Madeline Kahn in “Young Frankenstein”
I am an avid Mel Brooks fan. “Silent Movie” is not only hilarious, but it is an amazing homage to the films of the Silent Era. I think his spoofs are hilarious, his comedic timing and writing is impeccable, and “Blazing Saddles” is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. Despite my fandom, I have never gotten around to seeing “Young Frankenstein”, a spoof of/homage to the story of Frankenstein and, to a lesser extent, Universal Monster movies. I have been a fan of Madeline Kahn since I watched her as Mrs. White in the film “Clue”. Something about her performance just made me laugh, her “flames on the side of my face” improvisation coupled with her impeccable timing made her a comedic gem in that movie. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress — for her role as Lili von Shtupp in “Blazing Saddles”. Madeline Kahn was a comedy legend. So, naturally, I was delighted to see her name coupled with what seems like the only Mel Brooks film I haven’t taken a look at.
Madeline Kahn’s character in “Young Frankenstein” is a woman named Elizabeth, the socialite fiancé of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. As Frederick leaves to get on his train to Transylvania, the audience gets their first glimpse of what Elizabeth is like as a character. And it is funny. The scene serves as an introduction to the character of Elizabeth as well as a spoof of the “goodbye in the train station” scenes that many, many old movies had in them. The camera pans to the two of them close together, Elizabeth clad head-to-toe in jewels and fancy dress, looking almost like a peacock with a woman’s head. She tells Frederick that she’ll “count the hours that he is away”, staring into his eyes with a lustful gaze that many female characters had back then. As Frederick moves in for a goodbye kiss, Elizabeth immediately moves back a little (without breaking her lustful gaze) and says “Not on the lips”. She explains that she is going to a party later and doesn’t want her lipstick to smear. The fact that Kahn never stopped staring at Wilder with her lustful eyes as she warns him about her lips shows us that the character Elizabeth is always subconsciously thinking about her appearance and how good she looks. These shenanigans continue as Elizabeth warns Frederick about touching her hair (“The hair! The hair! Just been set!”), her dress, and her nails — each time she warns him, it was because he was simply going in for a loving embrace to her. This is perfect because it shows the audience that Elizabeth does love Frederick, but she is more caught up in her appearance and socialite ways to truly devote herself to him.
Each time she stops to correct Frederick about her outfit or appearance, she stops speaking in that airy, femme fatale voice and beings talking in the voice of a regular upper-class woman. For example, when Frederick asks her if she loves him, she replies (in that film noir voice), “You bet your boots it does”. This is clearly paying homage to the slang of that time, but when she breaks that slang to chastise Frederick about touching her dress, putting stress on different words to sound almost like a valley girl (“No, the dress is taffeta! It wrinkles so easily”). As Frederick gets on the train to leave, Kahn wheels her body around to turn her back to him — doing so in an exaggerated fashion to spoof the females of the old films and their dramatics. One of the funniest parts in this scene, and one of the funniest parts about Kahn’s delivery, is when Frederick blows a kiss to Elizabeth. Kahn ducks to avoid the kiss, as if she were afraid it would ruin her look, and makes a face like someone just threw a diaper at her as she does it — and then immediately goes back to smiling and waving at Frederick. Madeline Kahn’s vocal and physical choices especially made me believe that she was her character.
Kahn plays this character almost like a stereotype of female characters in old films, which gives her comedic breaks in character much more weight. Elizabeth doesn’t make an appearance until about an hour and a half after her first appearance, towards the end of the film. Frederick receives a message from Frau Blucher (while he is in bed with Inga) that Elizabeth will be arriving any second. When she arrives, she awakes to find that she has been kidnapped by The Monster after it has escaped. As the creature stands above her, she wakes up and becomes frightened. The Monster then makes his plans to rape Elizabeth, as she pleads with The Monster not to — she’ll give him money, she is expecting a very important call at 11:30, etc. As The Monster drops his pants, we hear Kahn deliver, in my opinion, one of the funniest lines in the entire movie. The Monster’s pants go down, he exposes himself, and Elizabeth says in an exasperated voice, “Oh my god… Woof!” You can see Kahn’s eyes widen through her fear, showing the audience that even though she is afraid of The Monster, his package must be huge. As The Monster proceeds to rape Elizabeth, we discover that she is actually enjoying it. The Monster’s inhuman stamina, coupled with his huge package, make Elizabeth sing. Literally. Kahn starts bellowing an operatic song in her character’s ecstasy as The Monster proceeds to have sex with her. This is easily one of the funniest scenes in the entire movie, and credit must be given to Kahn for her impeccable comedic work. The film ends with Frederick marrying his lab assistant, and Elizabeth marrying The Monster, with her hair styled like that of the “Bride of Frankenstein”. Was her performance believable? Of course it was believable. As ludicrous as this performance was. Madeline Kahn gave it her absolute all and made me sincerely believe that she was Elizabeth. the wealthy socialite who falls in love with a monster.
Madeline Kahn only had a small role in this film, which is always a shame. It was probably because she was busy acting in “Blazing Saddles”, which was released the exact same year as “Young Frankenstein”. Kahn’s performance as Elizabeth in this film was mainly subtle at times, from the switching between voice types in the first scene, but could also be over-the-top as well — exemplified in the sex scene between her and The Monster. Whether it is in “Clue”, “Blazing Saddles”, “Young Frankenstein”, “Paper Moon”, or anything else, for that matter, Madeline Kahn will go down in history as one of the great cinematic treasures, and one of the great comedic icons of 70’s and 80’s cinema as well.