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Angela Cobb

Dr. Bernardin

Introduction to Literary Studies

May 7, 2007

“We decided we were going to be faithful to two people: Mary Shelley and James Whale.”

- Mel Brooks, director, Young Frankenstein

When cast and crew began filming Young Frankenstein on February 19, 1974, they knew

exactly what they were aiming for; a film that both satirized and paid tribute to Mary Shelley’s

novel, Frankenstein, and to the original 1931 film version by James Whale. Written by Gene

Wilder and Mel Brooks, and directed by the latter, Young Frankenstein has gone on to become

one of the most popular comedy films of all time. However, the film has also achieved much

more than simply making generations laugh. It not only provides an effective satire of the 1931

film version, but actually goes above and beyond it, getting more to the core of what Shelley’s

novel was trying to say. In many ways, it also improves upon the original story, or at least

provides a satisfactory conclusion, as the third generation member of the Frankenstein family

finally accomplishes what his predecessors could not and does right by his creation.

Young Frankenstein’s plot revolves around Dr. Fredrick Frankenstein, surgeon, professor,

and grandson of the “both famous and infamous” Victor Frankenstein. He has been living down

the family name and reputation for years, dismissing his grandfather’s work as “the nonsensical

ravings of a lunatic mind”. While he claims to have no interest in continuing Victor’s

experiments, his curiosity is piqued when he is delivered the will of his great-grandfather, Baron
Beaufort von Frankenstein. Leaving his fiancée, Elizabeth behind, he decides to travel to his

family’s castle in Transylvania. Along the way he meets his assigned assistants, the attractive

Inga and the hunchbacked Igor, who accompany him on his journey. Upon arriving, Fredrick

soon begins to realize that whether he wishes to or not, he will be immersed in the legacy his

grandfather has left behind. On his first night at the castle, he is awoken by mysterious music,

which leads him down to Victor’s private laboratory. There he discovers his grandfather’s book,

How I Did It, which provides a detailed account of how Victor reanimated the lifeless. Upon

reading this, Fredrick has second thoughts about the prospect, realizing that perhaps it could

work. What follows is hilarity, mishaps, and an uproarious tribute to classic horror films, as

Frankenstein brings his creature to life and deals with the repercussions that doing so brings.

One of the reasons that Young Frankenstein works so well as an intelligent satire of

1931’s Frankenstein, is its painstaking attention to detail. From the moment that first bolt of

lighting strikes and the film opens to the beautifully haunting violin strains of its main score, the

viewer must immediately question whether they are indeed in store for a comedy, or a more

“serious” film. Every care was taken to give a movie that was shot in the 1970’s the look and

feel of a film created four decades earlier. The first and most obvious way in which this was

achieved was by filming Young Frankenstein in black and white. However, this in itself proved

to be a challenge, as by 1974 most labs had not processed this type of film in many years. There

were also trepidations regarding this style because it was a common opinion that a black and

white film would not sell overseas (Making Frankensense of Young Frankenstein, 1996). Once

this issue was eventually settled, director Mel Brooks explained to his cinematographer, Gerald

Hirschfeld, that he not only wanted his film to be stylistically similar to those of the 1930’s, but

he wanted to satirize that very look. This would prove to be no simple task, but achieving that
satirized, yet accurate film style is one of the reasons the movie can be revered on an artistic

level. Several methods were used in achieving this style. Cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld

realized that he needed to create a “moody” environment for the film. In this way, the movie

would contain the old-fashioned appearance of classic horror films, while also illuminating the

faces of the actors in close-ups, allowing the jokes to be effective as well. This was achieved by

using more extenuated back lights and cross lights when filming. Shooting in this fashion would

allow the audience to realize that the mood of the film could shift back and forth from the serious

to the comedic very quickly (Making Frankensense of Young Frankenstein, 1996). Aside from

filming in black and white, the very methods that were used when shooting were also

intentionally primitive to make the movie more accurate. However, initially this creative vision

of Mel Brooks also ran into opposition. Regarding a conversation with the film’s

cinematographer, Brooks recalled, “I said, ‘Get rid of the tracks and no zoom lens.’ He said,

‘Are you crazy? We’ll be shooting forever. Besides, when we track it’s going to be bumpy.’ I

said, ‘Yeah, I want it. I want it to be bumpy because that’s the way it was in the original James

Whale movies’” (Backstory: Young Frankenstein, 2000). By staying loyal to the methods used

by directors before him, even in the face of a time more technologically advanced than 1931,

Brooks managed to present a style that both satirized and respected James Whale’s original work.

While presenting Young Frankenstein in black and white succeeded in one visual aspect,

a movie is always greatly enhanced by its sets. While the film’s set-designer Dale Hennessey

created a beautiful, haunting, and cavernous interior to the Frankenstein castle, there was another

addition to the set that excited both audience and cast alike. Kenneth Strickfaden, who was in

charge of the special effects elements of 1931’s Frankenstein, had kept much of the original

laboratory equipment from the film in his garage. Armed with this information, Mel Brooks
asked him if the lab equipment could be used in his film. Strickfaden agreed and came to the set

to arrange the equipment properly and to instruct cast members on how to use it (Making

Frankensense of Young Frankenstein, 1996). Strickfaden’s generous contribution is a crucial

element in Young Frankenstein. The marriage of black and white cinematography with props

from the original film’s set ensured that Young Frankenstein’s cast would be stepping on to the

most accurate “stage” possible, being figuratively transported back to the 1930’s.

This cast, combined with a brilliantly-written script, would provide the final elements that

make Young Frankenstein a fitting and respectful parody of Whale’s Frankenstein. Almost no

aspect of the 1931 film is left un-satirized, including its opening “disclaimer”. When an elderly

member of the high elite of Transylvania comes on to the theatre stage to introduce Fredrick

Frankenstein and his creation, this is a direct parody of the man who introduces 1931’s

Frankenstein film. In the original film, this man serves to warn the viewing audience that what

they are about to see may “shock or even frighten them” (Tropp, 491). The presenter in Young

Frankenstein has the same element of speech, drama, and storytelling, trying to both frighten and

intrigue his audience. Even his style of dress is very similar to that of the man who introduces

the 1931 film. While this satirized element is very minute in the greater scheme of the film, it

serves to further reiterate Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s extreme attention to detail. There are

however, several more obvious comical references to the 1931 film littered throughout Young


One such instance is when Fredrick’s loyal, hunchbacked assistant Igor sneaks into the

local Brain Depository to steal a proper brain for his master’s creation. However, just as the

hunchbacked Fritz drops and damages the original brain in Frankenstein, Igor too, in a moment

of panic, does the same and then steals a brain labeled “Abnormal” as a replacement. Of course,
this mishap is only used to the greatest comedic effect in Young Frankenstein, as Igor attempts to

pass the brain off as “Abby someone…Abby normal”, but this just serves to demonstrate how

truly ridiculous such an addition was to the original 1931 film to begin with. Also, much like

Fritz in the original film, it is Igor who first brings to the surface the creature’s fear of fire.

However, unlike Fritz, Igor simply has a moment of carelessness and lights a cigarette. He is

never blatantly cruel to his master’s creation (Frankenstein, 1931) (Young Frankenstein, 1974).

Perhaps the most obvious reference Young Frankenstein makes to James Whale’s film is

a scene in which the creature happens upon a little girl, singing and throwing flowers into a well.

This is a humorous homage to the moving scene in Frankenstein in which a young girl, Maria,

takes the monster by the hand and teaches him how to play her game. However, because Young

Frankenstein is a comedy, there is not the tragic result of the creature accidentally killing his new

playmate. Nonetheless, it is obvious that he is certainly contemplating doing something

mischievous, by the look on his face when the child asks, “What shall we throw in now?” His

humorous answer to this question is catapulting her into her bedroom, through the window, using

her see-saw (Frankenstein, 1931) (Young Frankenstein, 1974). While the obvious aim of this

scene is to make the viewer laugh, the basic element of a child seeing past physical deformities

and into the heart of a person is still present. Further manifesting this theme is Peter Boyle’s

brilliant performance as Frankenstein’s creation. Just as Boris Karloff achieved before him,

Boyle manages to make the creature a sympathetic character, giving him an element of pathos.

Perhaps Boyle’s performance is even more to be revered, as he manages to bring out such

elements even on a comedy premise. He is able to make his character simultaneously funny and

While Young Frankenstein provides a humorous satire of 1931’s Frankenstein, it also

pays a tremendous amount of respect to Mary Shelley’s original novel. Ironically, the comedy

actually goes above and beyond the original film, reflecting more of the key themes that Shelley

was trying to express. From seemingly trivial elements such as naming the members of the

Frankenstein family correctly and including a scene with a blind man, to much deeper themes

such as the element of duality between Frankenstein and his creation, Young Frankenstein proves

a more accurate rendition than James Whale’s original film.

A major theme of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the intimacy that exists between Victor

and his creature, as well as the element of duality between the creator and the created. In many

ways, Shelley shows the reader how the qualities possessed by Victor and the monster are

interchangeable, either figuratively or literally. The monster’s hideous exterior serves to

represent much of the hidden, subconscious “ugliness” which Victor harbors inside. Victor and

his creation are inextricably linked and bonded, and whether there exists love or hate between

them, there is unquestionably an intimacy. Young Frankenstein represents this theme extremely

well. When his creature first opens his eyes and becomes animate, Fredrick guides him gingerly

off of the operating table on to his feet. From then on there remains an unspoken intimacy that

Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle portray beautifully. As Fredrick guides his creation through his

“first steps”, the viewer sees the two characters trying to figure one another out. Of course, this

subtle moment is hilariously disturbed when a nervous Igor carelessly lights a cigarette, scaring

the monster, but the intimacy of the moment remains throughout the film (Young Frankenstein,

1974). It is this very element that is sorely lacking in James Whale’s 1931 version. There are

very few meaningful scenes between the monster and Frankenstein, and a lack of intimacy on

any level, even on the level of hate. While Shelley’s novel demonstrates the element of intimacy
and duality in a figurative way, Young Frankenstein also puts it in a literal sense, achieving

results that are just as touching as they are humorous. When Fredrick realizes that his creature is

out of control, he understands that it is his responsibility to set things right. He decides to engage

in a risky medical procedure in which he will give part of his brain to his creation. This

represents Shelley’s themes rather literally, as Frankenstein and the monster are connected with

tubes, exchanging body fluids and brain materials (Young Frankenstein, 1974). While the basic

premise is a humorous one, this procedure serves to effectively demonstrate the intimacy and

interchangeability of Frankenstein and his creation. As the article “Mary Shelley’s Monster: the

Story of Frankenstein” reveals, “When Gene Wilder (Frankenstein) swaps some of his mind with

Peter Boyle (the monster) …. the two elements of Frankenstein’s divided being are uproariously

reconciled” (Tropp, 491).

Another way in which Young Frankenstein proves more accurate than the original film is

its incorporation of Mary Shelley’s text into its script and dialogue. This incorporation also gives

the creature some of the eloquence he had in the original novel, an eloquence that Whale’s film

and most of the films following it denied the character. Young Frankenstein’s dialogue makes

frequent references to Shelley’s text. For example, when Fredrick is laboriously reading through

his grandfather’s book How I Did It, he recites, “Until, from the midst of this darkness a sudden

light broke in upon me – a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple” (Shelley, 30). He then

continues, “I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became

myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (Shelley, 30). In another charged

scene, Fredrick recites shades of Shelley’s text as he attempts to bring his creation to life. As the

operating table ascends into the stormy skies, carrying both the inanimate creature and

Frankenstein himself, the latter recites, “They ascent into the heavens….they can command the
thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own

shadows” (Shelley, 28). This respect to Shelley’s text validates the movie in many ways, giving

it yet another crucial element that the James Whale film lacks. Some of the text however, is also

used to humorous effect. When, over breakfast, Fredrick reads from Victor’s notes, “As the

minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first

intuition, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and

proportionally large” (Shelley, 31-32), Inga’s response is the epiphany that, “He would have an

enormous Shvanstucker!” (Young Frankenstein, 1974). While this is a lasciviously witty remark,

it does have some validity, as it makes the viewer wonder, “Well, wouldn’t he?” One has to

assume that every aspect of the creature’s anatomy would have been taken into account. This

humorous exchange reiterates Gene Wilder’s analysis that the film’s goal was “Not how can we

make fun, but how can we make it real, which will make it more fun” (Making Frankensense of

Young Frankenstein, 1996). Lastly, the use of Shelley’s text gives the creature in Young

Frankenstein the ability to express himself. While he is inarticulate throughout much of the

film, this is only to respect the original 1931 version. Just as in Shelley’s novel, the monster is

given the most space to speak at the film’s end, and when he finally opens his mouth, he is

indeed eloquent. As he opens up and tells the angry villagers of his hardships and desires, he too

uses Shelley’s text, as he admits, “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear” (Shelley, 98). By

“giving the creature his voice back”, Young Frankenstein presents him as a more human,

vulnerable, and sympathetic character, more akin to the one Mary Shelley created.

Young Frankenstein also presents the theme of abusing science and using it for one’s own

personal gain. Much like Victor in the original novel, Fredrick also has prideful, selfish reasons

for bring his creation to life, at least initially. As part of his egotism and desire to show the world
what he has created, Fredrick decides to present his creature to a scientific audience in an

entertainment venue. Before an auditorium of fellow scientists, Fredrick demonstrates how he

has taught his creature the basic functions of motion. However, his hubris takes him a step too

far when he and his creation, complete with top hats and tails, attempt to sing and dance to

“Putting On The Ritz” (Young Frankenstein, 1974). This element of the film, while humorous,

also shows the sad truth of how those who are deformed or different than the majority in

appearance are often exploited for the entertainment of others. As analyzed in “Looking At The

Monster: Frankenstein and Film”:

The tap dance in Young Frankenstein exemplifies the theatricality of science as well as
transgression. Conceived by Victor in response to a lecture that defines chemistry as miraculous
mimicry, Mary Shelley’s monster was made to be exhibited as the supreme specimen of mimesis,
the living simulacrum of life itself. In Young Frankenstein, this spectacle disarms a theatre
audience, by turns amusing and terrifying them. Presented by the Baron (Victor’s grandson) as a
scientific wonder, the creature fascinates the crowd by walking on command, then dancing and
singing; but when his oafish diction makes the people laugh, he turns to rage and they flee in
terror. In so doing, they reenact the flight of Mary Shelley’s Victor, who rushes from his lab in
‘breathless horror and disgust’ at the first sign of animation in a creature whose ‘beautiful’
features were chosen for display but not meant for motion beyond the control of his maker – who
would, of course, also be his exhibitor (Heffernan, 157).

Ironically, Mel Brooks initially did not want that scene with Frankenstein and his creation tap-

dancing to show tunes in the film (Making Frankensense of Young Frankenstein, 1996).

A final key element that Young Frankenstein brings to the surface is the sexual

undertones of Mary Shelley’s novel. While Mel Brooks’ film expresses this theme in a

humorous way, it does make references to it, which is more than James Whale’s film achieves.

Rather than killing Fredrick’s fiancée Elizabeth, the creature attempts to seduce her, and fully

succeeds. While she is at first fearful of his grotesque appearance, the sight of his “enormous

Shvanstucker” causes her to disregard all of his other faults and she is hopelessly taken. While
to the naked eye this could appear to just be crass and somewhat bawdy humor, it actually does

relate to several tones in Shelley’s novel, showing that the human’s subconscious sexual desires

far outweigh their reason and discernment. As observed in “Looking At the Monster:

Frankenstein and Film”, “Wacky as it is, the monster’s marriage to Elizabeth in Young

Frankenstein also points directly to the sexual energies that Mary Shelley’s Victor so perversely

thwarts in himself and the monster alike….the killing of Elizabeth is not just an act of

vengeance. It is also a vicarious expression of Victor’s misogyny and, contradictorily, a tortured

expression of the creature’s desire of the woman he kills” (Heffernan, 152). However, unlike the

creature in Shelley’s novel, the sexual desires of the monster in Young Frankenstein do not go


By greatly improving upon the character of Dr. Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein

provides a satisfactory conclusion to the “Frankenstein legacy”. Ironically, it is the member of

the Frankenstein family who most denies his destiny that ends up finally setting things right,

succeeding where his predecessors failed. Fredrick Frankenstein, unlike his grandfather, does

not abandon his creation, even when he does not turn out as beautiful as he may have initially

envisioned. He does not run away at the first sight of his creation, nor does he blame others for

the terror that his creation causes. In a touching scene towards the film’s end, the now calm and

articulate creature looks over his creator’s body and reveals, “I live because this poor, half-crazed

genius has given me life. He alone held an image of me as something beautiful” (Young

Frankenstein, 1974). The creature in Young Frankenstein is obviously grateful for all that

Fredrick has done for him. While in Shelley’s novel, Victor declares, “No father could claim the

gratitude of his child so completely as I could deserve their’s” (Shelley, 32), he fails in all ways

to earn that gratitude. That is the touching element of Young Frankenstein; that Fredrick’s
creation is indeed grateful to him because he has earned such gratitude by risking his own life to

salvage the life he created.

During a Transylvania town meeting scene in Mel Brooks’ film, the elder in charge states

to those congregated, “And it is even worse to us, your elders, because we still have nightmares

from five times before!” (Young Frankenstein, 1974). While this line is most obviously a

reference to the many generations tortured by the horror Frankenstein left behind, it is also a

subtle criticism of the multiple sequels that followed James Whale’s Frankenstein, which took a

complex story and made it cartoon. Ironically, it took a comedy film from 1974 to bring back to

the forefront the lost themes of a novel written in 1818. As Gene Wilder once analyzed, “I think

the thing that makes Frankenstein live is a concept; a creature, disformed, who has love in his

heart, wants to be loved and is misunderstood. People have tried it in other ways, but it’s always

worked best in the Frankenstein frame. And even though we were doing a comedy, a ridiculous

comedy, that classic theme is still there” (Making Frankensense of Young Frankenstein, 1996).

Indeed, Young Frankenstein manages to blend satire, a brilliant cast, and the ideas of Shelley and

Whale to achieve a result that is as intelligent as it is comedic.

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