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In 1974, when director Mel Brooks stormed America’s movie palaces with the one-two punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, the director’s bristling, incisive, and thoroughly manic energy changed the face of big-screen comedy forever. Both films were spoofs of fading Hollywood genres: Saddles took on the great American western, while Frankenstein — co-written by Brooks and the film’s star, Gene Wilder — was a to-the-letter parody of classic Universal horror films. Released just 10 months apart, both were enormous hits, earning each a spot among the year’s top five highest-grossing films (a feat no director has managed since).
On the occasion of Young Frankenstein’s fortieth anniversary — and its brand-new Blu-Ray reissue — Yahoo Movies spoke with Brooks about the making of one of the funniest movies ever made. (See our interview with Brooks on one of the other funniest movies ever made, Blazing Saddles.)
How did the idea for Young Frankenstein come about?
I’ve always loved Gene. [He’s] an incredible talent and a wonderful, beautiful person. We were making Blazing Saddles, and I invited him into my trailer and said, “Let’s have some pineapple and cottage cheese.” And he said, “I’ll be with you in a minute.” He was leaning against a tree, with a legal pad and a pencil, scribbling and scribbling. I said, “What the hell are you writing? What is that?!” And he showed me the top page. It said Young Frankenstein. He said, “I just thought of this story — this character who wants nothing to do with the Frankensteins, because he thinks they’re crazy and he’s a pure scientist. He changes his name to Fraank-en-steen.”
I said, “I love the idea. But Gene, you can’t write this alone. You need a genius like me to write it with you. And if I like it, maybe I’ll direct.”
How come you didn’t give yourself a part in this film?
One of the deals Gene Wilder made with me is, You’re not in the movie. If you’re in the movie, I won’t do it. He thought I’d be in a suit of armor, and the camera would whip by him, and I’d open the visor and say, “Hello folks” — that I’d break the fourth wall every chance I had. He said, “You can pay more attention to saluting [director] James Whale’s early Frankenstein [films].” And I said, “You’re right.”
Was it hard to get the studios to back a satire of films that were, by then, more than 40 years old?
Before it was set up at Fox, we had made a deal — signed, sealed, and delivered — at Columbia Pictures. We made the deal! After signing the contracts, we all shook hands. We had champagne. It was a beautiful deal. I was going to make Young Frankenstein for Columbia. And as I left their office, I leaned back in and yelled, “By the way: We’re going to make it in black and white!”
A herd of Jews chased me down the hall: “No! Peru just got color! We don’t do black and white anymore!” Blazing Saddles hadn’t been released yet, or they would’ve said, “Whatever you want to do is fine.” We went back into the office and they said, “[Black and white’s] a dealbreaker…if you [film] it on color stock, in some important places like New York, Chicago, and L.A., we’ll [screen it in] black and white. But everywhere else, it’s got to be in color.” And I nearly blinked. But I [thought], “Nah, they’ll screw it up. I don’t trust them.” So I said, “No.” And they said, “It’s a dealbreaker.” So I said, “Then the deal is broken.” So that was it.
How did the film wind up at Fox?
Laddie, the actor Alan Ladd’s son, had just taken over Fox. My producer, Michael Gruskoff, and Laddie used to be agents together in London. The script was sent to him that night, and Laddie called him back and said, “It should be made in black and white.” So we went over to Fox, and it was heaven.
[Years] later, I came to him with Silent Movie, and he said, “With Young Frankenstein you took away color, now you’re going to take away sound! What are you going to do, go all over America and recite your movie?”
How was working with Marty Feldman?
Marty was the most delicious and the most frustrating guy to work with. His rhythms were completely different from the rest of the world — not only from the rest of the people on set. I said to the cameraman, “When Marty Feldman is talking, don’t take it upon yourselves to cut. Just keep rolling.”
For instance, the scene at dinner. Gene Wilder says, “Reputation! Reputation!” And Teri [Garr] says, “Professor, doctor, you haven’t touched your food.” So Gene shoves his hands into the food. “So there, I’ve touched it.” It’s an unfortunate moment for everybody. And Marty tries to make things better. He says, “I’ll never forget what my father used to say to me at times like this.” And then there was [what seemed like] an hour wait. He just stopped talking. And finally Gene screamed, “What?! What?!” Marty says, “Get out of the bathroom, give someone else a chance.” It had nothing to do with anything except Marty’s insanity, but it made the scene. And I asked the cameraman, “You didn’t cut?” He said, “No, I was on the verge. I didn’t want to waste another 100 feet of film on silence.” But he didn’t cut, and we have that on film. It’s like a diamond. It’s a golden moment on film.
How did Gene Hackman get involved?
He was playing tennis with Wilder every weekend, and he said, “Is there anything in that crazy movie I could do?” And Gene said, “There’s a blind man in a hut.” And I told him, “There’s no money in it.” But he said, “I don’t want that. I just want to do it.” And he was very eloquent, very soulful. He came up with that line: “Where are you going? I was going to make espresso!” He said, “Let me try a few things.” And that was one of the things he tried, and I said, “Oh, that’s a keeper.”
How did the famous “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene come about?
I didn’t want it. We came up with it, and I said to Gene, “I don’t want to shoot that. I’m going down your road, Gene, don’t fight me. This is too silly. This is going to tear it. We’re saluting Mary Shelley, we’re saluting James Whale, we’re saluting 1931 Universal Pictures black and white, sweating and stone, castles, lightning, laboratories. If we do this, it will just make it silly.”
And he said, “No, no, no. It will prove the genius of Doctor Frankenstein taking inanimate tissue and giving it an incredible chance to display his gifts.”
So I made a deal with him. I said, “Okay, we’ll shoot it. We’ll shoot it properly, but when we see it in the dailies, stitched together with the other scenes, you’re going to want to cut it. But I’ll spend the extra money and let’s shoot it.” So we did, and it turned out to be the best scene in the whole movie, that’s all. I apologized profusely to Gene after the opening night.
How’d you get the theater full of extras to keep from laughing for that?
I warned them: “Anybody who laughs will be arrested.”
How was filming the charades scene?
That one was hard to keep [extras] from laughing. It was very difficult to keep it together. So I said to Peter [Boyle, who played The Monster], “You’ve got to really strangle him.” Peter said, “I don’t want to hurt him.” And I said, “Hurt him.” Gene kept laughing, breaking up.
How often did you have to stop shooting because of on-set laughter?
I bought a lot of cheap handkerchiefs, maybe 20 cents apiece, and on the second day of shooting, I gave them out to the crew. I said, “I’ve got to reshoot one or two scenes, and I don’t blame you. But if you feel like laughing, take this handkerchief I’m giving you for free, and stick it in your mouth so you can’t laugh. Bite on it, shove it in your mouth.” Every once in a while, I’d have a real funny punchline. Like, in the graveyard, Marty said, “It could be raining.” Then a whole bunch of rain comes down, and I turned around and there was this sea of white handkerchiefs in everyone’s mouths. And I said, “I know I’ve got a hit here.”
After that, I told Laddie, “Don’t play it safe. Spend some money. You’re going to make it back.” And he didn’t play it safe. He spent plenty of money on advertising, and Young Frankenstein was the biggest picture of the year.
Is there anything you’d change in the movie?
I don’t think so. When I did High Anxiety, I had a lot of help from Alfred Hitchcock. He gave me a lot of advice. One of the things he said to me [was], “If you’ve got a good take, and you know you’ve got it, move on. Don’t dwaddle. Take that energy and move to the next scene.”
You’re able to be satisfied with your work?
I’m satisfied with, you know, 73.63 percent of it. I’m fine. That’s good enough. Some guys won’t quit until they get 110 percent. They’ll wear out the actors, they’ll wear out the crew, and they’ll wear out the audience eventually. I like to keep the spirit alive and bubbly and happy.
How did this success change your life and career?
Every comedy in Hollywood was submitted to me, and I kept saying to my agents, “I don’t want to see any scripts; I’m only interested in what comes out of my own head.” It didn’t affect me, creatively, but I bought a beach house in Malibu for $425,000 and I still have it. I rent it out every summer, and that’s what keeps me alive.
Are you going to make another movie?
I might. I don’t think I could do the hours I used to do. Get on the set at 5:30, 6 in the morning and then leave at 8 at night. … I don’t think I could do that. But I might start at noon and then leave at 8 or 9. I could do that, if I get a really good idea. They want me to do Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money. I’m thinking about it. It could be a good movie, could be a funny movie.
Now, bless you. I’ve given you more time than I wanted. I’ve gotta go.
Check out a clip from Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein: