Last night I went to see Young Frankenstein at a local theater. Put out through Fathom Events, it was a tribute showing by Mel Brooks in honor of star Gene Wilder, who died suddenly just weeks ago.
I wondered, briefly, when they announced this showing, why they hadn’t chosen Blazing Saddles. Then I realized: this event was to be about Gene, and—as incredible a movie as Blazing Saddles is—it isn’t a Gene Wilder movie.
Young Frankenstein is.
Gene’s concept, Gene’s acting, all wrapped up in the direction of one of his closest friends, Mel Brooks.
As part of the experience, Mel Brooks himself did a live opening introduction of the film at Fox Studios, starting outside Stage 5, where the movie was shot, and finishing in the Darrel F. Zanuck Theater, where he addressed the assembled audience.
It was, clearly, an emotional event for Mel. He was, as he so often is, perfectly on top of his story-telling and comedic timing, but at his first mention of Gene Wilder on the set of Blazing Saddles, writing what would become Young Frankenstein, his mind darted off to another subject: himself, as he made the camera turn to see the back alley through which he was walking was called “Mel Brooks Blvd.”
That comedic genius of a mind was protecting itself in the best way it knew how: by trying to make people laugh.
Just like Gene.
Finally, inside the theater, as Mel was winding down his story telling (since Fathom Events only gives you “seven minutes to talk then they start the movie!”), you could see that the reality of the situation was affecting him.
As he strode up the aisle to the cheers of the audience, extolling them to laugh hard at the movie, you could almost feel his bottled up sadness at the loss of his friend. But, as he smiled like the consummate professional he is, I couldn’t help but feel as if he was on his way to a private room to cry briefly, to weep for the loss of Gene Wilder, his friend, before watching him bring Young Frankenstein back to life for today’s audiences.
Mel Brooks’ impact on comedy is immeasurable, as is his impact on film. Without Mel, the comedy/film landscape would be much different than the one we know today. But without such incredible talents as Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Terri Garr, and, of course, the incomparable Gene Wilder, Young Frankensteinwould never have become the film that it is. A masterpiece.
Mel Brooks knew this, and still knows it, and has said as much on several occasions. It is sad to think that we will find ourselves living all-too-soon in a world without Mel Brooks to make us laugh, to get together with his dearest friends and find a way to make us laugh at the world, at ourselves, and to realize that everything just might be okay in the end.
That is the genius of Mel Brooks, and on this night, we got to see a movie in which the entire cast seemed inexorably drawn to that same destination, that same goal.
And so, we laugh.
Because we can. Because we must.