by Pauline Kael
Gene Wilder stares at the world with nearsighted, pale-blue-eyed wonder; he was born with a comic’s flyblown wig and the look of a reddish creature from outer space. His features aren’t distinct; his personality lacks definition. His whole appearance is so fuzzy and weak he’s like mist on the lens. Yet since his first screen appearance, as the mortician in Bonnie and Clyde, he’s made his presence felt each time. He’s a magnetic blur. It’s easy to imagine him as a frizzy-haired fiddler-clown in a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, until he slides over into that hysteria which is his dazzling specialty. As a hysteric, he’s funnier even than Peter Sellers. For Sellers, hysteria is just one more weapon in his comic arsenal — his hysteria mocks hysteria — but Wilder’s hysteria seems perfectly natural. You never question what’s driving him to it; his fits are lucid and total. They take him into a different dimension — he delivers what Harpo promised.
Wilder is clearly an actor who can play serious roles as well as comic ones, and he’s a superb technician. Yet he also seems an inspired original, as peculiarly, elusively demented in his own way as the greatest original of them all, Jonathan Winters. You can’t tell what makes clowns like this funny. The sources of their humor are split off from the technical effects they produce. (With Chaplin, there’s a unity between source and technique — which isn’t necessarily preferable.) Like Winters, Wilder taps a private madness. In Start the Revolution Without Me, he played a French nobleman who was offering a tidbit to the falcon on his wrist when his wife pointed out that the falcon was dead. With the calm of the utterly insane, he said to her, “Repeat that.’’ Reality is what Wilder’s weak stare doesn’t take in.
Wilder plays the title role in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, and in the first fifteen minutes or so — especially in a medical experiment on skinny, excruciatingly vulnerable Liam Dunn — he hits a new kind of controlled maniacal peak. The movie doesn’t take Wilder beyond that early high, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a silly, zizzy picture — a-farce-parody of Hollywood’s mad-scientist-trying-to-be-God pictures, with Wilder as the old Baron Frankenstein’s grandson, an American professor of neurology, who takes a trip to the family castle in Transylvania. Peter Boyle is the Frankenstein monster, and Madeline Kahn is the professor’s plastic-woman fiancee, who becomes the monster’s bride. It isn’t a dialogue comedy; it’s visceral and lower. It’s what used to be called a crazy comedy, and there hasn’t been this kind of craziness on the screen in years. It’s a film to go to when your rhythm is slowed down and you’re too tired to think. You can’t bring anything to it (Brooks’ timing is too obvious for that); you have to let it do everything for you, because that’s the only way it works. It has some of the obviousness of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and if you go expecting too much it could seem like kids’ stuff—which, of course, it is, but it’s very funny kids’ stuff, the kind that made pictures like Kentucky Moonshine and Murder, He Says into nutbrain classics. You can go to see it when you can barely keep your eyes open, and come out feeling relaxed and recharged.
Wilder wrote the screenplay with Brooks, and he has a healthy respect for his own star abilities. Confidence seems to be making him better-looking with each picture; this time he wears a romantic, droopy mustache, and in full-face, with his eyes outlined and his long chin prominent, he gives a vain, John Barrymore-ish dash to the role. I could have done with less of his pixie hunchback assistant Igor — the English comic, Marty Feldman, who’s done up like Barrymore as Richard III. The camera picks up the glints of Wilder’s madness; Feldman projects to the gallery. He’s too consciously zany; he’s funny at times (and he uses a Groucho turn of phrase like a shiv), but he’s heavy-spirited and cunning, in the Anthony Newley manner. He emphasizes the picture’s worst defect: the director tends to repeat — and exhaust — effects. In the opening sequences, Wilder does a startling spinoff of Sellers’ performance as Dr. Strangelove, but then, later on, Kenneth Mars, the Nazi playwright in The Producers and the Transylvania police inspector here — equipped with an artificial arm, like Lionel Atwill in the role in the old days — does a full-dress variation on Strangelove. Like Feldman, Mars seems meant to be funnier than he is; his impenetrable accent is one of those Brooks ideas that don’t pan out. Sometimes Brooks appears to think he can force something to be a scream if he pounds away at it. Cloris Leachman makes a magnificent entrance as the castle housekeeper, but then, having a one-and-a-half-gag role, she has nothing left to do but make faces. However, Peter Boyle underplays smoothly; he suggests a puckish cutup’s spirit inside his monster’s bulk, and he comes through with a great sick-joke strangled voice in a musical number that shows what Brooks can do when his instinct is really working. He can make you laugh helplessly.
The picture was made in black-and-white, which holds it visually close to the pictures it takes off from, and Brooks keeps the setups simple. The details are reassuring: there’s a little more Transylvanian ground fog than you’ve ever seen before, the laboratory machines give off enough sparks to let us know that’s their only function, and the ingenue (Ten Garr, as Frankenstein’s laboratory assistant) is the essence of washed-out B-movie starlet. The style of the picture is controlled excess, and the whole thing is remarkably consistent in tone, considering that it ranges from unfunny hamming (the medical student at the beginning) to a masterly bit contributed by Gene Hackman as a bearded blind man. (Hackman’s inflections are so spectacularly assured I thought there was a famous comic hidden under the beard until I recognized his voice.) The movie works because it has the Mary Shelley story to lean on: we know that the monster will be created and will get loose. And Brooks makes a leap up as a director because, although the comedy doesn’t build, he carries the story through. Some directors don’t need a unifying story, but Brooks has always got lost without one. (He had a story in The Twelve Chairs, but he didn’t have the jokes.) Staying with the story, Brooks even has a satisfying windup, which makes this just about the only comedy of recent years that doesn’t collapse. Best of all, Young Frankenstein doesn’t try to be boffola, like Brooks’ last picture, Blazing Saddles, yet it has that picture’s prime attractions: Wilder and Madeline Kahn. When she parodied Marlene Dietrich in Blazing Saddles, it wasn’t the usual Dietrich imitation, because she was also parodying herself. Madeline Kahn has an extra dimension of sexiness; it’s almost like what Mae West had — she’s flirtatious in a selfknowing way. And everything that’s wrong about her is sexy. You look at her and think, What a beautiful translucent skin on such a big jaw; what a statuesque hourglass figure, especially where the sand has slipped. She’s so self-knowingly lascivious that she convinces you she really digs the monster. Madeline Kahn is funny and enticing because she’s soaked in passion; when you look at her, you see a water bed at just the right temperature.
The New Yorker, December 30, 1974