Mel Brooks’ riff on the James Whale Frankenstein movies of the 1930s—conceived and co-written with one of the actors he’d worked with on Blazing Saddles, Gene Wilder—is so exquisite that even among comedies and farces, it deserves a special, gloriously cobwebby niche of its own. Wilder is Dr. Frederick “Fronkensteen,” the grandson of mad scientist Victor, who ends up reanimating a corpse of his own, which comes to life as Peter Boyle’s confused and bumbling but sympathetic monster. These two characters alone make a golden team—their “Puttin on the Ritz” top-hat-and-tails routine, which almost didn’t make it into the film (Brooks had thought it might break the mood), is a work of unhinged brilliance. But the cast that surrounds them—including Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr and Madeline Kahn, as well as a working-for-scale Gene Hackman—is the sort of assemblage that happens only once in a lifetime, a group of people so in sync they may as well be plugged into the same electrode-enlivened brain. Brooks loved working with them all, but as he would recount years later in his autobiography, there were problems: the crew kept cracking up, which meant he was constantly reshooting. So he went out and bought 100 white handkerchiefs, instructing the team to stuff them in their mouths whenever they felt like laughing. “I turned around once in the middle of shooting a scene,” Brooks wrote, “and saw a sea of white handkerchiefs in everybody’s mouths.” Thank God Brooks’ tactic worked. For the rest of us, resistance is futile.
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