Film Studies

Sex, 
Satire,
and the Myth of

FRANKENSTEIN

by Jennifer Eriksen

"Prometheus", 1935.  Photo by Arno Breker

Even though he is considered a structuralist, Claude Levi-Strauss' anthropological examination of myth also fits under the umbrella of cultural studies.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein fits Claude Lévi-Strauss’ definition of a myth as containing a timeless pattern: “it explains the present and the past as well as the future” (861). Lévi-Strauss states that his method does not require a “quest for the true version, or the earlier one” but it does require that “we define the myth as consisting of all its versions” (866). Therefore the myth of Frankenstein encompasses everything from Prometheus all the way to Brad Garrett.

Apple's Christmas commercial, 2016.

(Interesting bit of trivia-- Brad Garrett is perhaps most famous for playing the older brother, Robert Barone on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, where his father was played by the late, great Peter Boyle who starred as the monster in Young Frankenstein-- see pic below.) 

Photos from top down: Boris Karloff in James Whale's Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester in James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein,  Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, and Cloris Leachman in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, Madeline Kahn as the Bride in YF.

The mythic nature of Frankenstein becomes more apparent as it is repeated throughout culture, specifically film.  Many of our present day visual representations of the monster come from the James Whale films of the 1930's, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.  Even though these films deviate from the original novel, what remains true throughout the iterations and reiterations are what Levi-Strauss termed "mythemes"-- the most basic elements of myth.  Mythemes such as sterile marriage, absent mothers, and auto chthonian births can be seen across many film versions of Frankenstein, even those that seek to totally transform the tragedy into comedy, like Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.

The three female roles of Young Frankenstein serve to highlight both the growth and the structure of the myth. Frau Blucher, Inga, and Elizabeth all present repetitions of the mythemes of the absent mother and sterile marriage.

Frau Blucher is a parody of the old crone, mysteriously playing the violin in the hidden passageway and most memorably causing a horse to violently whinny whenever her name is mentioned. Her secret past comes to a thrilling climax when she hysterically declares of Frederick Frankenstein’s grandfather that “He was my boyfriend!”. Brooks’ mix of the modern term “boyfriend” with the high melodrama of the moment is the joke here, but it’s also something more—Frau Blucher has the title of a married woman “Frau” but Victor Frankenstein was not her husband. It’s also important that she doesn’t use the word “lover” here (although the scene builds in a way that this is the word we fill in for her, making “boyfriend” unexpected and therefore humorous) because that word implies a sexual union. We know that Frankenstein must have had children in order for Frederick to be his grandson, and yet they did not come from the union with Frau Blucher. She leads Frederick to the secret library and laboratory where the original monster was created, so we know she was involved instead in the autochthonian birth.

 
 
 
 

Inga serves a similar purpose. She is both Frederick Frankenstein’s assistant in the creation of his monster and from the moment she appears on screen (“Would you like a roll in the hay?”) a sexual temptation to him, one which he generally seems oblivious to preferring to remain faithful to the cold and chaste Elizabeth, his fiancée. When he and Inga finally do consummate their sexual relationship, it is upon the very slab where the monster was brought to life—a direct inversion of the autochthonian birth albeit with an unmarried couple.

 
 
 
 

Finally, Brooks takes the female roles of Elizabeth and The Bride and conflates them into a hilarious performance by Madeline Kahn. Her Elizabeth is betrothed to Frankenstein (or rather Frahnkenshteen) like the Elizabeth in the novel, and they have a similarly chaste relationship which Brooks exploits by turning Kahn into The Bride as she is sexually fulfilled by the monster. In this moment, the monster turns from menace to delight as their sexual union literally makes Elizabeth’s hair stand on end and she begins to sing, “Oh Sweet Mystery of Life!” Ironically, by yielding to sex with the “unnatural” monster, a product of autochthonian birth, Elizabeth discovers the “mystery of life.”

 
 
 

In his exploration into the fidelity debate in film studies, Matthew C. Brennan argues that Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein shares more with the novel Frankenstein than many previous (and yet to be made) film versions of Frankenstein have achieved. Brooks does this by achieving “a rich intertextuality with Frankenstein by assimilating its key themes,” namely parent-child relationships and psychological doubling (196). Brennan argues that by having Frederick Frankenstein stay and nurture his monster rather than abandoning him, Brooks is subverting the original text by truly turning tragedy into comedy. In the novel, Victor has a “psychological need to bring back his mother” by recreating the role “with the motherless monster” (197). However, he abandons his creation, and therefore his parental duties which brings about the tragic end. Brooks turns this tragedy into comedy by taking “Shelley’s motif of the absent mother and correct[ing] Victor’s parental flaw” (198). The next theme taken from the original novel is psychological doubling. Brooks’ parody does this in a very literal way, “To correct the creature’s abnormal brain, Frederick concocts an experiment that risks their lives but through which part of his brain transfers to the creature. Having accepted the monster as his own, unlike Victor, Frederick in effect corrects Victor’s flawed treatment of Shelley’s monster and demonstrates how nurture can overcome nature” (200). This correction of the psychic split continues to have positive results for all of the characters, creating two happy marriages in true comic, happy ending fashion.

Peter Boyle as the Monster and Madeline Kahn as the Bride in Young Frankenstein, 1974.