Young Frankenstein has always been one of my dad’s favorite movies. It was one of the few comedies that both he and my mom could agree is funny, and he would watch it whenever it came on TV. I was probably about 8 the first time I encountered Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. I never saw the whole movie, just snippets on my way out the door or before one of my parents would change the channel. I remember laughing at the horse's whinny with every mention of Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher; I remember recognizing the dad from Everybody Loves Raymond as the monster; and I remember my fascination while watching Wilder interact with beautiful faux-Swedish Teri Garr.
I grew up on a diet of classic Hollywood movies, so I assumed this black-and-white one was no different from the others I devoured after school and before bed. But Young Frankenstein holds a particular place in my heart because it was the first movie my parents ever declined to rent for me — the first time, upon passing the box at Blockbuster, that I remember having to start making plans to sneak around in order to behold the object of my curiosity. I asked my dad to rent it, and after a pause, he replied that this would be one we’ll save until you’re older. “When I’m 12?” “Yes, when you’re 12.” I stared at the worn VHS tape with longing and we walked away.
But I didn’t wait until I was 12 to see the movie. Being told it was off-limits naturally made it into an object of fascination, and it was a fascination easily indulged considering the movie’s ubiquity on cable stations, playing as it did on Comedy Central movie nights, TCM at Halloween, or HBO at 9:30 a.m. Contrary to misinterpreted parental reports, however, Young Frankenstein isn’t an explicit movie — I even remember the vague disappointment that my illicit viewing provided so little new material. There’s no nudity, there’s no graphic violence, there’s little foul language besides the sprinkles of “hell” or “bastard.” Instead, the movie is full of winks and nods to pleasures best saved for when the camera wanders, to horrors unseen, to philosophies yet to be read, and to wild emotions just barely kept contained. Young Frankenstein is not obscene, it’s adult.
The Frankenstein of Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder, passed away yesterday after a battle with Alzheimer’s Disease that Wilder kept secret. In a statement released by his family, the reason for Wilder’s secrecy was that he couldn’t bear the thought of children who knew him as Willy Wonka being disillusioned by the harshness of reality. Maybe more than any of his other movies, Young Frankenstein is a lesson in Wilder’s comic subtlety — in his ability to underplay, to deflect, to minimize. And though it wasn't the kind of role he had envisioned for himself early on (as a child he'd dreamed of becoming a Cary Grant type, his favorite actor), it was a movie that Wilder fought to make the way he wanted to make it. He pitched the idea to Mel Brooks, convincing him to take part in the production; he co-wrote the script; and he was the one who convinced Brooks to keep what has become the most famous scene in the film: the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” tap dance sequence. In Wilder’s hands, Frederick Frankenstein is a narcissist obsessed with his own godlike ability to grant life to the lifeless, and his redemption comes from a deranged but ultimately selfless embrace of his own maternal instincts toward the monster of his making. Yet the genius of Young Frankenstein is that Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein always remains self-conscious and aware of the way his actions could be interpreted as madness. His anxieties are primal — “Destiny! Destiny! No escaping death for me!” — but his actions are civilized, and the contrast between practiced sanity and barely offset mania is what makes Young Frankenstein so funny. Wilder and his frequent collaborator Mel Brooks take the book that birthed horror and flip it into an existential comedy of manners.
As a child, I wanted to understand the secrets that came with growing up. As an adult, I miss believing people grow up at all. For as silly as he could be, for as much as moments like Young Frankenstein’s “sed-a-give” scene or The Producers blanket meltdown were rooted in children’s games and childhood fears, Gene Wilder was an adult, and I miss adults. His tantrums were exasperated, not infantile. He had a gleam in his eyes, but it wasn’t innocent. It was funny when Gene Wilder let loose, but we loved him because he never stopped trying to keep control.