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‘Young Frankenstein’ At 40: Giving Life to Mel Brooks’ Monster Hit

by  in Movie News Comment
‘Young Frankenstein’ At 40: Giving Life to Mel Brooks’ Monster Hit

Forty years later, Young Frankenstein is still puttin’ on the ritz.

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of filmmaker Mel Brooks’ lovingly zany send-up of James Whale’s legendary Universal horror films featuring Frankenstein’s Monster — co-written by star Gene Wilder — cast and crewmembers assembled before a sold-out audience at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater earlier this fall to reminisce about the making of a now-timeless comedy classic.

Ever the comedy impresario and still bursting with boundless comic energy at age 88 — including funny behind-the-scenes stories, lightning-quick one-liners and well-timed sound effects — Brooks himself held court on stage with a trio of key players in the film: actress and comedienne Teri Garr, who played Victor Frankenstein’s comely Germanic assistant Inga; producer Michael Gruskoff, who oversaw the making of the film; and Academy Award-winning actress and frequent Brooks collaborator Cloris Leachman, who played the imposing and mysterioso Frau Blucher (insert horse whinny here).

Prior to the screening of a pristine print of the 1974 film — which debuted a 40th Anniversary edition Blu-ray in September — the group engaged in a freewheeling conversation about how the film came together that was almost as hilarious as the movie itself, as moderator and film historian Leonard Maltin put its timing in keen perspective. “For those of you who weren’t around or may not remember, because this is significant, this movie came out within a year of the release of Blazing Saddles,” Maltin said. “It was stupefying. Within one year’s time, Mel Brooks gave us two of the funniest movies ever made. And it was almost overpowering, but that’s the reason we love him still.”

Among the many behind-the-scenes revelations, both ridiculous and sublime:

Mel Brooks Never Forgets a Face

Gruskoff, who had previously overseen Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and Douglas Trumball’s Silent Running, was keen to produce a film for Brooks and had tapped his connections to get face time with the comic force he’d met in passing as a kid years before.

Michael Gruskoff: Mel was coming out [from New York to Los Angeles] to meet people at Warner Bros. for Blazing Saddles around that time and he was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Gene set up the meeting. Now I had met Mel on Fire Island in 1958 — this was 14 years before. I was a kid, I used to go over to someone’s house, my friend had a big house and boat there, so he used to see me there. And I knocked on the door at the room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He opens the door. He looks me up and down, and slams the door in my face. And I couldn’t believe it! Then he opens the door very quickly and says, “Where are your friends? You don’t have a bathing suit on!’ He’d always seen me in a bathing suit and remembered. He said, “Sit down. You’re going to produce this movie. And I need a job, so get a deal!” Because between that time he’d made two great movies — The Producers and The Twelve Chairs. They didn’t make any money, but they were great films. He was floating by for three years, and then all of a sudden he makes the two highest-grossing comedies of all time.

Mel Brooks: I still have the money, I swear! I keep it on me!

Finding Inspiration in Sonny & Cher’s Hair Department

Having already bonded with Wilder during the making of Blazing Saddles, Brooks had his star and collaborator out of the gate. The rest of the soon-to-be all-star cast came together shockingly simply.

Mel Brooks: Michael’s friend Michael Medavoy was an agent at the time — he later went on to be quite a studio executive; he ran Tri-Star/Columbia — so he had three clients — that’s all!

Michael Gruskoff: Well, he was running an agency. He has a lot of clients.

Mel Brooks: But he [personally only] had three clients: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle. Amazing! [Laughs] I was lucky: I found Cloris in a bar, half-shot. [Laughs] No, really, I was drawn to her. She had a kind of Judith Anderson quality. And then Gene told me about this Teri Garr person, and we had some film on Teri. And I said, “She’s absolutely beautiful — can she act?” And Gene said, “Who gives a shit?” [Laughs] …Teri came in, read about half a page and we both said, “Yay!” And there was a line she had when Cloris was undoing the Monster’s straps and setting him free, and Teri was on the stairs looking down and she said, “No, no — You muzn’t!” “Muzn’t? You’re hired!”

Teri Garr: At first I didn’t know there was an accent, and [when I found out] I was doing The Sonny & Cher show and Cher’s hairdresser was German and I just copied everything she said.

Mel Brooks: Except the “Heil Hitler” part.

Secrets of the Wardrobe Department

Although Brooks had no idea for the majority of the shoot, Teri Garr’s mother Phyllis Lind — a former dancer, model and Rockette turned wardrobe mistress — was also hired to work on the film.

Cloris Leachman: [To Teri] She was my dresser on our movie, and we always talked about you. Of course, I didn’t know you at all but I knew everything about you from your mother!

Teri Garr: We didn’t tell anybody that my mother was on the movie, because we didn’t want anyone to know. But in the middle of it, we finally just said, “That’s my mom.” And Mel said, “What? That’s your mother?” “Yes, that is. That’s my mother. She’s working on the movie too.”

Always Hit Up Your Tennis Buddies For Work

Gene Hackman, who has a deliriously funny one-scene stint as the blind hermit who befriends the Monster, sent a message in to the event, read by Maltin, that detailed exactly how he finagled his way into the movie.

Gene Hackman: What a treat to have been part of Young Frankenstein, surrounded by a fantastic cast and being blessed with a small amount of lines to learn, it was an ideal situation. Gene Wilder and I — we had worked together in Bonnie and Clyde — were knocking tennis balls to and fro in LA. I asked him “What’s up?” as out-of-work actors are wont to do with each other. “Doing a picture with Mel Brooks — Young Frankenstein.” “Really? What’s it about? Funny, or what?” Wilder said, “Yeah, lots of good stuff. There’s a line where my character asks at the train depot, ‘Pardon me, boy, is this the Transylvania Station?’ Get it? Frankenstein, Transylvania….” “Yeah, right — what else?” “Lots of crazy characters.” I whacked a couple more balls at him, which he easily returned. “You think there might be something in it I can do? A walk-on? An extra? Sounds like great fun.” Wilder paused. “I’ll ask.” And he did. Mel and the cast were great. It’s a special film and I’m truly honored to have been part of that group.

No Laughter Allowed

One of the hazards of production of material as funny as what Brooks and Wilder had concocted was take-ruining on-set laughter — including giggle fits from the star himself.

Cloris Leachman: Gene was the only one [during filming] who was laughing. We’d do five, six, seven takes… 15 takes!

Mel Brooks: She’s saying Gene was the one who broke up and killed every take!

Cloris Leachman: He was! He killed every take! And nothing was done about it. [glares at Brooks]

Mel Brooks: Gene was the star. Y’know, you’ve gotta walk quietly around the star.

Cloris Leachman: Star, schmar!

Mel Brooks: Not only did Gene laugh, but the crew would laugh a lot. I said to my assistant director, “Get a thousand dollars, go out and take the money and buy white handkerchiefs.” He said, “Say that again?” I told him, “Get a thousand dollars from somebody — you know, from Fox — buy the white handkerchiefs.” He came back with 10,000 white handkerchiefs. There were like 30, 40 people in the crew and every one of them got more than one white handkerchief. And then, one of the scenes was, “Stay close to the candles, the staircase” — and Cloris took a fucking hour — “can be treacherous.” And at “can be treacherous,” the crew went. I turned around at it was a sea of white handkerchiefs. And I said, “I’ve got a hit here.” It was a great idea on my part because the crew kept breaking up and laughing at everything we did.

Cloris Leachman: It was Gene! Mel gave me a line reading, the only one he ever gave me, and it was perfect. I was saying, “Stay close to the candles. The staircase can be treacherous.” The line reading he gave me was, “Stay close to the candles. The staircase… can be treacherous.” That means we’ve lost a couple of people! Gene would start laughing. I originally got the line out, and then as it went on for the 15 takes, I would just start to turn around and he would go.

Stitching It Up Until The Crowd Was In Stitches

Brooks recalled an early showing of the film in its roughest form in which its status as a future comedy masterwork was not exactly assured.

Mel Brooks: There was a rough screening, two hours and 48 minutes, at the Little Theater [on the 20th Century Fox lot] with friends and secretaries. And after it, I remember, a lot of it went well, and a lot of it did not. And when the movie was over I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve just seen a two-hour-and-48-minute failure. By the time I’m finished, you will see a 91-minute brilliant success. Come back here in two weeks.” And they did, and it was 91 minutes and it was a brilliant success. I hired John Howard as the editor, and he threw all the bad stuff out.

A Work of Art

Movie poster artist Anthony Goldschmidt’s work on the film’s one-sheet was dramatic, funny and eye-catching all at the same time. So Brooks had to find the biggest display space he could for it.

Mel Brooks: You know what I did? I gotta take credit for this: I’m driving up Sunset Boulevard and they’re painting this building that’s gonna be the Playboy Club on Sunset. And I notice it’s a big white building, an enormous building. I got Laddie [then Fox studio head Alan Ladd, Jr.], I put him in the car and we took the drive together. I said, “You see that white building? Buy that side of it. Our poster is dramatic — paint our poster and our name on the side of that white building.” It was the first building in L.A. to do that, and we did it! And it made Beverly Hills crazy!

Fear Can Be Funny

Wilder sent in a short-but-sweet message to be read at the event that pithily encapsulated the forces that had fueled his inspiration.

Gene Wilder: What I can tell your audience is that my first days and nights of seeing Frankenstein [as a child] were scaring me to death. And yet I wanted to see them again! Years later, I wanted to write a Frankenstein film. Scary, but funny. Funny, but still scary.

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