Sunday, 11 September 2016

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT

7. "Put... the candle... back!"

11/09/2016



I can't think of an another actor whose greatest role may have been the one they wrote for themselves, but Gene Wilder, former student of both the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and the Actors Studio, and star of many off-Broadway productions before his first film role in "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), wrote the script for 1974's "Young Frankenstein" with Mel Brooks, based on an idea he had been working on for a while.

Brooks was the first to see Wilder's original two-page outline but, despite having the "cute" idea of Frederick Frankenstein being ashamed of his ancestors' past, decided to pass on it. Then again, Wilder thought that Brooks wouldn't make a film the he didn't have the idea for himself. In the meantime, Wilder's agent, mindful that his client had just had his first hit at the box office, his starring role in Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)" - yes, "The Producers" and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" were not hits at the time - suggested Wilder could make a film with two other actors he represented.

Later, having replaced Gig Young, at the last moment, as the Waco Kid in "Blazing Saddles," Wilder brought up his story again with Brooks. This time, he provided a script for the scene at Transylvania Station, where we meet Igor for the first time, in a role having been written for Marty Feldman - the other actor suggested by Wilder's agent was Peter Boyle, who became Frankenstein's new monster.



While Brooks was responsible for the authenticity of how "Young Frankenstein" was made, insisting it was shot in black and white, and using props from the original Universal horror films, it was Wilder who talked Brooks out of making his usual cameo appearance, knowing it would have run the risk of taking the audience out of the story. 

Conversely, Wilder had to convince Brooks to keep in the iconic "Puttin' on the Ritz" dance number, only backing down when Wilder had convinced Brooks he would fight to keep it in. Just like the "Johnny B Goode" scene in "Back to the Future," just because the story has to stop for it doesn't mean it won't end up as the most memorable scene.

The results were brilliant. Wilder and Brooks' script, written over earl grey tea and digestive biscuits, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost out to "The Godfather Part II". "Young Frankenstein" finished third at the US box office for 1974, with "Blazing Saddles" coming first. Both Wilder and Brooks were signed up to five-year contracts with 20th Century Fox. From there, we get "Silver Streak," "High Anxiety," "Silent Movie," "To Be or Not To Be", and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother," which Wilder directed using notes Brooks gave him on directing, having seen where Wilder wanted to take his career next.

...I miss Gene Wilder, let's just say that.


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