I recently rewatched Young Frankenstein, the Mel Brooks comedy. I’d seen it once before, when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure that it was the first film version of the Frankenstein story that I had seen. I hadn’t yet seen any of the Universal Frankenstein movies so I missed the references. I didn’t know why it was in black and white. I didn’t understand what was up with Madeline Kahn’s hair at the end. This time, having seen all those films and having read the novel I really appreciated the movie.
What I appreciated most is that this was the first and, as far as I know, only film version of the story in which Doctor Frankenstein is a good father.
Despite claims to contrary, the novel: Frankenstein or A Modern Prometheus is not about a scientist who suffers because he played God and created life. Nope. The novel is about what happens to an arrogant man who refuses to take responsibility for the life that he has created. Frankenstein is the story of a bad parent. Victor Frankenstein makes a creature, brings it to life, is horrified by the results, and faints. When he awakes the creature is gone. Frankenstein spends the next three years hoping that the creature wandered off and died. He never looks for it. He never tells anyone what he has done. He just carries on his life. Until the creature comes back into that life, angry and hurt and demanding that Frankenstein love him. And Frankenstein refuses to love the creature. And Frankenstein refuses to take responsibility for the creature. And Frankenstein faints a lot.
Both play and film adaptations of the story have downplayed the bad parent theme. The creature is usually portrayed as speechless brute and Frankenstein is usually shown as an obsessed scientist. In Young Frankenstein Frederick Frankenstein may be an obsessed scientist but he also cares about his creature. Unlike the Frankenstein of the novel, he never gives up on his creation. He never walks away. He realizes that he made mistakes in the process of building his creature so he tries to make improvements. This Frankenstein is a good and generous man. And eventually he succeeds not only in improving the creature but in convincing the torch wielding mob that the creature is worthy of their sympathy as well.
When I was a kid this movie was a weird black and white thing that was mostly funny because it was so weird. Seeing it again last month, after decades of seeing rampaging monsters and the monomaniacal scientists who created them, I had a contented smile on my face. Finally a good doctor. Finally the creature got a happy ending.
Thank you Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder.