Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Class: Young Frankenstein

Peter Boyle's Hungarian Tofutti Cheese Spread with Herring on Bagel Chips
Supa de conopida (Romanian Cauliflower Soup)
Cotlete de porc cu bere (Romanian Pork Chops with Beer)
“Reanimated Vermicelli” Latkes (Romanian Pasta Latkes)
Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cherry Cake)

I'm just going to make an admission right off the bat here.

I had the biggest crush on Teri Garr. I fell in love with her in 1968, when she was on a Star Trek episode. I even watched The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour Show just to see her. Sigh.... I hate Tootsie, and the reason is because the whole premise that a man would choose anyone, even Jessica Lange, over Teri Garr, is absurd and stupid, unbelievable and I can't watch the thing. Seriously. (Garr was diagnosed with Multiple Sclorosis in 1999 and has done much to raise awareness of the disease and helping those with it to cope. So she remains awesome.)

Tonight's class was awesome too... Everything went very smoothly, thankfully we had some great volunteers to help with the prep and serving (Central Market Cooking School has a program where you can volunteer and work with real chefs, not like me, but sometimes with me too). We tried a new class set up and I think that went very well too (I have a picture up on the Facebook page - if you haven't "liked" it yet, whatcha waitin' for???).

So this is actually part one of a Frankenstein double bill. So stay turned for the 2nd half of it coming Halloween eve. I'll be in Paris. I don't even know if they celebrate Halloween there. I guess I'll find out soon enough.

Sadly, Young Frankenstein is not available for streaming at present online, but can be purchased @ Amazon as a DVD or Blu-Ray.


"From that fateful day when stinking bits of slime first crawled from the sea and shouted to the cold stars 'I am man,' our greatest dread has always been the knowledge of our mortality. But tonight, we shall hurl the gauntlet of science into the frightful face of death itself. Tonight, we shall ascend into the heavens. We shall mock the earthquake. We shall command the thunders, and penetrate into the very womb of impervious nature herself."

Let's start here... One day, in the spring of 1973, in the Hamptons, after lunch, Gene Wilder was lounging and musing away....

"[I had] a yellow legal pad with a blue felt pen and I wrote down on top 'Young Frankenstein.' I didn't know what it meant then," he recalled. "And I went upstairs just to muse for a little while and for maybe a half-hour, I put down what I thought might happen to me if I were the great-grandson of Bolfort von Frankenstein. And I asked myself then, 'Why did you say Young Frankenstein?' and I think it was because I was influenced by 'Young Edison,' that I saw as a little boy. 'Why Frankenstein?' Because when I was a little boy I was scared to death of Frankenstein movies – the original one and Bride of Frankenstein."

"About three months later," Wilder continued, "my new agent, Mike Medavoy, said 'How about a film with you and Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle?' And I said, 'That's great. What made you think of that?' He said, 'Because I now represent you and Marty and Peter.' So I said, 'Well, with a wonderful artistic basis like that, it can't go wrong.' and then I said, 'Actually, I do have something that might be right.'... I took two days and I wrote out four pages – the Transylvania Station scene where I meet Marty is just about verbatim the way it is in the film now."

Medavoy then read it, loved it and asked Wilder if he thought Wilder's friend Mel Brooks would want to direct it. However, Brooks was busy in preproduction for Blazing Saddles (starring Wilder - they had previously worked together on The Producers, so they knew each other quite well.) Wilder also felt Brooks wouldn't be interested in directing something that wasn't his original idea. But the next day, according to Wilder, "Mel calls and says, 'What are you getting me into?' And I said, 'Nothing that you don't want to get into.' [And he says,] 'I don't know, I don't know. I don't know.'"

Brooks hadn't had made a film in four years and that one, The Twelve Chairs, hadn't been well received. Even The Producers, as crazy as it seems today, wasn't a book office hit. So once Blazing Saddles hit theaters, Brooks was able to have some clout in the industry which he would call upon as this new project developed. But meanwhile....

"Mel and I met in my apartment in New York for about two hours and 45 minutes on this first day to do with Young Frankenstein," Wilder recalled. "The first hour was spent with how to make the coffee, what kind of coffee, what to have with the coffee. He had brought a bag of schnecken which figures prominently in Young Frankenstein in the [early draft of the] script.

"We talked about everything but the script. After we'd had our talk about all little nothings, which was sort of Mel's way of working – to slowly creep up on whatever you're gonna do that's important - we started talking about the script from 'A' to 'Z.' Wild things. Things that I knew in my heart weren't gonna be in, but to touch all the bases."

Brooks noted, “We decided we're going to be faithful to two people – Mary Shelley and James Whale.”

Whale, of course, directed both the Karloff version of Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is the creator of the Frankenstein story.

"We [then] holed up in the Bel Air Hotel," said Brooks, "and we acted all the parts out. Sometimes he’d be the Monster, sometimes I’d be the Monster. 'Rraawwrr!' 'No!No! Back! Back!' We really had fun, we were like a couple of kids."

But it wasn't all fun. As with any project, when two minds - and especially two very talented minds - try to meld, there will be some differences of creative ideas. The biggest conflict was, perhaps not surprisingly, about what is probably the most memorable scene in the finished film.

"I thought it would be a wonderful theatrical experience for the audience to see the monster and me dancing as a test of how far I had, as Dr. Frankenstein, brought the Monster along towards sophistication," Wilder said. "I thought Mel would burst into tears when he read it – especially Irving Berlin and top hat and tails."

Wilder recalled Brooks' response to his "wonderful" idea: "'Are you crazy?' [he said]. 'What kind of a conceit is this? The audacity! You're gonna have all of our work go down the drain with dancing and putting on a show like we're doing some musical?'"

"I fought Gene down to the mat," Brooks said. "I thought it was too frivolous. I thought it was too crazy. I didn't think it would work. When we came up with it, I said this tears the picture. It's much too unreal. There's no way that Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster are going to be able to perform a musical number, especially Irving Berlin's Putting on the Ritz. I mean, it was ridiculous."

"I was close to rage and tears," Wilder said. "I argued the ins and outs of why it was not a conceit but it was valid. I had turned from red to purple. And right in mid-sentence Mel says, 'OK, it's in.'

"I didn't know if he was joking or not. And I said, 'What do you mean?' He says, 'It's in.' [And I said,] 'Why did you put me through this?' And he said, 'I wasn't sure if it was right brilliant and right, or terribly wrong. I didn't know and I wanted to see how hard you'd fight for it. And I knew if you fought hard enough, it was right. 'You did, so it's in.' It was never mentioned again."

In the DVD commentary track, Brooks added, "It's amazing that Gene understood the showbiz aspect – where science meets showbiz. That's what we have in this scene. It's amazing... and it worked."

At this point, producer Michael Gruskoff came on board. Years later, Gruskoff also produced My Favorite Year, another Chef du Cinema pick, which was based on Brooks' early years working in television with Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows. (Use link to see my post for more info on this.)

With Medavoy's clients Peter Boyle signed to play the Monster and Marty Feldman as Igor, Brooks started filling in the other parts. Madeline Kahn, who had just worked with Brooks and Wilder in Blazing Saddles, was their choice to play Dr. Frankenstein's assistant, Inga, but she turned them down, and instead said she wanted to play the smaller role of Elizabeth, the Doctor's fiancée.

"I thought she must be nuts," Wilder said, "because I thought the lab assistant was a much better part. Well, it was – until Madeline put her own stamp on my fiancée."

Meanwhile, a young relatively unknown had read for the part of the fiancée - Teri Garr.

"She was actually a friend of my ex-wife's," Gruskoff recalled. "I said, 'Mel, you should see this. She was a dancer. You should meet this person.'"

Garr recalled over 500 women had read for the both female parts. And while she had done well enough to be called back for the fiancée, she assumed when Kahn signed on for the role she'd auditioned for that was the end of it.

But, she explained, "Mel said... 'You can try out for the part of Inga, the assistant. Come in tomorrow, but you have to speak with a German accent.' Luckily, I was doing The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour Show at the same time, and... Cher’s wigmaker was a German woman. I spent three or four hours talking with her, and the next day I had it."

"[She] walked in and read, with a German accent the lab assistant, and then that became really a major part," Wilder remembered. "I thought it was a good part, but I didn't know it was gonna be such a good part."

As these things happen, there was another member of the Garr family who would work on the film, Teri's mother Phyllis. "She was our wardrobe mistress, and she was very proud to have her daughter [in it]," noted Brooks.

The late, great Kenneth Mars recalled the "tough" audition he had to get the role of Inspector Kemp. Brooks called him on the phone, “And he said, 'Lemme ask you this - If you're wearing an eye patch, and you've got a monocle on top of the eye patch, is that too much?' I said, 'Of course not.' So he said, 'Good, you're hired.'

Mars' character was a riff on Lionel Atwell's character, Inspector Krogh, in Son of Frankenstein.

Brooks recalled that it was Cloris Leachman's idea to add the wart, but once accidentally ate it. "[It] fell in her tuna-fish salad and was swallowed in a glob of mayonnaise." Of her performance, he said, she "played her whole body as an instrument.... [She] was very upset in these scenes, because often she'd do things that were hysterically funny and Gene couldn't help himself [from laughing]. I couldn't blame him because it was hard for me – but I had a handkerchief stuck in my mouth – but Gene was in the scene with her... And when Gene would break up, she'd say, 'No! Please! That's was best take! What did you do?!' Anyways, we always got something remarkable, and actors always think that they've lost some gold if somebody laughs. But we haven't. We get the gold right back."

I should take a moment to honor the amazing performance Boyle did in the movie. That he wasn't nominated for an Oscar is a crime.

"Peter had a difficult and special problem," Brooks recalled. "As the Monster, he had to wear extremely complicated make-up, which limited his facial expressions, and on top of that, he had to try to look like the walking dead. Also, he wasn’t allowed to speak. For 90 percent of the time, his speech consisted of 'Hmmmmmmmmmmm!' But Peter managed wonderfully to communicate the love, fear, wonder and astonishment of a seven-and-a-half-foot newborn baby having his first experiences of the world."

Wilder noted, "When [Peter] started doing his little [whimpering sound]. Catching butterflies – that was his idea – to catch butterflies, it brought the part to life. I think that this cast was blessed in a way I don't say blessed by God, but blessed by something... because everyone found themselves."

Boyle, himself, once described the Monster as “a loving, tender, sweetheart of a guy. Just misunderstood.”

And of Marty Feldman, Brooks said, "First, I tried to find out where he was looking. His eyes stare in about 19 different directions. They look like hard-boiled eggs that somebody painted eyeballs on and didn't paint them on right. So first I'd get in the path of his vision and try to signal him down. Then I'd say, 'Marty, be very good.' He'd say, 'All right.' And he was. After Marty, there will never be another Igor. They'll have to retire the part. He's it."

Initially, Columbia Pictures was going to make the film, but there were two stumbling blocks. One, according to Gruskoff, "Columbia said they couldn't sell black and white movies in Europe. You have to do everything in color. But Mel wanted to have that edge. That little scary black & white edge."

Brooks believed, “It would be a sin to make a Frankenstein film in color.”

The other issue was, was that Columbia thought the budget was too rich for how much profit they believed the picture could take in. So Brooks and Gruskoff took it over to 20th Century Fox where they got their budget and, begrudgingly, also got to shoot it in black & white.

And with the ability to shoot in black & white, Brooks wanted not only to recreate (and satirize) the look of the original Frankenstein films, but it offered him a chance to "borrow" from some of his favorite directors.

"I took some Murnau and Fritz Lang liberties in the close-ups and the lighting," Brooks noted. "Since it was set in Transylvania, I decided to do a little German Expressionistic type of early 30's camera work, [like] M or Nosferatu, I always adored Lang... and Murnau."

Cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld said he is often asked is how did they get Boyle's head to glow when the electricity is shot through him. Make-up artist William Tuttle, he explained, "made up a plastic head of Peter Boyle as the monster, hollow, and I had a 60-watt bulb in the middle of it. So as he was coming to life, the electrician would crank up the bulb and the head pulsed."

But the biggest "problem" during production, as noted above, was that everyone couldn't help laughing while they were making the film which forced them to often shoot many, many takes of nearly every scene. Even Hirschfeld's camera operator ruined takes because he'd start laughing and shake the camera.

But, as Brooks explains below, there's always more than humor going on in a comedy. In one interview, he spoke of a subtext of "womb envy," in that the Doctor is a man trying to make a baby without a woman. Mind you, that interview was for Playboy magazine.

But Brooks has also noted that the story “deals with the ignorant versus the intelligent.... The story of Dr. Frankenstein addresses itself to the fear quotient. The Monster is just symbolic of the mind - and the mob hates his mind. They hate his imagination.”

"The monster is what people who are afraid of intelligence think intelligence would look like if it were a person," he said elsewhere.

And in another interview, he said, "Underneath the comedy of Young Frankenstein, the doctor is undertaking the quest to defeat death – to challenge God. Our monster lives, therefore he wants love too. He's really very touching in his lonely misery."

"So the movie," he said on the DVD commentary track, "is just as emotional as it is funny and that's why it's lasted so long, because emotion does count. Movies just can't be rat-ta-tat-tat, silly, funny. They have to have some human basis for the humor... The film always made me well up instead of applaud or laugh. I always felt very emotional, close to tears in the end."

And so, we'll end with one last quote from Mr. Brooks: "It's one of the funniest, scariest, best times you'll ever have watching a movie. And if you want your money back, you didn't hear it from me."

Wilder and Brooks were nominated for Oscars for their screenplay, and both Leachman and Kahn were nominated for Golden Globes. In 2003, it was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Brooks adapted the movie into a musical in 2007 which was on Broadway for just over a year.


One of the coolest things about Young Frankenstein is that Brooks was able find and use the original electrostatic machines created for and used by James Whale in his Frankenstein movies. These machines were created by a former carnival electrician named Kenneth Strickfaden.

"[He] was the genius who created all this [stuff]," Brooks stated. "And we found Kenneth Strickfaden, and we found all his stuff in his garage. We asked him if we could put it into [our movie]... and he set it all up for us."

"I remember going along with Mel on the scouting trip and we went to Strickfaden's garage and all the equipment was sitting there from the original Frankenstein," recalled Young Frankenstein cinematographer Gerry Hirschfeld. "And I just looked at this in awe and wonder and amazement. He came on the set whenever we were doing the lab. He was there all the time. Not only did he bring his old equipment and keep it running properly, but he was designing new things at the same time."

The following is from the description to the biography Kenneth Strickfaden, Dr. Frankenstein's Electrician, by Harry Goldman. I thought it a good, quick introduction to Mr. Strickfaden:

"Kenneth Strickfaden, innovative genius of illusionary special effects from silent films to the age of television, set the standard for Hollywood’s mad scientists. Strickfaden created the science fiction apparatus in more than 100 motion picture films and television programs, from 1931’s Frankenstein to the Wizard of Oz and The Mask of Fu Manchu to television’s The Munsters. The skilled technician, known around Hollywood’s back lots as “Mr. Electric,” once doubled for Boris Karloff in a dangerous scene and was nearly electrocuted. From his birth in 1896 to his death in 1984, Strickfaden’s life was filled with adventure. He spent his early years working the amusement parks on both coasts, served overseas as a Marine during World War I, took a 1919 cross-country trip in a dilapidated Model T, and favored risky pursuits like automobile and speedboat racing. He worked as an aeronautical mechanic, constructing airplanes for an historic around-the-world flight. A science teacher at heart, he gave 1,500 traveling science demonstration lectures across the U.S. and Canada."

Below is a video featuring film historian/critic Leonard Maltin talking about Strickfaden on television, back in the 1990's, when Strickfaden's machines were going to the auction block.

And here's another video on Strickfaden's machines, specifically on their use in the old movie serials. (See my Raiders of the Lost Ark post for more info on movie serials.)

If you'd like to see some recent photos of Strickfadden's equipment that were used in both Frankenstein and Young Frankenstein, there are some photos posted here.


Igor: "What is this?"
The Doctor: "Schwartzwälder Kirschtorte."
The Monster: [off-screen] "MMMMMMM!"
The Doctor: "Oh, do you like it? I'm not partial to desserts myself, but this is excellent."

If you've been following this blog, oh how you know how much I hate baking. But once again - for you folks - I'm throwing caution (and flour) into the wind and trying my best. It's not so much I hate baking as I am terrified of it. So I guess that's appropriate for this year's Halloween selection.

And what a nightmare this was. I tried several recipes and could not get the cake to come out right from scratch. So, I scratched that and made it easier for all of us and simply used a boxed cake mix. If you're someone who has success in baking, go try your hand at making the cake from scratch. Me, I've got movies to watch....

So, the Schwartzwäld is the Black Forest of southwest Germany, and there they make Schwartzwälder Kirschwasser, the cherry flavored brandy that is the key ingredient to the cake. Travel guru Rick Steves describes the area as, "A mix of Edenism and hedonism, the Black Forest is popular with German holiday-goers and tourists looking for serious R&R, clean air, cuckoo clocks, countless hiking possibilities and chocolate cakes layered with cherries and drenched in schnapps."

The locals ladies have, since the mid-1750's, worn a strange-looking hat called a Bollenhut, which some (though we don't have any direct proof) believe to have inspired the look of the Black Forest cherry cake.

Why is it called a torte and not a cake in German? Because "torte" in German means cake.

Now there are several theories or claims to the invention of the cake. One is a chef named Josef Keller who supposedly created it around 1915. The other is chef Erwin Hildenbrand, who might have created it in 1930.

Whoever first created it, it first appeared in cookbooks in the 1930's and quickly became one of the most beloved cakes in Germany and then in England and America.

And for those who care about such details, according to the author of this article: "Some claim that the traditional black forest cake has only two layers for an easy black forest cake, while others claim that you have to bake two layers and then cut each layer so that you have three layers with cherry filling. Similarly, some claim that it's best to use cherry pie filling and others claim that maraschino cherries are better."

Here in the USofA, we like the Schwartzwälder Kirschtorte so much, March 28th has been named "National Black Forest Cherry Cake Day" - though I'm not sure how you celebrate it other than eat some cake. Maybe you should make a Bollenhut and wear it to work. Send me a picture, please.

Okay, that's that then. As always... cook, watch, eat, and enjoy! (and Happy Halloween!!)

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cherry Cake)
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 12

1 box devil's food cake mix

For the Filling & Topping:
2 1/2 cups whipping cream, cold
1 envelope unflavored gelatin powder (¼ ounce)
water, for the gelatin
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sieved
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon Kirschwasser (cherry-flavored) Brandy

For Kirsch Syrup:
1 14.5-ounce can Red Tart Cherries in Water
2/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons Kirschwasser (cherry-flavored) Brandy

dark or semi-sweet chocolate, shaved
fresh, sour or maraschino cherries for garnish

Bake cake according to package directions in either one - or three separate - 9” round cake pans (evenly distributing batter). Let cool completely, then wrap in plastic wrap and put in refrigerator for at least 1 hour. (This can be made the night before.)

Soak gelatin in 3 tablespoons of cold water for 10 minutes then add 1 cup (minus 3 tablespoons) hot water. VERY IMPORTANT: Let gelatin cool to room temperature before continuing.

Meanwhile, open the can of cherries and drain liquid into measuring cup. You should have just about 2/3rd's cup liquid. Reserve cherries!

In a small pan, bring cherry liquid, sugar and Kirschwasser to boil, stirring constantly. When sugar is completely dissolved, continue on a low boil, stirring occasionally until reduced by half. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Set aside.

When gelatin is cooled, whip the cream until almost stiff, then slowly pour in the gelatin, and whip until completely stiff. Gently fold in sugar, Kirschwasser & vanilla. Put in refrigerator to set for 30 minutes.

If you used one cake pan, cut the cake into thirds with (unflavored) dental floss string or serrated-blade knife, set each segment carefully aside. (For instructions on how to do this, click here.)

Now, lightly brush the top of the bottom layer with some of the Kirschwasser syrup mix. Then, begin to spread or pipe some of the cream on the lower cake segment and layer the cherries on top of the cream. Cover with the middle cake layer pushing it down lightly. Repeat the syrup, cream and cherries placement on this segment. Then, cover with the top cake layer push down lightly and finish up the syrup, then pipe or spread the cream on top and the sides. garnish with Maraschino cherries and shaved dark chocolate. Garnish sides with shaved chocolate as well, refrigerate to firm up for about an hour. Serve.

Brookslyn, A Mel Brooks Fan Site
Young Frankenstein Screenplay
Peter Boyle Interview @ Archive of American Television
Article on Young Frankenstein in Castle of Frankenstein magazine from 1975 @ My Monster Memories
Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog
Kenneth Strickfaden @ TCM

Young Frankenstein DVD/Blu-Ray
Young Frankenstein: Dialogue & Music From Original Soundtrack
Kenneth Strickfaden, Dr. Frankenstein's Electrician, by Harry Goldman

No comments:

Post a Comment