Gene Wilder: The Magnetic Blur

Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder / Illustration by Tom Sanford

[Article and illustration from Lowbrow Reader #6, 2008, and The Lowbrow Reader Reader book, 2012.]

The favored local video store’s copy of Young Frankenstein was scratched — this, we had discovered the hard way — and so my girlfriend and I, determined to spend the night under Marty Feldman’s deathly gaze, marched up the street to the second-choice shop. It’s a filthy little store of dubious legality, the kind of place that was supposedly gentrified out of Manhattan years ago. In addition to renting movies, it purports to sell low-end electronics, though the goods advertised in the window are nowhere to be found in the store itself. Mostly, its business lies in kung fu arcana and pornographic movies without female leads.

Somehow, the store’s Young Frankenstein DVD was out, so I asked the man working the counter — a storybook imbecile — whether he had a VHS copy. “Those are in back,” he said irritably, as if “back” was code-word for “Afghanistan” or “the South Pole.” An awkward silence ensued; finally, he sighed and embarked on his quest to the storage room.

The drunk idling by the counter recognized an opening to bother people and suddenly turned to me. “You look smart,” he said. “Are you Italian?”

“That is the first time that sentence has ever been spoken,” said my girlfriend, who is.

I told the man that I was not Italian. “You Jewish, then?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“You a doctor?”

“No.”

“Oh,” he said.

The three of us stood at the counter, waiting for the clerk to return with the movie. “Ya know, I saw the Clash once,” the drunk announced, assumingly in tribute to the Ramones song playing on the store’s radio.

“That must have been cool,” I said.

“Yup. I like rock & roll.”

Finally, the clerk returned to the counter clutching a battered VHS copy of Young Frankenstein. On the side of the box, somebody had written YOUNG FRANKENSTINE. “Here ya go,” he announced. “It costs $3.25 to buy.”

“Oh, I just want to rent it,” I said, handing him four dollars. “I’ll return it tomorrow.”

The clerk’s index finger punched something into the store’s prehistoric computer. Then, he handed me a quarter in change. “Didn’t you just say it was $3.25?” I asked.

The clerk grimaced. “It’s $3.25 to buy. Renting costs $3.75.”

“Wait — that means you’re paying people to not return the movie.”

“We’re getting rid of our VHS tapes.”

“I can see that,” I said. “But why would anybody pay more money to rent a movie than to buy one? That’s crazy! I could just buy it and throw the tape in the garbage after watching it.”

“You said you wanted to rent it,” the man huffed, aghast at the prospect of revising the invoice. “Now you’re saying you want to buy it?”

Accordingly, I now own a VHS copy of Young Frankenstein. Although I was essentially paid to purchase the movie, its permanent presence in my tiny apartment makes me feel profligate — a sentiment that has caused me to watch the movie repeatedly, as if this will somehow compensate for its cluttering extravagance.

I long admired Young Frankenstein but considered it second-tier Mel Brooks, on par with The Twelve Chairs and History of the World: Part I. Through my guilt-riddled repeat viewings, however, the monster movie’s quieter charms gradually made themselves known. Soon, a holy trinity of Mel Brooks — long obvious to most right-thinking people — gelled, in which the 1974 Frankenstein stands alongside the director’s masterpiece (Blazing Saddles, also, astoundingly, from 1974) and legacy (The Producers, 1968). All three movies differ in tone and sensibility, yet all are united by one very potent force: their star, Gene Wilder.

For a comic, Wilder has a presence that is humble and soft — a marked and crucial contrast to Brooks, whose directing style could be compared to a farting elephant with a camera. Like a point guard celebrated for assists, Wilder often seems eager to steer attention to a fellow performer. Thus we think of Zero Mostel’s blaring ogre in The Producers, Marty Feldman’s bug-eyed cretin in Young Frankenstein, and the director’s ensemble-driven bedlam (to say nothing of the dapper Richard Pryor stand-in Cleavon Little) in Blazing Saddles. Later, Wilder’s polished generosity made him seem the ideal foil for Pryor — a harsh screen presence if ever there was one — in a string of buddy movies.

As with so many great performers, the twinkle-eyed actor’s grace makes his job seem so easy that anyone thinks they can do it — even Matthew Broderick! One by one, Wilder’s classic performances are adapted by lesser luminaries: Brooks famously revisited The Producers in a Broadway smash, with Broderick in Wilder’s role; inevitably, that production spawned another movie, in 2005. That very year, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wilder’s berserk slab of children’s psychedelia from 1971, was remade, dreadfully, with Johnny Depp. And now, still basking in the green glow of his Producers musical, Brooks is bringing Young Frankenstein to Broadway. How long before a chorus of bean-eating cowboys alights the Great White Way?

As Wilder’s roles get expropriated and updated, you hold your breath, hoping the new versions will not drown out the original in history’s mind, knowing full well that they never could. Young Frankenstein, especially — a film that Wilder conceived and co-wrote with Brooks — is a tour de force of slight ticks and mannerisms that ultimately eclipse its grander monster-spoof premise. Good luck and good riddance to those comers who dare attempt to fill these shoes! I, for one, am proud to own a copy of the original; it’s well worth the money I was paid to buy it.

Lowbrow Reader #6, 2008. The article also appeared in The Lowbrow Reader Reader.