By Scott Ross
For reasons that no longer matter and even though I had the dialogue soundtrack in my small but growing LP collection, I managed to miss Young Frankenstein when it opened in 1974. I saw, it, finally, a couple of years later, at a late show to which I was taken by my sister and her then-boyfriend, a screening memorably marred by the movie-long ululations of some insufferable fool who apparently also had the album and who, as if Mel Brooks’ movie was a Rocky Horror Picture Show avant le lettre, shouted out the punchlines before the actors on the screen could. Why he wasn’t beaten up during the show remains one of life’s eternal mysteries. In any case, I did know Gene Wilder, from the ill-fated 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which I saw at the age of 10, and from a television airing of the soemwhat logy but frequently hilarious 1970 spoof Start the Revolution Without Me. Although I didn’t understand quite what it was that so appealed to me about Wilder then, the child I was would have nodded in complete agreement had he encountered Pauline Kael’s contemporary comments concerning that inspired comedian.
Reviewing Revolution Kael noted: “Wilder has a fantastic shtick. He builds up a hysterical rage about nothing at all, upon an imaginary provocation, and it’s terribly funny. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to work more than once, but it works each time and you begin to wait for it and hope for it—his self-generated neurasthenic rage is a parody of all the obscene bad temper in the world.” Assaying Young Frankenstein four years later, Kael again returned to this theme, which was so much a part of Wilder’s unique comic persona: “It’s easy to imagine him as a frizzy-haired fiddler-clown in a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, until he slides over into that hysteria which is his dazzling specialty. As a hysteric, he’s funnier even than Peter Sellers. For Sellers, hysteria is just one more weapon in his comic arsenal—his hysteria mocks hysteria—but Wilder’s hysteria seems perfectly natural. You never question what’s driving him to it; his fits are lucid and total. They take him into a different dimension—he delivers what Harpo promised.”
Think of him intoning Leslie Bricusse’s mad doggerel with increasing hysteria on that boat trip through psychedelica in Willy Wonka, or screaming gynecological imprecations at the innards of a row of baked chickens in everything you always wanted to know about sex, or at his most panic-stricken in the early scenes of The Producers (“I’m wet! And I’m hysterical!”) and you know precisely what Kael meant. It’s a sustaining shtick; it goes with his slightly popped blue eyes and those unruly shocks of curly blonde hair. You wait for him to explode into hysteria just as you anticipate his disbelieving “Son of a bitch!” every time he’s thrown off the train in Silver Streak. It works more than once; it works every time.
Having deprived myself of Young Frankenstein, which he co-wrote, I was even more determined, at the end of 1975, to see Wilder’s debut as both screenwriter and director. I remember laughing a great deal then, more than I did on seeing it again recently, but what stayed with me were less the big set-ups that are often only modestly successful and more the odd curlicues that give it flavor: The wanton use of song and dance, exemplified by the delicious music-hall parody “The Kangaroo Hop” which Wilder performs with Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman and in which he is all jointless hips and boneless feet; Dom DeLuise’s fruity, vaudeville ice-cream seller Italianate line readings; Marty Feldman’s distinctive orbs that shoot off in separate directions and his big, ready, close-mouthed smile; Leo McKern’s peerless delight (as a plummy Moriarty) in sending up the sorts of villain roles to which he was all too often consigned before Rumpole saved him; the way a document flies out of John Le Mesurier’s hand as he exclaims a Brooksian “Woof!” after uttering an insupportable faux pas to Queen Victoria (much funnier than the sovereign’s muttered “Shit!” with which the scene ends); and Albert Finney’s amusing cameo as a member of the audience at an appalling English-language version of Un ballo in maschera: “Is this rotten, or wonderfully brave?” (It’s rotten.)
The Sherlockian parody itself is often droll, and certainly erudite. Feldman’s Scotland Yard sergeant is called Orville Stanley Sacker, a name close to Ormond Sacker, the one Conan Doyle initially gave to John Watson. And Wilder’s insanely jealous (and apparently Jewish) brother to Sherlock, Sigerson, recalls an alias under which Holmes himself went in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” one used by Nicholas Meyer in an equally playful context at the end of his Holmes pastiche The Seven Per Cent Solution. Kahn’s character is named after the Victorian singer Jenny Hill, and initially attempts to pass herself off as one Bessie Bellwood (“Won’t you come in… Miss Liar!“), another contemporary songbird. Indeed, the very title of the movie is in keeping with Doyle’s—or, if you prefer, Watson’s—method of naming his Holmes stories. If the screenplay itself is, like Blazing Saddles, rather more scattershot in total effect than the well-integrated Young Frankenstein and The Producers, it’s still a very respectable first solo effort, and certainly more intelligent than the typical American comedy… especially compared to the depressing current norm.
Partaking of Wilder’s movie now is a bittersweet event. Kahn, Feldman, Kern and DeLuise are all gone now, not to mention the wonderful Roy Kinnear, who contributes one of his droll turns as Moriarty’s henchman, while Wilder himself is older, and less active, although he has found a third career as a novel writer and memoirist. Brooks’ longtime musical amanuensis John Morris, who contributed the spirited underscore (and the deliciously fulsome melodies to Wilder’s song parody lyrics) is in his 80s now, and retired, as apparently is the great British production designer Terence Marsh, whose work here gives the movie much of its period authenticity and satirical wit. As with so much in American culture since the ’70s and early ’80s, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother seems the product of an entirely different country.
Although the climax of the movie is a bit like an undernourished romantic dream from which the fizz was unaccountably let out, the deliberately bad opera libretto is of the type that makes you smile rather than loud out loud, and the enterprise as a whole is curiously insubstantial, Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother still holds undeniable pleasure.
The single most charming sequence in the movie is the one in which, having extricated themselves from a tiny room with a buzzsaw careening down its center, Wilder and Feldman cause a shocked sensation as they slowly realize the blade has sheared away the seats of their fancy dress suits. I could have done without the flaming bandleader simpering his approval at the pairs’ exposed backsides, but the way in which Wilder conceived the gag, his acutely comic execution of it, and the delicious sangfroid with which the two comedians meet the challenge, places the scene as among the most surprising and delightful of any shot in the past 40 years. It’s hard to imagine Woody Allen coming up with this, or even Mel Brooks, and certainly neither would have given the moment its air of sweetly inevitable innocence. Perhaps, more than his comic bluster, that very guilelessness is the reason so many of us responded to Gene Wilder as an earlier generation looked on Harpo Marx, and why his essential decency belongs to another century.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross