Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Friday, October 12, 2007

GREAT 70s DADS #10: Gene Wilder in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)

As a kid watching the original 1933 Frankenstein on late night TV (where it was shown quite often) I always felt bad--don’t we all?--for the poor monster (Boris Karloff). Dr. Frankenstein (Collin Clive), upon learning his creature is “Alive… ALIVE!” hardly gives the poor brute a chance to examine his new hands before he’s labeled a senseless horror and chained in the basement, where the doctor allows his hunchbacked servant Fritz (Dwight Frye) to torment him with fire and a whip. No wonder the poor monster went on a rampage!

Clearly, Mel Brooks felt the same way I did, the way we all did, and righted this wrong in a genuinely moving scene in his loving satire of the Universal Frankenstein series, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Gene Wilder, magnificent as the doctor, is determined--in classic 1970s therapy craze style--to break through the communication barrier between him and his monster (Peter Boyle). He decides to go into the room wherein his monster is locked, and instructs his assistants Igor (pronounced ""Aye-gor" - played by Marty Feldman) and Elizabeth (a very sexy young Terri Garr) to lock him in the monster's room and not let him out, no matter how much he screams and pleads (which of course he instantly does) until he's broken through to his self-made son.

Once his initial terror subsides, Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein is able to dispel the monster’s hostility through flattery. (“You’re kind of cute!”) and gradually the pair bond in a truly beautiful sequence that heals the terrible rift between mad scientist and monster. From the vantage point of the 21st century, where so many men have grown into monsters rejected or ignored by their fathers if their fathers are even there to reject or ignore them-- this scene is something of a spiritual miracle, a turning of the other cheek, a healing moment of transcendence and forgiveness.

Academic film critics love to analyze horror films as instances of Freud’s “return of the repressed,” - i.e. the abject, cast-off ugliness that doesn’t fit in the social order, returning from the outside to disrupt it. The 1970s was the decade where we actually were making headway into healing that continual repression/disruption process through love and tolerance. Nowhere, for my money, is that transformation more succinctly and wittily dramatized than in this scene, a mere throwaway moment between the broader Borscht-belt gags that had them rolling in the aisles--me included--at the theater where I saw it with my parents at age seven, but this touching little moment was something that Brooks clearly felt strongly enough about to do right. Both in this and in the marvelous BLAZING SADDLES, we see Brooks the comic, but also Brooks the humanitarian and, just as the SADDLES is full of good-natured satire towards racism (freely using the N-word, something that would be considered too reckless and controversial today), so too is YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN satirical of intolerance, suspicion and anti-monster conservative positions. Wilder gives a beautiful, loving performance, his eyes dewy with fatherly emotion, and when he cradles Boyle’s bald, sewed-up head in his arms and declares to the heavens: "This is a good boy!" you can, if you let yourself, tap into the electrical current of love that was in the air back in that golden-green decade, feel a true electrical charge of universal compassion. That's Mel's and Gene's gift to all us screwed-up monsters.

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