“These movies are meant to be watched in a theater full of laughter.”
Mel Brooks stands in front of the Young Frankenstein mural at 20th Century Fox.
I answered my phone early Labor Day morning. The voice on the other end was quick and full of energy. “Hello, Eric? It’s Mel Brooks. What can I do for you? Nothing personal, but I’ll tell you everything.”
When the greatest comedy director and writer of all time calls, you pay attention. And the reason the vibrant, 90-year-old living legend rang was to announce a special tribute to Gene Wilder, his friend and creative collaborator for more than 50 years who passed away in 2016 after a battle with Alzheimer’s. Brooks revealed that on Oct. 5, 2016, he would host a live screening of “Young Frankenstein,” the 1974 smash comedy the pair co-wrote, with Brooks directing and Wilder starring.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]These films are made to be watched in a theater full of laughter, he says.[/quote]
“The idea for the screening had actually been in the works for about six months,” Brooks said in an exclusive interview with GOOD. “After Gene died, they didn’t want it to seem like they were taking advantage. But it’s still going to be wonderful to see him in his most beautiful and magnificent performance. He was never better.”
The cast of Young Frankenstein. Image via 20th Century Fox.
Brooks said he would live-stream a 10-minute introduction to the film from the 20th Century Fox studio lot where he filmed “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles,” and some of his other classic films. Pausing briefly, Brooks said with tenderness in his voice that he would record the introduction in front of a mural on the Fox lot that shows Brooks directing Wilder in one of the film’s pivotal scenes. The introduction will be similar to an event in New York where Brooks hosted a screening of “Blazing Saddles” before a crowd of fans at Radio City Music Hall. However, in this case, his introduction is to be live-streamed into theaters across the U.S. “These films are made to be watched in a theater full of laughter,” he says.
Brooks isn’t concerned about his own legacy, impressive as it already is. Instead, he said he’s motivated to host screenings of his films to help ensure younger viewers are introduced to actors like Wilder and the genius of “Blazing Saddles” co-writer Richard Pryor. And with “Young Frankenstein” specifically, Brooks says it’s not just about his own film but honoring the memory of other classic films like “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” that inspired his and Wilder’s comedy. “I don’t want people to forget,” he said.
The celebration is being hosted by Fathom Events, a company that hosts theater screenings of classic films across the country. In 2016 alone, they’ve showcased more than a dozen movies like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Having attended past Fathom events, I can attest that seeing a classic film on the big screen is a hugely rewarding experience. Many of their screenings sell out, and the audiences are a mix of young and seasoned fans alike. “Comedies are not meant to be watched by a husband and a wife on their living room couch,” Brooks says with a laugh. “Where the husband says, ‘Oh, pause it, I gotta pee.’”
If you’re not familiar with “Young Frankenstein,” it’s an all-time classic that still holds up today. And its small cast is absolutely packed with legendary talent, including co-stars Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman. “The Monster” is played by Peter Boyle, who is best known to modern audiences for playing Frank Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” And even Gene Hackman appears in a brilliant cameo that’s too good to spoil.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]He saved me from a blunder and a huge mistake.[/quote]
During his introduction to “Blazing Saddles,” Brooks revealed how he edited one of that film’s best scenes — a romantic interlude between Madeline Kahn and Cleavon Little. I asked him if there were any similar moments in “Young Frankenstein,” and Brooks shared how he actually tried to convince Wilder to drop what ended up being the film’s most famous scene — where Dr. Frankenstein and his creature do a song and dance number that goes horribly wrong.
Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein. Image via 20th Century Fox.
“I told Gene that we should drop the ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz’ scene,” Brooks said. “We’re making this film as a tribute to director James Whale and I just thought the scene was too crazy. Gene convinced me to film it anyway and to decide later whether or not to keep it. Well, it turns out it’s the best thing in the movie. He saved me from a blunder and a huge mistake.”
While Brooks recently called “Blazing Saddles” the best comedy ever, he believes “Young Frankenstein” is his finest work as a director. However, the whole thing nearly fell apart after Wilder insisted they film it in black and white. “The studio had just given me $1.5 million, barely enough to make the movie,” Brooks said. “The producer Michael Gruskoff said, ‘You better tell them.’ So, on my way out of the big meeting, I open the door and yell back, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going make it in black and white!’ A hundred executives — like a herd of Jewish buffalos — stampeded after us!”
If the screening goes well, Brooks said he’d love to give the same treatment to some of his other films like “Spaceballs” and even “The Twelve Chairs,” one of his lesser known films that he’d like to introduce to a wider audience. “I’d like to show ‘High Anxiety,’” he added. “Nobody asks whether the next generation will relate to the Venus de Milo. When something is good, it holds up.”
And he also announced that next year he plans to revive the musical version of “Young Frankenstein” live on stage with Tony-winning director Susan Stroman, who staged Brooks’ “The Producers” during its record-shattering run in the 2000’s. Brooks even said he’s written new songs for the production.
As for today’s stars, Brooks laughed and said he was a big fan of Marvel’s “Deadpool.” “I thought Ryan Reynolds was so good,” Brooks said. “You could see the love he put into getting that made.”