Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Young Frankenstein: The True Story

In early 1975, I was winding down what would be my last year of high school at Columbia High, a few blocks from Main Street in downtown Columbia, South Carolina. Like Atlanta before it, Columbia had been burned by Sherman's army on its march to the sea. If you had asked me at the time, I would have suggested that Sherman should have done a more thorough job.

When Young Frankenstein opened at the Miracle Theater on Main Street, my brother and I went to a Saturday matinee showing. We had seen Blazing Saddles the year before, so we knew what to expect from a Mel Brooks film. Over the next several weeks, we saw Young Frankenstein more than a dozen times. On one of those occasions I even smuggled a cassette recorder into the theater, sat way down front and got the whole thing on tape.

I cannot explain what it was about this particular movie that captured my imagination. Whatever it was, going to see it so many times and listening to the tape until I could recite the dialogue verbatim was soon no longer enough for my brother and me. We came up with the idea of writing directly to Mel Brooks, care of United Artists, of my representing myself as the president of my high school drama club and explaining how much the club wanted to perform Young Frankenstein on stage.(1) Whatever we may have expected in reply, my brother and I certainly did not expect what arrived at our address a few weeks later.

Two packages arrived from Los Angeles, California: one of them was a tube that contained a full-sized movie poster of Young Frankenstein and the other was a manila envelope containing a short letter with United Artists letterhead signed by Mel Brooks, five 8X10 glossy photographs of Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman and Brooks, and a shooting script of the film, signed "Good luck! Mel Brooks".

Aside from the slight embarrassment at having misrepresented ourselves to such a famous man obviously generous enough to take the time and go to the trouble of sending two kids such a invaluable gift, my brother and I were ecstatic. We went to see the movie a few last times before it closed, feeling somewhat obliged to contribute to its box-office success. Then we used the tape I had made to match the scenes in the movie with the shooting script. We quickly discovered that there were many scenes in the script that had apparently been cut from the finished film. For example, there was an early scene in the shooting script that takes place in a lawyer's office where the will of Victor Frankenstein is read, and where pandemonium breaks out when everyone assembled there learns that the old man left everything to his grandson, Frederick. This scene is not in the film. In fact, the only thing close to it shows someone having to yank the will out of a dead man's shrivelled hands.

Along with these inconsistencies between the script and the film, we learned something about how scripts are written, with terms like "SCENE 25. EXT. DAY". Using the script as a model, my brother and I typed a second script that contained only those scenes in the film so I could follow the recording with the revised script in front of me.

But we also learned that a script can only give one the vaguest idea of what a film will look like when it is finished, and why it is also called a screenplay, since it consists almost entirely of dialogue and non-specific technical directions. It could have been adapted easily to the stage, if my brother and I had actually been associated with a drama club. But our association with Young Frankenstein went no further.

Later that year, my family picked up sticks and we all moved to Colorado. Since I had "failed to advance" at Columbia High, I talked my mother into letting me drop out rather than have to repeat the tenth grade. Making the Dean's List twice in my first year of college a year later gave me the sneaking suspicion that high school was a complete waste of time. My brother, three years older than I, had taken possession of our Young Frankenstein material and had gone his own way. When I asked him some time later what became of it, he broke the news that he had lost it when he was in a tight spot. Since it was a time of tight spots for a few other members of my family, I was not entirely surprised, however much I was sorry that the proof of our brief association with Mel Brooks was lost.

(1) Columbia High was a zoo and I do not believe there was any such thing as a drama club.

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