New Life for “Young Frankenstein”

This week's re-release of Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks’ closest, most enduring collaboration brings their great comedic partnership brought back to life for one-night only.

Just three days after Gene Wilder's death, Mel Brooks stormed stage of New York's Radio City Music Hall following a long-planned screening of "Blazing Saddles." 

The 90-year-old filmmaker paced frenetically as he told hilarious stories about his life and Wilder – pausing only for one serious moment of reflection about his fallen pal: "He was a flat-out genius."

That brand of comic genius was on display Wednesday in theaters across the country when Brooks introduced a showing of their closest, and perhaps most enduring collaboration: "Young Frankenstein." The tale of a patched-together monster best tells the story of a filmmaker and actor who were made for one another.

Wilder first infused his manic energy into Brooks' classic 1968 debut film, "The Producers," co-staring as excitable, neurotic accountant Leo Bloom, whose little blue security blanket belied his big dreams of ill-gotten glory.

As a last-minute replacement for rugged actor Gig Young in 1974’s "Blazing Saddles," Wilder lassoed his usual hyper persona and gave the Waco Kid, a seemingly stoic washed-up, tanked-up gunslinger, a haunted quality.

Brooks and Wilder’s final film together, also released in 1974, played off the story of Frankenstein, but it owed nearly as much to Jekyll and Hyde. Wilder, in full wild-eyed, wild-haired mode, transforms from a medical school professor uncomfortable with his Transylvanian roots (“My name is ‘Fronken-Shteen’”) into a proud monster-maker (“My name is Frankenstein!”) – weaving a 1970s identity crisis into a 1930s movie parody.

Wilder co-wrote the film with Brooks, whose glorious black-and-white rendering marked the most fully realized visual effort of his storied career. From the hilarious monster-and-creator dancing duet (“Puttin’ on the Ritz”) to the musical, er, climax (“Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life”), Wilder and Brooks hit high notes for movie comedy.

They were aided by a pitch-perfect cast that included, Cloris Leachman, Terri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle, whose monster-turned-domesticated spouse, gives Dr. Frankenstein a sweet epithet: “I live because this poor half-crazed genius has given me life.”

We still laugh, all these years later, because two geniuses gave life to “Young Frankenstein” – a movie best viewed on a big screen in the presence of others who appreciate film at its craziest.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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