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Young Frankenstein: A Mel Brooks Book
The Story of the Making of the Film
By Mel Brooks
Foreword by Judd Apatow
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- Hardcover $29.99 $38.99 CAD
- ebook $16.99 $20.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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Young Frankenstein was made with deep respect for the craft and history of cinema-and for the power of a good schwanzstucker joke. This picture-driven book, written by one of the greatest comedy geniuses of all time, takes readers inside the classic film’s marvelous creation story via never-before-seen black and white and color photography from the set and contemporary interviews with the cast and crew, most notably, legendary writer-director Mel Brooks.
With access to more than 225 behind-the-scenes photos and production stills, and with captions written by Brooks, this book will also rely on interviews with gifted director of photography Gerald Hirschfeld, Academy Award-winning actress Cloris Leachman and veteran producer Michael Gruskoff.
Mel Brooks is an American film director, screenwriter, comedian, actor, producer, composer and songwriter. Brooks is best known as a creator of broad film farces and comic parodies including The Producers, The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, High Anxiety, History of the World, Part I, Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. More recently, he had a smash hit on Broadway with the musical adaptation of his first film, The Producers. An EGOT winner, he received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2009, the 41st AFI Life Achievement Award in June 2013, and a British Film Institute Fellowship in March 2015. Three of Brooks’ classics have appeared on AFI’s 100 Years . . . 100 Laughs list. Blazing Saddles at number 6, The Producers at number 11, and Young Frankenstein at number 13.
Judd Apatow is one of the most important comic minds of his generation. He wrote and directed the films The 40-Year-Old Virgin (co-written with Steve Carell), Knocked Up, Funny People, and This Is 40, and his producing credits include Superbad, Bridesmaids, and Anchorman. Apatow is the executive producer of HBO’s Girls.
You have to really know a genre to make fun of it, and to really know it, you have to love it. When I was young, I loved the movies because they saved my life. I was so grateful to cinema for opening up worlds that were not open to me as a poor Jewish kid from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was born in 1926, and everybody in my building was headed for jobs in the Garment District in Manhattan. I assumed I'd be working in the shipping department somewhere on 7th Avenue. I never dreamed I would do something else—let alone make my living in the movies. Nothing else was open to us.
But at the local movie theater, I could go anywhere—Arabia, the West, Transylvania. We played street games to keep busy in Williamsburg—punchball, baseball, roller hockey—but nothing nourished our dreams like the movies. Those movies gave us lovely worlds to inhabit. When I was a teenager and I saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing on shiny, big black-and-white floors, oh wow! You never saw shiny black-and-white floors in Williamsburg. There was just oilcloth and sometimes Jewish newspapers covering them when your mother would wash them. We never had money for anything. But for one thin dime, you got three feature films, a race, some newsreels, some shorts. My mother would send me to the theater with a salmon and tomato sandwich, wrapped in wax paper—'cause it's a long day, you know?
I was five years old in 1931 when James Whale's Frankenstein came out. The following summer the movie played at a theater in Williamsburg and my older brother, Bernie, took me to see it. My father had died of tuberculosis when he was only thirty-four and I was two. And there was Mama, thirty years old, with four little boys. Mama had to clean. She wanted me out. Bernie said, "I'm going to see Frankenstein, maybe he will get scared." My mother said, "I don't care! Take him." So Bernie took me, and that movie scared the hell out of me. I was really terrified. It was a big mistake. It was the scariest thing I saw in my life.
That was a hot summer in Brooklyn, and in our two-bedroom apartment, I slept right by the fire escape. I said to my mother, "Mom, please close the window." She said, "It's a hundred degrees in here, I can't close the window. What's the matter?" I said, "If you leave the window open, Frankenstein will come and eat me." (We called the monster Frankenstein because we didn't know the difference.)
My mother said, "OK, let's talk about this. First of all, the monster lives in Romania, in Transylvania. Romania is not near the ocean. So he's going to have to get to Odessa. He's going to have go a long way to get to a boat. Then he has to have money to pay for his passage. He may not have any money if he is just a monster. He may not have pockets. Let's say he makes his way to Odessa and he gets a boat to America. The boat may go to Miami. It may go to Baltimore. It may not go to New York. If it goes to New York and he gets off there, he doesn't know the subway system. If he finds the BMT (what we called the subway back then) and he gets to Brooklyn, he doesn't know our street. Let's say he does find our street. But remember, the people on the first floor have their window open. He is not going to climb way up. If he's hungry, he is going to eat who's ever there on the first floor."
And you know, Mom made sense. So I said, "OK, leave the window open." But it haunted me. Actually, it haunted me for years. I mean, it was the scariest thing. I was always worried. Then to add insult to injury, this guy James Whale kept making more Frankenstein movies.
More than forty years later, when I was finally a little less scared, Whale's movies would inspire me and my friend and collaborator Gene Wilder to make Young Frankenstein. I first met Gene in 1963, when he was starring in a Broadway production of Mother Courage with Anne Bancroft, whom I was dating at the time and would later marry. Gene and I would go on to make three movies together—The Producers in 1967, Blazing Saddles in 1974, and Young Frankenstein, also in 1974, which I consider our biggest achievement.
Gene played a chaplain in Mother Courage. He'd come off stage and say, "Why are they laughing at me?" I said, "Look in the mirror! The chaplain is just blessed by God. He's funny. Don't fight it. Just be sincere. And always be amazed by the fact that they're laughing at you. It'll be good for your career." We used to go out for dinner, and I'd tell Gene all about what I was then calling Springtime for Hitler—it wasn't called The Producers yet. I'd tell him about this character Leo Bloom. He's silly, he's angelic, he's the most brilliant accountant who ever lived. But as a human being he's lost, he doesn't know how to behave. He's never been kissed. He doesn't know anything. Gene said, "I could play that." But he thought we'd never get it made.
Gene was growing as an artist. One day he replaced Alan Arkin on Broadway in a Murray Schisgal play called Luv. He was in his dressing room taking off his makeup between a matinee and an evening performance when Sidney Glazier, the producer of The Producers, and I walked in. I threw a script down on the makeup table and said, "OK, never do it, huh? In two months we're gonna be at Mende Brown's studio on 26th Street, and you're gonna be Leo Bloom." And Gene wept and he wept and he wept. I said, "I can't use you if you just keep crying!" Gene is the most natural actor who ever lived. I said, "You're free to do anything you want in this, Gene."
That's how we started working together. And as much as I had wanted Gene for The Producers, I didn't want him to be the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. I was shooting for the stars. I wanted the eloquence of a John Gielgud in a Western outfit. A leather face. A guy who was beaten down. I didn't want him to be funny. I wanted the black sheriff to be funny, and a couple of other people to be funny, but I wanted the Waco Kid to be serious. I was dead wrong, but I didn't know it yet. I hadn't realized if you can find a funny actor who can be serious, then you've got heaven. You've got the best. That was Gene Wilder, who never knew how funny he was, who always played things seriously.
Instead I cast Gig Young as the Waco Kid. Gig had been starring in movies going back to the 1940s and had recently been in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? with Jane Fonda. He had a serious alcohol problem—his agent said, "Gig's way over it!"—but on the first day of shooting it became clear that wasn't true. We hung him upside down in the jail cell, and green stuff started spewing out of his mouth. We called an ambulance, and they took Gig to the hospital.
That night, with my star in no shape to film, I called Gene to cry to him. He said, "Mel, I know every line." I had sent Gene a script six months earlier, and he had memorized everything immediately—he had an amazing ability to do that. Gene came out the next day, tried on a costume, and picked out a horse. That was Saturday. On Sunday we did one rehearsal. And on Monday morning at nine o'clock we were shooting, and he was a perfect Waco Kid!
Little did I know that when Gene showed up to film Blazing Saddles, he was plotting to get me on board Young Frankenstein. Lucky for me it worked! Of all of my films, I am the proudest of this one. We set out to make a beautiful period picture, with all of the craftsmanship of James Whale's 1930s films. And, of course, this time with laughs. My hope was that Young Frankenstein would transport audiences the way I was transported as a kid sitting in the dark in Williamsburg. I think we succeeded, and in this book I will show you how we did it.
Hey, I'm Mel Brooks! This is my book about making Young Frankenstein.
But a lot of other people remembered making the movie, too. Their stories come from interviews done just for this book, books they wrote in the past, on-set reporting, and interviews they gave to newspapers and on TV when the film came out. When it's time for their part of the story, it will look like this:
And that's all you need to know. The cast and crew of the book hope you enjoy discovering all the love and hard work that went into making what has become a truly legendary movie, Young Frankenstein.
I have one question, Dr. Frankenstein.
I beg your pardon?
My name, it's pronounced Fron-ken-steen.
But you are the grandson of the famous Dr. Victor Frankenstein?
In 1973, at the time when we were setting up Young Frankenstein, the hit movies were The Sting—a caper, The Way We Were—a romance, The Exorcist—a horror film. Not comedies. Personally, I hadn't made a nickel for any studio. I made The Producers in 1968 and it got me an Academy Award for original screenplay, but it didn't make any money. I made The Twelve Chairs in 1970, which made even less. Blazing Saddles would be a hit in 1974, but that hadn't come out yet. To the studios, I was just an interesting guy to meet for lunch.
Gene Wilder's career was still building, too, and he was not yet the household name he would become. He had played a small but critically acclaimed part in Bonnie and Clyde, been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Leo Bloom in The Producers, and begun to emerge in bigger roles in films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. At this point, neither one of us knew how much the events of the next eighteen months would change our lives.
But let's back up. There we were, in this Western town somewhere in the Antelope Valley in California, in the middle of making Blazing Saddles. I was yelling, "Action! Cut!" Gene was leaning back in the sheriff's chair with his legs up on the desk, in his cowboy hat and his boots. He had a yellow legal pad and he was writing and writing. I looked at the top of the legal pad and it said "Young Frankenstein." I said to Gene, "What the hell is that?"
"I have this idea for a movie about Baron Frankenstein's grandson," Gene said to me. "He's an uptight scientist who doesn't believe any of that nonsense about bringing the dead back to life. Even though he is clinically a scientist, he is as crazy as any Frankenstein. It's in his heart. It's in his blood. It's in the marrow of his bones. He can't help it."
"Sounds interesting," I said. "What is your dream for this movie?"
"My dream is for you to write it with me and direct the movie," Gene said.
I said, "Whoa, you got any money on you?"
"I have fifty-seven dollars," Gene said. (This is true).
"It's a beginning," I said. "I'll take it. I'll take it as a down payment on writing and directing it with you."
That very night, after shooting Blazing Saddles, I went over to Gene's hotel, the Bel-Air, just to discuss, and we spent until five in the morning talking about the story line over Earl Grey tea and digestif biscuits. We talked about being very faithful to the tempo and the look of James Whale's marvelous films, Frankenstein from 1931 and Bride of Frankenstein from 1935.
Gene already had an eight-page treatment, and we quickly got into a rhythm of working. Each night, after I finished in the editing room on Blazing Saddles and had dinner with my wife, I'd go to Gene's hotel. At the beginning, we just had all the Whale movies, but we knew exactly where we're going. Gene wrote everything in pencil, on his yellow legal pads, which my secretary typed up the next day.
It was really a fierce, fierce collaboration, and we were devoted to our script. We had only one fight—and it was a big one—over the scene where the monster dances to "Puttin' on the Ritz." I told Gene it was a great idea, it was funny, but it was too far outside of our salute to the back-and-white classics. We could go as far as the zipper in the creature's neck, but we didn't want to be too ridiculous. Gene said "No, it's proof of how incredible Frankenstein's creation is." We fought and we fought and I said, "OK, I'll film it, and we'll test screen it, and if enough people agree with me that it's too silly, then we'll take it out."
Of course, Gene was dead right because it took the movie to another level—our level. We left James Whale and we went to where we wanted to be. That's what audiences were paying for. They weren't paying for a true artistic resemblance to James Whale's movies. They wanted to laugh.
In a way it was an affirmation of something I learned while writing sketches for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows in the 1950s: Jokes alone don't work, but jokes that emerge out of characters and stories we love do
- On Sale
- Oct 18, 2016
- Page Count
- 200 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal