Movie Review – Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein (1974)
Written by Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks
Directed by Mel Brooks

Comedy films aren’t really known for their cinematography. Typically they are notable for set pieces or dialogue, which does make sense. Comedy is an intricately constructed thing when done right. However, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder didn’t just want to make another comedy. They specifically wanted to make a comedy and an authentic tribute to a film from their childhoods that they loved. The result is one of the best-looking comedies ever made with a mix of techniques found in the 1930s and what would have been more contemporary blocking from the 1970s. Young Frankenstein may be the best comedy ever because it nails the visuals and is still uproariously funny.

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Movie Review – Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles (1974)
Written by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Al Uger
Directed by Mel Brooks

There is a statement on Twitter from right-wing ideologies that due to the fabricated idea of “cancel culture,” a film like Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today. I am confident that anyone saying that hasn’t ever watched the movie or their viewing was when they were a child, and they’ve forgotten most of it. Blazing Saddles may not be able to be made today, not because we are more sensitive to racism, but rather because the system responsible for making movies doesn’t want to produce anything that will elicit genuine emotion from their audiences anymore. Blazing Saddles is one of the strongest anti-racist films I’ve ever seen, one that centers on the experiences of its Black protagonist and doesn’t pull punches on showing the white establishment as complete assholes.

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Movie Review -Funny About Love

Funny About Love (1990, dir. Leonard Nimoy)


There was a kind of movie made in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s that grates on me. These films were usually set in New York City and focused on a wealthy white person experiencing some mid-life crisis or first world problem. The soundtracks were bouncy and goofy in the beginning and then when some maudlin moment occurred, they would switch to a mournful and grating harmonica to underscore the wistful turmoil. Of course, the films would ensure a happy ending for their already entitled protagonist leaving the audience with little to nothing to think about. These films have evolved over the years now star actors fishing for dollars apparently. They are films made by directors like Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated) or Charles Shyer (Father of the Bride). They are not intentionally offensive movies, but their whitewashed landscapes and conflict based on economic lives that are living at the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy ring incredibly false. Funny About Love is one of those films.

I can’t say what possessed Wilder to take this role. He has chemistry with Christine Lahti, but the material he is given to work with is horrendous. In comedy, it is important to establish the tone you are going for early on. Audiences want to know if this will be a light comedy, cerebral, dark, etc. Funny About Love veers back and forth through its interminable one hour and forty-seven minutes. There is the soft, playful banter between our co-stars which signals a light, romantic tone. Twenty minutes later a character is crushed by a falling stove, and this is played for laughs? The film is based on an article from Esquire titled “Convention for the Love Goddesses” where writer Bob Green gives a speech at a sorority convention. That does happen in the film, the third act for about 15 minutes. I strongly suspect we are dealing with a script that was butchered, reshaped, and revised by studio executives. The impetus of the plot revolves around having children and with the style of the film’s poster I suspect Look Who’s Talking had an influence on the film’s direction. While we remember Leonard Nimoy’s passing as the man who played Spock, we must also acknowledge the incredibly terrible films he made outside of the Star Trek franchise, this being chief among them.

There is no reason to dwell on this particular film; it does not merit much study or discussion. However, due to it being the second to last Wilder feature film, we can use it as a point of meditation. How did Gene Wilder go from being in the golden era of Mel Brooks and commanding a very charismatic leading man performance in films like Silver Streak to a procession of milquetoast WASP-y duds? There was a moment in the late 1970s/early 1980s where his career took this turn. Post-Silver Streak, his films had middling success, Stir Crazy was the one box office success in a sea of bombs. I suppose it could just be an instance where an artistic eye and mind change over time, influenced by the movie business, encouraged to make decisions because of the prodding of others.

Wilder’s final theatrical film, Another You which I reviewed here, is such a horrible period on the sentence of Wilder’s career. It was likely a good thing he began to fade from the spotlight at this time. He’d do a single-season run of an NBC sitcom in the 90s, Something Wilder, which I nostalgically remember with positive vibes but suspect I’d hate if revisited. When he passed, Wilder was talked about in the context of Willy Wonka and Young Frankenstein. We have a remarkable penchant to cling to the positive images of those film faces from our past. And that’s a good thing. The worst of Wilder’s career has been forgotten, the only drug out occasionally by people like me, but then to quickly fade from memory again. It is better that we hold with fondness our memories of Wonka and Dr. Frankenstein because that is the Gene we love.

Movie Review – Haunted Honeymoon

Haunted Honeymoon (1986, dir. Gene Wilder)


Larry Abbot (Wilder) is a famous radio actor and heads to his family’s palatial estate in upstate New York for his wedding to Vicki (Gilda Radner). Larry has been plagued by strange speech problems and goes into fugue states upon hearing certain words. His Uncle Paul has an idea for radical therapy where he will scare Larry into being cured. However, there is a werewolf stalking the property and a murderous conspiracy afoot.

Haunted Honeymoon starts with quite a bit of potential. The tone set by the music and the introduction to the mansion is very reminiscent of Young Frankenstein. We’re teased with some interesting horror and mystery, but then the plot kicks in. The story of Haunted Honeymoon is so overly convoluted and unfunny that the film falls apart within moments. There is the plot thread of Larry’s psychological ailments, a conspiracy to get control of the matriarch’s will, a werewolf stalking the grounds, a mesmerizing magician, Larry’s ex-girlfriend showing up as his cousin’s new girlfriend, the impending wedding of Larry and Pearl and those are just a few. At one point, as members of the family begin arriving there is little to no formal introduction to who these people are and how they are connected so the narrative crumbles. It gets even more confusing when Larry’s therapy begins, and it’s not made clear what’s the therapy and what is part of the murderous conspiracy.

Wilder and Radner’s personal love story seems to be the engine for the film, but it is just not enough to make the movie entertaining. In retrospect, the film is quite sad because the chemistry between the two is apparent. Jonathan Pryce stars as the cousin and does a fine job; he’s one of those actors that always seems to do well. The standout of the cast is Bryan Pringle as the family’s drunk butler. His interactions with Wilder are the closest the film gets to actual comedy. The film has an overall feel of a movie out of the 1940s and attempts that style of comedy but it never quite hits. The only moment that captures the clever physical comedy of the era involves Wilder pretending to own the legs of a person he has knocked unconscious, very apparently inspired by Charlie Chaplin.

The film also highlights a major problem Wilder has in the majority of the films he writes and directs (his work as the writer of Young Frankenstein not included), a lack of firm conclusions. Haunted Honeymoon, much like The Woman in Red, just sort of ends. But even worse than The Woman in Red’s utterly disrespectfully unfunny ending, Haunted Honeymoon doesn’t know how to end itself, so it pulls a “Gotcha! We were just joking”. Then the finale is topped off with a final scene that leaves the audience scratching its head and wondering what the hell the point of all this was.

Gilda would pass away two years later. Wilder’s life during this time was focused solely on her care, and there were no films made until 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil. It began to feel like Wilder just didn’t have many films left in him. Between Gilda’s death and poor reception of his films, he was becoming more and more disenfranchised with the industry. He would make two more movies, never directing another: Funny About Love and Another You. Next time, we’ll look at Funny About Love.

Movie Review – The Woman in Red

The Woman in Red (1984, dir. Gene Wilder)


Teddy Pierce (Gene Wilder) begins the film standing on a ledge, just outside a window. Through voiceover, he takes us back to his fateful meeting with the Woman in Red (Kelly LeBrock) and how it led him to this place. He was a faithful husband and a doting father, comfortable in his job as an advertising executive. At first, Teddy’s gestures towards The Woman are scrambled around, and co-worker believes they are aimed at her (Gilda Radner). When the relationship finally does get off the ground, it becomes a series of lies and comically awkward scenarios where Teddy tries to dodge and mislead his wife (Judith Ivey).

One of the biggest wrinkles for me as I watched this film was the way Teddy’s infidelity was played for laughs. I can’t imagine this film being made today without some genuine pathos being written in for Teddy’s wife. There is a single moment in the third act that seems slapped in to handle any dislike the audience had for our protagonist, but it didn’t make me feel that he was justified in any way. I kept thinking about the culture Mad Men depicted and how this felt like the last vestiges of that, crumbling away in the early 1980s. Teddy has a cohort of buddies (Charles Grodin, Joseph Bologna, and Michael Huddleston) he pals around with and engages in raucous pranks on unsuspecting people. It appears that the intent was to make us think this was cute. Instead, it comes across as obnoxious and beneath characters that are supposed to be grown, professional men.

Despite the odd dismissiveness of the wife’s feelings, there are some moments of real consequence for side characters. Joseph Bologna’s character is notorious for his infidelities and early on in the film his wife leaves him. It feels like this will be handled seriously, as a counterpoint to what Teddy is contemplating. But then the film undercuts this plot halfway through, and it leaves Bologna’s character as having learned nothing from the ordeal. These are not “manly-men” per se though; they are a type of “fraternity of men” in their dynamic. So it shocked me that around the halfway mark it is very subtly and very honestly revealed that Charles Grodin’s character is gay. The words “gay” or “homosexual” are never spoken, the rest of the guys never rib him about it and the fact is just something they all knew and accepted. Grodin’s partner learns he’s been cheating on him and leaves their home. Grodin has a very real, emotional moment contemplating how his philandering has affected his life. For 1984, I was honestly shocked that a gay relationship was shown with such acceptance.

Wilder adapted the film from a French picture titled Pardon Man Affaire but infuses it with the Wilder tropes (red-faced hysterics, sad puppy-faced mugging, bawdy nebbish-ness). It just doesn’t work in the end. Reflecting on the films Wilder directed (Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, and this) it becomes a parade of diminishing returns. His work has moments of brilliance, but as a whole, they are muddled, confusing, and rarely funny. It’s clear to me Wilder has a very distinct point of view throughout his work, it is just messy and meandering. The one bright spot in The Woman in Red is Gilda Radner in a nearly wordless performance as a co-worker who mistakenly believes Teddy is after an affair with her. Where in Hanky Panky she is cast as “generic female supporting character” here she is allowed to flex her comedy and acting chops, proving what a great talent she was just with her face.

At this point in his career, Wilder has settled into the role of the WASP-y milquetoast, and it is clear that his greatest performances were behind him. He would direct one more film, though, Haunted Honeymoon, which is what I’ll be reviewing next time.

Movie Review – Hanky Panky

Hanky Panky (1982, dir. Sidney Poitier)


A Chicago architect named….(wait for it) Michael Jordan (Gene Wilder) is headed back to his hotel after brokering a deal in New York City when a woman on the run from a couple menacing fellows stumbles in. He quickly becomes involved in an international game of spies and espionage. He gets help from a reporter (Gilda Radner), and the two go on the run after Jordan is framed for murder.

Much like I felt about Poitier’s previous Gene Wilder venture, Stir Crazy, this movie is an utter failure as a comedy. And it’s not too great of an action/thriller film either. The MacGuffin that drives the whole plot is very confusing and unclear, and even at the end, I was still trying to figure out what the big deal was. Things start out interesting enough. A mysterious man wakes up, disoriented, sees a strange painting of a Southwestern landscape on his bedroom wall and proceeds to hang himself. It’s a pretty intense hook. Then we move to Kathleen Quinlan as the woman whose path crosses Jordan’s. She is playing it straight, which is perfect for an action comedy. The comedy comes from moments in the story but the story itself takes things seriously.

I kept thinking back to how good Silver Streak was, how it balanced genuine situational comedy with a legitimately exciting and interesting conspiracy story. Lots of things happen in Hanky Panky and the two leads go to lots of locations, but it never feels like it amounts to anything. It is a lot tighter in its structure then Stir Crazy but still misses the mark on the actual comedy. There’re some instances of Wilder’s trademark outbursts, but they hit too frequently and don’t feel appropriate for the scenes.

The strangest thing to me throughout the whole production was how underused Gilda Radner was. She was known for being a very high energy comedic talent, and she is a fine actor. They just never give her anything to play off of or do other than eventually become the damsel in distress. I got similar feelings from when I see Kristen Wiig in certain productions that seem to ignore her comedic talents.

As far as Wilder’s career, this was near the point where it was beginning to slow down regarding hits or highly memorable work. From interviews I’ve read, he seemed to be a particular actor, so I assume he was looking more at films that interested him rather than would do well. He also began his relationship with Gilda Radner at this point. We’ll see the pair again in his next film, The Woman in Red as well as Haunted Honeymoon. I’ll be posting about both of them very soon.

Movie Review – The World’s Greatest Lover

The World’s Greatest Lover (1977, dir. Gene Wilder)


Rudolph Valentino is the sex symbol of the century! Rainbow Pictures executive Adolph Zitz (Dom DeLuise) is furious over Valentino and Paramount Pictures’ success. He strikes upon an idea: hold a contest for The World’s Greatest Lover, a man who they will make into the new star of the ages and get the female moviegoers to forget about Valentino. Cue Rudy Valentine (Gene Wilder), a man incapable of holding down a job due to his nervous tic of sticking out his tongue when he’s nervous. Rudy and newlywed bride Annie (Carol Kane) travel from Milwaukee to Los Angeles for his chance to become a star. A wedge is driven between the couple after they arrive and mishap piles upon disaster to impede Rudy from reaching his goal.

From the opening scene of The World’s Greatest Lover, I was laughing. And the laughs came pretty consistently throughout, probably the funniest of the Wilder films I’ve watched in this batch so far. There is the playing up of Wilder’s manic rage for comedy. And while in some films it befits this character, in this one it is the perfect tone to take. The absurdity of Wilder competing with Valentino is apparent off the bat, but having the character be so arrogantly assured of himself makes it that much funnier. It also doesn’t hurt that here, like in Silver Streak, Wilder is so naturally damn charming.

On the same level as Wilder in the picture are DeLuise and Kane. I can’t say I saw too much of DeLuise’s work in the past, but he just brings such a massive level of energy to his performances that it overwhelms you. He has got to be one of the better blowhards I’ve ever seen in a film. Much like Wilder, the sort of manic switch from furious to inviting creates a wonderfully tense comedy in each scene. Kane is unlike anything I’ve seen her in before. If you’re more familiar with her later work (The Addams Family, Kimmy Schmidt) then you’ll be stunned by how demure and innocent she can play. You don’t question for a second why Rudy is in love with Annie, and you also don’t ask why she is falling out of love with him.

The World’s Greatest Love is not Wilder’s finest work. Regarding directing, it is an improvement on Sherlock Holmes. He feels very comfortable with large set pieces and manages to balance comedy and sentiment well. There are some moments where the plot goes off track and Wilder indulges in some scene he cooked up that isn’t necessarily essential. There is also a love of an older style of comedy from the 1920s and 30s that is being recreated in the 1970s and viewed in the 2010s may not translate.

This was Gene Wilder at his peak. He’d just made Silver Streak and was a full-fledged movie star at this point. From here on out his career would be a mixed bag with a lot of less than stellar vanity projects. The Frisco Kid with Harrison Ford would come in 1979, Stir Crazy in 1980, and then the big moment of his life: meeting Gilda Radner on Hanky Panky, which is what we’ll look at next time.

Movie Review – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975, dir. Gene Wilder)


England’s foreign secretary has a critical document stolen from his home. There’s only one person who can track it down, Sherlock Holmes, with his assistant Watson of course. However, Sherlock knows this case will be a bit more complicated than his typical work and assigns it to his oft-overlooked little brother, Sigerson (Gene Wilder). Sigerson teams with Scotland Yard’s records clerk Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman) to uncover the circumstances behind the theft. The trail appears to lead to Bessie Bellwood (Madeline Khan) who claims the foreign secretary is her father. Also involved and lurking in the shadows in the infamous Professor Moriarty (Leo McKern).

Coming off the massive success of Young Frankenstein, Wilder was able to write and direct Smarter Brother. He brought Marty Feldman and Madeline Khan back into the mix, and it’s pretty obvious there’s an attempt to recreate the magic of Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. The film most definitely does not achieve that, but it isn’t a complete failure. There are some genuine laughs, and the plot structure holds up well. The comedy informs the plot which in turns let’s many jokes hit well. The problems arise in the form of the comedic tone. The script doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a farce of Sherlock Holmes stories or a simple comedy-adventure. There are moments with exaggerated sight gags, but then more subtle wordplay humor. The comedy rules of the universe aren’t established as clearly as Young Frankenstein does in its opening moments.

Wilder is hitting his mark quite well; he has the charming personality with the moments of ridiculous outburst. He has a couple of set pieces that involve stunts on top of horse carriages and some good sword fighting. You can see the seeds of a film like Silver Streak being sewn with Wilder’s interest in living out the dashing hero trope. I was particularly impressed with Marty Feldman’s acting. I don’t have a considerable knowledge of his work beyond Young Frankenstein, but I didn’t expect the sort of quiet, sly character we get. The dynamic between Wilder and Feldman is developed further here with Feldman’s Sacker being the smarter of the pair and playing his quiet intelligence off of Wilder’s arrogant Sigerson. Madeline Khan delivers yet another force of nature comedic performance. While we have many strong female comedic actresses today, I don’t know too many who just have the sheer power that Khan brings again and again to every film. She seems like she was a very fearless actress who understood what made comedy funny at its core more than most.

Helping from the sidelines are McKern as a Moriarty with a strange nervous tic, Dom DeLuise as Gambetti the loud and boorish opera singer, and Roy Kinnear (Veruca Salt’s dad from Willy Wonka) as Moriarty’s always shat upon right hand. Everyone does well with what they are given, but like I said it doesn’t reach near the comedy heights as Young Frankenstein. One set piece does stand out as some brilliant writing from Wilder, a staging of Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera, translated into English by DeLuise’s Gambetti. The lines are sung in a very casual, informal, almost slang version of English undercutting the rich production design. “Let’s drink some sexy wine” becomes one of the key lines of the performance.

As far as the less notable Wilder films I’ve explored, this stands out as one of the better works. This gives me hope for The World’s Greatest Love, The Woman in Red, and Haunted Honeymoon, all directed by the man. Wilder’s next picture would be Silver Streak, but that would be followed up by The World’s Greatest Lover which has him playing an actor during the silent film era. And we’ll look at that, next time.

Movie Review: Start the Revolution Without Me

Start the Revolution Without Me (1970, dir. Bud Yorkin)


There was a certain genre of film in the late 1960s and early 1970s that eschewed plot for zany, madcap romps. This can be seen in films like the original Casino Royale, The Magic Christian, and to some extent, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. These are those decent budget films that just blow the roof off and have little to no narrative coherence. I can’t say with certainty, but I believe the writings of authors like Terry Southern and Tom Wolfe, the exploits of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and the over “swinging” nature of the 1960s fed into this anarchic strain of filmmaking. Another film that I believe had a strong influence on this particular picture was the 1963 picaresque Tom Jones, an adaptation of the novel and similar, albeit less farcical skewering of 19th European society and culture.

Start the Revolution begins with Orson Welles standing at a picturesque estate and detailing the events that led to the splitting two sets of identical twins between a common peasant and the Duke de Sisi of Corsica. The two sets of twins (one of each played by Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder) end up leading very different lives. Claude and Charles become reluctant members of the French Revolution while Philippe and Pierre are spoiled degenerate aristocrats. Through a series of ridiculous circumstances the twins switch roles with the peasants mistaken for their royal counterparts and bedding down in Versailles while the Corsican brothers are pushed into the midst of the revolution.

The premise isn’t an entirely original one with twins switching places and being mismatched, and there is a lot of fun story potential when you add in the setting. However, the humor never stretches beyond a certain hackneyed level of writing. The jokes are very obvious and not too clever with some bright spots. A royal dance at the palace highlights the treacherous nature of the royal court as everyone is exchanging notes about whom each other should discreetly assassinate or poison. The other rare moments of brilliance come from Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the utterly demented Corsican brother Philippe. It’s one of those performances where he amps up the manic rage, and it works well in the first act of the film until the focus shifts more heavily to the peasant brothers.

In the context of Wilder’s career, Start the Revolution comes very early on. At this point, he’d made his big screen debut in Bonnie and Clyde and The Producers. His performance in the latter film is what likely got him this part as his performance highlights the emotional outbursts Leo Bloom showcased. The same year he co-starred with Margot Kidder in the light comedy Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin the Bronx (a film that appears to be nigh impossible to find). In both Start the Revolution and Quackser, Wilder attempts English and Irish accents which do not work. With this being the early part of his career he was still searching for the types of roles he would feel comfortable with. He was intelligent enough to know accents were not his strong suit.

Wilder would go on to star as Willy Wonka in 1971, followed by a breakout role in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). A re-teaming with his Producers’ co-star Zero Mostel in Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros came next. The high point of his career (Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) took him from obscurity to stardom, with The Little Prince tossed in for good measure. This brings us to the film we’ll look at tomorrow: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.