Three reasons you won't laugh at "Young Frankenstein" after watching "Son of Frankenstein"

Ah, Young Frankenstein.  So zany, so Wilder, so Brooks.  A seminal work for Brooks (despite a rare absence from in front of the camera) because of the clarity and honesty of the comedy, and arguably his most beloved by my generation.

The film also serves to kick-start and define several of what will become Gene Wilder's signature motifs.  Here we see infidelity as kind of a good (and comedic) thing, a la The Woman in Red and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.  We also experience exactly one non sequitur musical number, as seen later in Haunted Honeymoon and Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother.

Now go watch the 1939's Son of Frankenstein.

Obviously, Young Frankenstein parodies large swathes of the classic horror genre.  But there can be little doubt that Son was the rubric for Young.

There is the neat little mustache on our hero.  There is the medical-expert descendant pooh-poohing his infamous ancestor's work with zombiism, who takes up the work within moments of seeing the castle and the cool lab.

But most interesting are the three following elements, which once you know their antecedents in Son of Frankenstein, you won't be able to stop thinking about their sickening implications, despite the jokes made in their names.

#1. What hump?

In Young Frankenstein, Igor is a "hunchback", loosely based on the character Fritz from the original Frankenstein, but later to evolve into his own multi-parented amalgam of images. Young Frankenstein's Igor is playing on the image that we all share, and Marty Feldman has big googley eyes, and the hump moves around, and we all think it's very funny.

The corresponding character in Son of Frankenstein is Ygor, played by a strangely blond Bela Lugosi.  Dracula and Frankenstein had been re-released as a double-feature in 1938, and our pals at Universal decided that Lugosi and Karloff together (albeit under a different director) could be dynamite.  So here we are.

Ygor is in fact deformed.  He walks with a lurch and with his shoulder up and his head to one side much like a hunchback.  But he is no such thing.

He looks the way he does because he survived his own lynching.  For graverobbing.

His neck was broken and mangled when the noose caught his plunge through the trap.  But he did not die.  He grew a beard and made friends with a monster to seek his revenge.

Every movement he makes uses nerves that still function despite being crushed between gnarled, eastern European vertebrae.  Every movement that he makes, that he's able to still make, causes him pain.  And that pain reminds him that everyone that lives in the town where he lives tried to kill him.  Just because he was trying to make some spare money by recycling the recently departed for the good of science.

#2. This is the twentieth century, Kemp. Monsters are passe, like ghosts and goblins.

Young Frankenstein's Inspector Kemp has the eyepatch with the monocle and the impenetrable accent.  But what we all remember the most is that crazy mechanical arm that is never explained.

Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein explains it.
I was but a child at the time, about the age of your own son. The monster had escaped and was ravaging the countryside...killing, maiming, terrorising. One night, he burst into our house. My father took a gun and fired at him... but the savage brute sent him crashing to a corner. Then he grabbed me by the arm. One doesn't easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots. No, I... My lifelong ambition was to have been a soldier. But for this... I, who command seven gendarmes in a little mountain village... might have been a general.

Ha ha!  So behind Kemp's hilarious cigar-lighting gag in Young Frankenstein lies the image of a child's arm being torn off its body.  How droll.

Interestingly enough, the idea of keeping spare darts stuck in the false arm was lifted unaltered from Son of Frankenstein.  But Inspector Krogh is not making a joke when he does this.  He is trying to constantly remind the new Baron of the consequences of tampering in God's domain.  The darts are arrows pointing down at how bad and how serious his kind of science can be.

#3. It reaches the soul when words are useless.

Freddy uses a violin melody to call and sedate the monster (accompanied by Igor) after it escapes.  Frau Blucher implies towards the end of the film that the tune has a supernatural connection to the members of the Frankenstein family and the legion creatures they make.

This motif's counterpart in Son of Frankenstein is also a clever plot device, but it is less hand-waved away.  Here, we see that in the years that Ygor spent alone with the monster, after the original Frankenstein but before his son, he was carefully plotting his revenge.  With Skinner-like specificity, he has conditioned the monster to commit murder when he hears particular melodies.

These melodies are played by Ygor on some traditional reeded instrument that can be heard throughout the valley, which allows Ygor to exact his revenge on the eight men who condemned him to his broken-necked life of pain and ostracism, while simultaneously providing him with an audible alibi for the times of the murders.

It's brilliant movie-making, because the first time watching the movie, you're completely surprised at the connection drawn between Ygor's suspicious behavior and the monster's strikes.

But the second time through, you know what the melody means, and you get a little sick every time you hear it played in the background of dialog or whatever innocuous little scene is happening.  You know that a few hills over, a seven-foot tall semi-decomposed electric zombie is crushing a burgomaster into Romanian salsa, for the simple crime of prosecuting a criminal.

In conclusion

Obviously, Wilder and Brooks are making these juxtapositions intentionally.  Their talent, one could argue, for all of their careers, is being able to turn really painful concepts into comedy.

But I don't think modern audiences understand the references that are being made.  In Young Frankenstein, we have a case where the subtlety of the humor works against it.  And we have a case in Son of Frankenstein where the quality of the storytelling makes parody very difficult indeed.

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