Young Frankenstein: Gene Wilder’s Seminal Work

Photo courtesy of Zimbio


Dead is dead!” Dr. Frederick Frankenstein insists in the opening scene of Young Frankenstein, thickly laying the subversive foundation of Mel Brooks’ classic film. Any story playing with Mary Shelley’s classic gothic novel could not leave such a statement alone: for Brooks, dead is never dead, and with that he began a movie that would go on to live long beyond its time.

In honor of the passing of Gene Wilder, who played Young Frankenstein’s titular character,  the 1974 film returned to sold out theaters across the country on Oct. 5. Wilder’s comedic talent and relationship with Brooks remains iconic to the canon of film–immediately after working on Blazing Saddles together, Wilder earned his first writing credit under Brooks’ tutelage for Young Frankenstein. Both comedies were critically acclaimed, and their influence rippled far across the industry.

Wilder is also credited for developing Young Frankenstein’s story. As Frederick, he opens the film as a disgruntled professor and neurosurgeon who has tried–and failed–to divorce himself from the legacy of his death-obsessed grandfather, Victor von Frankenstein. He goes so far as to change the pronunciation of his name to Fronkensteen and violently chastises everyone who tries to define him by Victor’s contributions to science.

“I am not interested in death–I am only interested in the preservation of life!” Frederick says, punctuating his point by stabbing himself in the leg with a scalpel. “Class is dismissed.”

Upon being called on by his grandfather’s will to visit the Frankenstein family castle in Transylvania, Frederick learns more about his family history–and becomes entranced by the same ideations that famously inspired Victor to animate life from death. What’s dead never truly dies: even Victor’s character arc is reanimated through Frederick, whose previous obsessions with names, legacies, and denying the reality of death already mirrored Shelley’s title character.

Young Frankenstein’s rich black and white cinematography pays homage to the James Whale Frankenstein adaptations of the 1930s while also highlighting the ornately gothic set. The film’s languid pace becomes an asset when every shot of it is worthy of framing–indeed, Frankenstein’s castle is so complexly detailed that it becomes its own character, subtly driving the actions of its lead players and creating a visual experience sure to please any true aesthete.

Though Wilder performed many unforgettable roles, Young Frankenstein is his masterpiece. As a writer, his deft contributions proved seminal to the genre; as a performer, he knew when to command the stage with his unparalleled comedic ability and when to direct attention to his co-stars. To remember his wit and generosity, a handful of theaters in the Denver metro area will continue to show Young Frankenstein through the end of the month, and everyone should make a point to include this film in their Halloween celebrations.

Taylor Kirby
Latest posts by Taylor Kirby (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *