The more time that passes by and the more the comic world is besieged by laughter of both more incisive and more vulgar textures, the more that Mel Brooks’ brand of comedy seems like a product of a bygone era. Even its maladroit moments (the malodorous flatulence scene in the otherwise shockingly pointed miscreant that is Brooks’ best film Blazing Saddles) feel like innocuous nuggets of convivial atmosphere, currents from Mel Brooks’ sheer need to satiate his funny bone, and ours. The Borscht Beltier segments are as hokey and antiquated today as many of the establishment beacons Brooks was rebelling against. But Brooks is a munificent man, and his spirit shines through. His films amuse almost unilaterally on the back of the aching grin you can feel on Brooks’ face in every shot and with every line, or hook, or sinker. But Blazing Saddles is probably the only Brooks film that does more than amuse, the only one that doesn’t merely feel like Brooks pleasing himself. Saddles cuts right to the heart of an American genre, reflecting not simply a caricature of genre but a total collapse of it.
Brooks’ ’70s films sometimes feel like slices of a whole, but the two most effective remain the most famous. Released within a year of one another, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles are two-sides of the same coin. One is an aesthete’s wet dream replete with abiding affection for its antecedent – the Universal Horror film – and the other an intentionally abrasive, intentionally fraudulent critique of deceptively scathing bite and a Western that gains points for pungently acknowledging the great American nightmare of racism more fully than any Western before. Blazing Saddles doesn’t accrue as many points for subtlety or cleverness, but the brutally transparent viciousness of the film’s understanding of Western racism is part of its appeal. Call it stupid, but do not call Blazing Saddles craven.
With Blazing Saddles, Brooks cast a black sheriff (Clevon Little as Bart) away to a white town (literally every human’s last name is Johnson) as the superficial crux for a polemic about the unmitigated hatred that stoked the fires of Western expansion. Without any garrulous sermonizing, Brooks creates a seemingly precipitous film where every joke, although a natural extension of character, arises as if a maelstrom arriving out of nowhere. Absurdism is the order of the day, especially during a downright gonzo climax that gamely deconstructs the boundaries of Western fiction and barrels right into the mother hen itself of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Hollywood, after all, is culpable for imbibing in the self-aggrandizement of the Western more than any institution.
It’s all very loopy but never flippant or glib, loosely flopping about a shambolic path and setting a few fires of its own to create new walkways out of the decimation of Hollywood’s old guard. Particularly bracing is a scene where every white character in town pulls a gun on Bart, only for them to cower in fear when the black man pulls a gun on himself, pretending to threaten to shoot himself if they don’t lay down their arms. As a rib against the assurance with which one can bet on white people to fear a black man with a gun, no matter what, it’s downright face-melting in its astringency. That mixture of cartwheeling zest belying a kneejerk caustic cynicism is aberrant in the Brooks catalog; none of his other films are even partways this astute about society in their zaniness. Winsome, Brooks may be, but in Blazing Saddles, the innocence masquerades a bitter existential crisis about, and even sometimes a rueful contempt for, the history of a genre Brooks may otherwise love.
Following the success of Blazing Saddles (a work that blazed a path at the box office to become of the top ten grossing films in US history at the time), Brooks and star Gene Wilder sought it upon themselves to use parody as a means of performing an exegesis on yet another cherished genre of Brooks’ youth: the Universal Horror picture. Although the resulting work, released within one year of its predecessor, is as whimsical and capricious as the prior work, Young Frankenstein does not mistake follow-up for repeat. Perhaps surprisingly for a director who would eventually vanquish any and all thoughts of artistic credibility, Young Frankenstein finds the madcap maestro of low-brow comic zing mixing things up and striving for a gregarious treatment of horror cinema and a work of comic irony derived primarily, almost exclusively, through the dissonance between visual schema and narrative content. To put it more simply, Young Frankenstein is a surprisingly invested horror film at a visual level; arguably, it is even a superior horror film than a comedy.
Much like Dr. Strangelove, Young Frankenstein relies on a stone-faced visual accompaniment to its aural good cheers. Admittedly, Young Frankenstein isn’t nearly as thorough-going about maintaining this conundrum; visual punchlines occasionally pop up here and there, but this Frankenstein is not furtive about Brooks’ careful study of classical horror. Even if it’s ultimately skilled mimicry more than inspiration, Brooks clearly spent his time hitting the celluloid. With Gerald Herschfeld’s scrupulous cinematography as playful as it is incisive, Young Frankenstein is a vastly superior study in the texture of horror than Blazing Saddles was in the texture of the Western.
Which isn’t to say that it is a better film, for – perhaps necessarily – Young Frankenstein is much less prodigious in the depth of its commentary on its genre of choice than Blazing Saddles. That film, with its scathing disillusionment with the moral architecture of the classic Western and the sheer gusto of its commitment to casting a Western-era Shaft as its hero in an era where a mainstream black protagonist was almost unheard of, was a genuine exploration of the West as an idea. Young Frankenstein, although visually textured and marked by a loving expression of ’30s horror from its pristine black-and-white cinematography to subtler details like its aspect ratio and its judicious expressionist shadows, has little to say about horror cinema.
If anything, Gene Wilder (co-writing as well as taking the on-screen lead) subtly plays with the melodramatic, mercurial acting style of the horror films of the era to cheekily invoke the stagebound fanaticism of style with loving grace. Wilder is sublime in the film, prone to spellbound outbursts of contempt and superciliousness that express the withering discontent of his monomaniacal character. Ultimately, the film’s best moments recreate Wilder’s bewildering ability to rely on the techniques of his ancestors to contort their tone and texture. Likewise, Peter Boyle as the monster is similarly profound with his animalistic brutality belying childlike innocence and befuddlement, much like Boris Karloff.
Of course, Brooks is Brooks, and this means more than a few waterlogged jokes in a film that is generally at its most inviting when it is straying closest to its heroes. Counterbalancing the burners are a handful of shots that even manage real menace, such as the opening track around the interior of the castle that explores the edges of a coffin, or a lower-than-lower image of the monster approaching a girl from behind, or a nearly blood-curdling vision of the monster arriving to take away Madeline Kahn’s Elizabeth. The monster himself is buttressed by a handful of glorious expressionist shadows that signal his arrival throughout the film, and generally the texture of the mise en scene and cinematography evoke the steamy luster of classical Hollywood itself. It’s an unarguably sumptuous work as a horror film, with Brooks making uncharacteristic usage of prowling camerawork, violent editing, expressive lighting, and inventive shot selection throughout (there’s a beautiful, tragic outward zoom of the monster encased in a murderer’s row of chains, a cadre of shouting villagers castigating him from above).
Still, there’s a nagging sense with Young Frankenstein that Brooks, for all his genuine affection and zeal for recreating a surprisingly sharp horror film, is simply recreating the genre. With Blazing Saddles, he’d relied on the tropes of the Western to stage a mutiny, and the difference, although not godly, is not negligible either. Young Frankenstein is a more studied, perfect work fitting in with social propriety, but with comedy, social propriety is not always for the greater good.