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On December 15, 1974, Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein, now recognized as an essential part of the Mel Brooks canon, first hit theaters. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
Mel Brooks’ new Frankenstein comedy, written and starring Gene Wilder, is closer in spirit to the 1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein travesty than either the 1931 Karloff version or the 1974 Warhol send-up. It is an old-fashioned programmer-type comedy in which all your favorite funny people get together and ham up a well-known story.
The screenplay recognizably follows the basic Mary Shelley story using repetitions skillfully to milk its jokes. It is good-natured, lowbrow, backlot, hit-or-miss humor, but with no cumulative effect beyond its succession of hard-worked jokes. More theatrical than cinematic in its conception, this group effort relies on the improvisation of its performers.
Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein mugs his way through with straightman reactions of disbelief and then crazed inspirations. Peter Boyle, still recognizable beneath rather tame monster makeup by William Tuttle, follows an unscary, dim-witted approach, carrying the monster’s need to be loved to its most literal extreme.
Marty Feldman as the humpbacked Igor is the most consistently funny, capable of stealing any scene with a dilation of his bulging eyes. Madeline Kahn deserves a more original character than her tease fiancée role which she nonetheless plays to the hilt. Cloris Leachman is misused in broad caricature.
As a police chief, Kenneth Mars needs more to do than simply goose step his mechanical limbs like Dr. Strangelove. Gene Hackman, hidden under a hermit’s beard, gets good mileage from a blindman routine. Liam Dunn is funny as a wasted old codger volunteer for Wilder’s amusingly unethical classroom demonstrations.
Michael Gruskoff’s modest production, shot in black and white and small screen, works more for movie buff nostalgia than flash or spectacle.
Dale Hennesy’s production design feels much like the 1931 version to the extent of having Kenneth Stricfaden, who worked on the 1931 laboratory mechanisms, revive his fantasy designs.
Director Brooks executes several good jokes on horror movie style, but his film has no distinctive visual style of its own. His shooting is less interesting than his staging, but is coyly effective when imitating carefully composed 30’s style static frames, well realized in Gerald Hirschfeld’s competent photography. Thunder and lighting effects punctuate throughout.
Dorothy Jeakins’ costumes effectively bring out the joke dimensions of each character. Aside from fancy optical transitions, John Howard’s editing is unstylish, but serviceable. John Morris adapts old music to campy ends, the monster frequently being lulled by a violin solo by Gerald Vinci. — John H. Dorr
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