous. Jackie O was still alive and young. That was the year Katharine Ross starred in The Stepford Wives. Maybe it was the black and white, or Ms. Garr’s cleavage-y gowns. Maybe it was her ridiculous timing. But she was Grace Kelly, except sluttier and with a silly accent.

Now, for maybe the funniest joke in the history of film:

Dr. Frankenstein wants to prove to the Transylvanian medical community not just his creation’s sentience but sophistication. So the reanimated corpse and the out-of-control doctor get up on stage and do a duet of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Very scientific. In his top hat and tails and white bow tie, even with his fucked-up face and big clomping feet, the creature looks like a million bucks. And when Dr. Frankenstein sings “Tryin’ hard to look like Gary Cooper” and dances his cane toward the creature who—and then the creature bellows out—the creature, he—oh man, oh shit—he— Recession Cinema: Young Frankenstein