Old school reviews: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Not long before I left Australia the family gathered around and slid our copy of Mel Brook’s 1974 monster movie satire, Young Frankenstein, into the player. Early in the film, Frederick Frankenstein, is giving a lecture to a group of medical students only to have one of them stand up and begin asking questions about the work of his late grandfather, the famous Victor Frankenstein. The scene goes on, poor Mr Hilltop gets kneed in the balls (“give him an extra dollar”) and irritating medical student becomes even more irritating. And then, at some point as he brings up Dr Frunk-en-shteen‘s heritage, my dad points out that “He looks like Kevin Rudd!”

We all watch the scene, and the actor a little closer. “Oh my god,” I think it was my mum then said, “he even talks like Kevin Rudd!” The whole family cracked up laughing. Then cracked up again when Gene Wilder stabbed himself with a scalpel.

There’s no point to this anecdote really, beyond saying that loving this film has always been a family affair. Y’see, this is my dad’s favourite film. It’s not all that hard to make my dad laugh, but when he really loves a bit of comedy, when he’s really enjoying himself, well, let’s just say it’s fucking infectious. As a result Young Frankenstein became something of a family meme. I’ve talked about how my best mates and I are able to talk almost entirely in movie and Simpsons quotes, but amongst my family the go-to was always something from this movie.

Goddamn, especially that scene where he’s dreaming in bed. “DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME!”

I think that a great film, a really great film, always has this communal aspect. That ability to fit the jokes into other situations, or simply cause a chuckle by invoking memories. Group reverence rather than individual reverence.

This is also the mark of a great actor. It’s an amazing thing that even, what, twenty years after he was last in a cinema, Gene Wilder’s death has marked so many people so deeply. He had and still has such a profound influence on the popular consciousness. I mean shit, every actor that plays the role of Willy Wonka from now until forever will be compared to the Gene Wilder version, a role that has become subject to some of the longest running memes I’ve seen on the constantly evolving internet.

A true entertainer and clown, and I say that in the best way possible. Watching him be hilarious seemed like the best tribute I could think of. Watching with my family will be one of the first things I do when I get home.

Reviewing the Old School: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

I said hey!

Hey!

I said hey!

Hey!

I said trust Mel Brooks to make the best Robin Hood film since Errol Flynn donned the tights, strung his bow and swashbuckled his way through Prince John’s lackeys. Did you know that guy was born in Tasmania? Errol Flynn I mean. I’ve got an aunt who lives a couple of streets from where he went to school. Seriously, fucking Tasmania. I bet a lot of people don’t know where the bloody hell I’m talking about. Anyway. Robin Hood: Men in Tights. First released in 1993, produced by Brooksfilms. Directed by Mel Brooks who also shares the writing credit. Best Robin Hood film since Errol Flynn. Well, except maybe Disney’s Robin Hood. The one with the fox.

Men in Tights is a parody through and through, taking the traditional story of Robin Hood (Robin of Loxley comes back from the Crusades, discovers that Prince John has really gone to town on the peasantry while King Richard is away, so forms a merry gang of merry men to fight back against the prince and his henchman the Sherriff of Nottingham – also, he falls in love with Maid Marian) and takes the piss out of it (well, not the story so much as formulaic way the story is usually told) in typical Brooksian fashion (ironically enough following a formula).

The main lead and his sidekick (Cary Elwes as the titular Robin of Loxley and Dave Chappelle as Ahchoo) take turns playing the role of straight man, breaking the fourth wall often enough wink at the audience but not so often as to get annoying, while the rest of the cast is allowed to over-act to their hearts content. Dave Chappelle has some of the best line delivery in the film and Amy Yasbeck swoons around delicately in her iron undies. On the villainous side of things Richard Lewis over-reacts to bad news and offers snide comments from the sidelines as the cowardly Prince John, and Tracey Ullman twitches and growls as the hideous Latrine (whose family changed their name a few centuries back from ‘Shithouse’). The rest of the cast (Mark Blankfield as Blinkin, Eric Allan Kramer as Little John, Matthew Porretta as Will Scarlet O’hara, Megan Cavanagh as Broomhilde) are excellent, with particular props going to Mark Blankfield as the blind manservant.

Where the casting really shines is with its protagonist and antagonist, Cary Elwes and Roger Rees (the Sheriff of Rottingham) respectively. Elwes aims for a spot between ridiculous and self-aware and absolutely nails it. On the one hand he plays the swashbuckling and bombastic hero with believable earnestness, smiling his way through sword fights and laughing at comically defeated enemies. On the other hand he can clearly see stupidity and is unafraid to point it out with a clever retort, comment or brilliant facial expression. He also does a great Winston Churchill impression. Roger Rees (who I remember best as the eccentric but surprisingly competent UK ambassador in The West Wing) just seems to be having a great time as the campy, mincing Sheriff of Rottingham. He plays the role straighter than Elwes, all slimy, smarmy charm, cowardly but never snivelling, completely unthreatening. The perfect parody of the bloodless ‘bad for the sake of being bad’ antagonists that you get in adventure films up ’til the ’60s (the kind who made a comeback in the family films of the ’90s).

Obviously I enjoyed the film, but I’m a fan of Mel Brooks and his sense of humour. I admit not everybody is. It’s crass and simple and follows a formula, which might put some people off (fuckin’ snobs), but it’s great for what it is. The jokes hit their targets as accurately as one of Robin’s, such as how traditional musical serenades in classic films often involve the bloke bellowing in the bird’s face, or that the best attempts of the male cast members can’t stop a pervasive feeling of “it’s all a bit gay, ain’t it?” (more importantly, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, just look at this excellent choreography, especially Little John guiding Blinkin around), and of course the casual references to Kevin Costner’s American accented Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

What surprised me on the rewatch was how well it holds up, even compared with some of Brooks other films. Ask me what my favourite Brooks film is and I’ll tell you truthfully it’s Young FrankensteinMen in Tights is a close second though. A film that I didn’t enjoy as much on a recent rewatch was Blazing Saddles. A great film with some classic moments, but just not as funny as when I first watched it as a kid. If I ever do one of these reviews of Blazing Saddles I’ll go into it more, but I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the Westerns might not be as ripe for parody as adventure films or horror movies. Cultural differences maybe? Not sure. Worth further consideration in the future.

Anyway, classic comedy with a great cast. If you like Mel Brooks, you’ll like this. And who doesn’t like Mel Brooks? Fuckin’ snobs, that’s who.