By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
Four decades ago, comedy actor Gene Wilder had an idea for a unique update on Mary Shelley’s horror classic “Frankenstein,” which he presented to his good friend Mel Brooks. The movie would be about a 20th century scientist that was a descendant of the shamed monster creator from Transylvania. Called back to the old country to receive his inheritance, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Franken-steen) discovers his grandfather’s old papers and decides to pick up where the old man left off. Set to restore life to a dead man, a brain mix-up results in chaos much as it did generations earlier. Instead of being a horror flick, it would be a comedy homage to the oft-adapted classic. In Wilder and Brooks’ version, Dr. Frankenstein teaches the Monster to dance and sing yet he can’t remove his fear of fire.
Brooks liked the idea and with Wilder penned a script, and then shopped it around Hollywood. They nearly sold it to Columbia Pictures, but studio executives there blanched when Brooks insisted on shooting the $2 million budget film in black and white.
“No! No!” he recently recalled them chiding him. “South America just got color! What are you doing?”
“In those days ($2 million) was enough money,” he added.
Tenaciously, Brooks took the project to Twentieth Century Fox, where then studio chief Alan Ladd Jr. gave the quirky black and white comedy the green light.
Brooks, who’d previously helmed the 1967 hit musical “The Producers,” as well as various TV comedy shows, assembled a top-notch cast. Along with Wilder as Frankenstein, he signed Peter Boyle as the Monster, Marty Feldman as Igor (Eye-gore), Teri Garr as sexy assistant Inga, Madeline Kahn as flirtatious tease Elizabeth and Cloris Leachman as grim Frau Blucher. Gene Hackman, a leading dramatic actor in the ‘70s, asked Brooks if he could be part of the comedy. Brooks hesitated, until the A-lister agreed to work for scale. (He has a memorable scene in which he plays a monk.)
“I was so lucky to have so many talented people,” Brooks exclaimed at the Oct. 5 screening event. “I’m very happy to be part of this Fathom event, and the respect and the love—and the money, I guess. They only choose a few classics—the wonder the beauty and the eloquence. And it’s in black and white.”
Brooks regaled the crowd with stories about making the film and working with the actors including one about how he originally was going to be in the film but Wilder objected. Wilder told him, “Because you like breaking the fourth wall. You’ll probably show up in the movie in a suit of armor, going ‘Th-th-th-that’s all folks!’ And I said, ‘Alright, alright! I won’t be in it,’” Brooks recalled.
The film opened in theaters in December 1974 and subsequently earned more than $86 million worldwide. It has become a cult classic enjoyed by generations of comedy aficionados. It is No. 13 on the American Film Institute’s 100 funniest American movies. The Library of Congress National Film Registry also has preserved it. Brooks and Wilder took home the Oscar for their screenplay. The film also earned an Oscar for best sound.
Brooks, 90, was on hand—his sense of humor solidly intact—at a special event hosted this month by Fathom Events at the Fox studios where he filmed the movie decades earlier. (A street on the lot bears his name and a “Young Frankenstein” mural is on the side of one of the sound stages.) The beloved filmmaker introduced the film before a packed house, and his remarks were simulcast live to 500 movie theaters across the country. Having lost his co-writer and star Wilder in August, Brooks was obviously emotional when recalling his good friend and writing partner on the film. But he also shared a lot of humorous memories. (Producer Michael Gruskoff and other behind-the-scenes participants in the film were on hand for the special event.)
“It was Gene’s original thought and his original preface and breakdown. You know,” Brooks said at the Oct. 5 event. “I get just a little overcome when I think about him. I’ve had a few great memories in my life and, honestly, I think making ‘Young Frankenstein’ was probably the finest year of my life.”
The live event was such a hit, Fathom invited Brooks back for a “Young Frankenstein” encore that is set for Tuesday, Oct. 18, the same day Brooks’ coffee table size book “Young Frankenstein: A Mel Brooks Book: The Story of the Making of the Film” is published.
A list of theaters showing “Young Frankenstein” along with Brooks’ introduction can be found here: http://fathomevents.com/event/young-frankenstein/more-info/theater-locations.