Film Forum artistic director Kathleen Carroll interviewed Mel Brooks in the screening room on Young Frankenstein. Her article, featured below, was published in the New York Daily News on December 8, 1974.
Napoleon-like Mel Brooks and his Creative Battles Over “Young Frankenstein” by Kathleen Carroll
Strutting about in the darkened screening room on the lot at 20th Century Fox, his hand placed over his chest in the appropriate position, Mel Brooks was pretending to be Napoleon. This required little if any acting on his part for Brooks could easily be a 20th Century reincarnation of Napoleon.
He has the short, stocky build of a Corsican peasant, a mind that is always on military alert and the proud carriage and commanding presence of a true general. We know this from watching him entertain his troops, who included an attentive interviewer from Playboy magazine, his secretary and assorted hangers-on in the office where he plans his attacks on the funny bones of Americans.
Like Napoleon, he is supremely cocky. This constant selling of himself like a press agent is partly a pose, but one senses he really believes all the nice things he says about himself. Brooks is presently feeling very much like a victorious general.
His last picture “Blazing Saddles” made people laugh so hard, he insists, that one could hear “decibels” of laughter in the theaters. He was positively giddy as he raved about actor-writer Gene Wilder, the star and co-creator of his newest comedy, “Young Frankenstein.” His elevated mood (or constant sugar high) may also be explained by the
fact that his secretary continues to supply him with his favorite food – chocolate-covered raisins. Feeding his ego even further was the fact that Playboy had chosen him to be the subject of a lengthy profile for the second time, something the magazine had never done before. He was even enjoying running his military campaign – that is his show from California although he did call me to complain “You can’t get egg creams here.”
His mood was so buoyant he all but insisted that this visiting film critic watch as he and Wilder viewed some footage from “Young Frankenstein” so they could decide which scenes could be tightened and which ones could be left alone. The last person most directors want nosing around at this stage of editing is a critic, but Brooks could hardly wait to strut his stuff.
We all sat in a small theater with Wilder, the film editor and his assistant (who made notes of all that was said). Brooks said he takes advantage of everyone’s talents when working on a film. “Film is such a collaborative medium, I take everyone with me, garage mechanics, everyone.”
Brooks showed a scene in which Gene Hackman, disguised as a blind hermit, is visited by Dr. Frankenstein’s creation – the monster with the high forehead, played by Peter Boyle. Hackman, who insisted upon playing the minor role, answers the door, obviously pleased to have company. “What is your name?”, Hackman asks the monster. There are few slightly muffled growls. “I didn’t get that,” said Hackman, looking momentarily puzzled before continuing his enthusiastic welcome.
Brooks and Wilder have a serious discussion as to the timing of the scene, but most of the time Brooks is lost in admiration of his work. He debated the possibility of cutting a shot that particularly pleased him. “The only thing I hate to give up is my applause from the Cinematographers Journal, but (here Brooks pretended to sigh a little), I’ll give it up for a laugh.” The shot was eliminated.
A shot of the monster walking down a cobblestone street is also eliminated. It broke Brooks’ heart to do it, but he agreed. “We won’t give them the great Mel Brooks pan.” Another scene worked so well it was left intact. Brooks, modest to the end, said “That is one of the greatest scenes ever filmed, and it has some of my best, prettiest photography.” Later at his general headquarters at the studio Brooks described “Young Frankenstein” as “a salute to the horror film of the ‘30’s.” It has been filmed in black and white because in color, as Brooks says, “it would have been just another horror film.”
Wilder conceived the idea for the film, and Brooks gives him full credit for the idea and has nothing but raves for Wilder’s portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein. “It’s the best he’s ever done,” said Brooks, who worked with Wilder in “The Producers” as well as in “Blazing Saddles.” “He’ll make you laugh and scare you at the same time.”
On one level at least, Brooks and Wilder were quite serious about their approach to “Young Frankenstein.” Of course it’s impossible to tell when Brooks is being serious. But this, as he told me earlier, was to be “a good-taste interview,” and he was determined to play it straight for as long as he could. Thus he explained that he and Wilder didn’t want
to be “just frivolous” in toying with Mary Shelley’s original conception of Frankenstein. “Too many people love these early horror films to do that. We hope it will become a people’s picture, not something just for cinema scholars. We want a lot of Laurel and Hardy fans to love it.” And then, as if addressing a class of eager students, Brooks put on his best professorial pose and said “You’ve got to anchor comedy.” As Brooks described it, the story line and character relationships should be “like a tight clothes line,” something firm on which you can hang the rest of the movie. From there, you can be creative, or, as Brooks puts it “You can hang a lot of red drawers on that clothes line.” Brooks, when he can tear himself away from his work, is as starved for funny movies as the rest of us. “I look for comedies to see. Woody Allen and I are the only ones who dare to make them. Who’s going to give us comedies? There isn’t anyone, and you can’t keep going to the movies to get messages about alienation.”
The movies of Mel Brooks have alienated a few people. Critic John Simon calls them “wretched.” The famous bean-eating sequence in “Blazing Saddles,” a particular favorite of Brooks, has raised more than a few eye brows. But to restrain Brooks in any way would be the equivalent of placing handcuffs on the Marx brothers. His movies have the same maniacal energy and playfulness as Brooks himself. After looking at “Young Frankenstein” Brooks all but danced down the stairs and out into the street. To his delight Madeline Kahn (the late comedienne who delighted audiences with her imitation of Marlene Dietrich in “Blazing Saddles” and who had just finished starring in “Young Frankenstein”) and singer Bette Midler were waiting to greet him. With their fluffy reddish hair, Kahn and Midler had a certain resemblance. Brooks, suddenly inspired, began to invent a movie for them right on the spot. “We’ll call it ‘Bubbles, Trixie and Ginger’, said Brooks. “It will be about three sweet young girls from the Midwest who come to Hollywood to make it big.” Midler,
who was eager to do a movie, could not have been more excited. “May I have your autograph?” she asked Brooks. “I want to put it in my kitchen and could you sign it, ‘I love you, Mel’.” Brooks could and did, signing his name with a flourish and looking very flattered. “Imagine that!” he said. “She’s a great star.”
Back in his office, Brooks pressed a few chocolate covered raisins into my hand and offered a few more observations. “Laughter,” he said, “is the glue the holds comedy together. Laughter is the mortar. People have to laugh or I’m finished. Woody, he’s more cerebral, I’m more visceral, dirtier probably.” There was a wicked gleam in Brooks’ eye as we left him, half expecting him to bark an order like “Move on out.”