Puttin’ On “Puttin’ On the Ritz": Remembering Gene Wilder

Twentieth Century Fox

The director of Young Frankenstein pays tribute to cocreator Wilder—who died in August—and remembers their one big fight.

In 1973, at the time when we were setting up Young Frankenstein, the hit movies were The Sting (a caper), The Way We Were (a romance), The Exorcist (a horror film). Not comedies. Personally, I hadn’t made a nickel for any studio. I made The Producers in 1968 and it got me an Academy Award for original screenplay, but it didn’t make any money. I made The Twelve Chairs in 1970, which made even less.

Blazing Saddles would be a hit in 1974, but that hadn’t come out yet. To the studios, I was just an interesting guy to meet for lunch.

Gene Wilder’s career was still building too, and he was not yet the household name he would become. He had played a small but critically acclaimed part in Bonnie and Clyde, been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Leo Bloom in The Producers, and begun to emerge in bigger roles in films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. At this point, neither one of us knew how much the events of the next 18 months would change our lives.

But let’s back up. There we were, in this Western town somewhere in the Antelope Valley in California, in the middle of making Blazing Saddles. I was yelling, “Action! Cut!” Gene was leaning back in the sheriff’s chair with his legs up on the desk, in his cowboy hat and his boots. He had a yellow legal pad, and he was writing and writing. I looked at the top of the legal pad, and it said, “Young Frankenstein.” I said to Gene, “What the hell is that?”

“I have this idea for a movie about Baron Frankenstein’s grandson,” Gene said to me. “He’s an uptight scientist who doesn’t believe any of that nonsense about bringing the dead back to life. Even though he is clinically a scientist, he is as crazy as any Frankenstein. It’s in his heart. It’s in his blood. It’s in the marrow of his bones. He can’t help it.”

“Sounds interesting,” I said. “What is your dream for this movie?”

“My dream is for you to write it with me and direct the movie,” Gene said.

I said, “Whoa, you got any money on you?”

“I have 57 dollars,” Gene said.

“It’s a beginning,” I said. “I’ll take it. I’ll take it as a down payment on writing and directing it with you.”

That very night, after shooting Blazing Saddles, I went over to Gene’s hotel, the Bel-Air, just to discuss, and we spent until five in the morning talking about the story line over Earl Grey tea and digestif biscuits. We talked about being very faithful to the tempo and the look of James Whale’s marvelous films Frankenstein from 1931 and Bride of Frankenstein from 1935.

Gene already had an eight-page treatment, and we quickly got into a rhythm of working. Each night, after I finished in the editing room on Blazing Saddles and had dinner with my wife, I’d go to Gene’s hotel. At the beginning, we just had the Whale movies, but we knew exactly where we were going. Gene wrote everything in pencil, on his yellow legal pads, which my secretary typed up the next day.


The author and Wilder, on set in 1974; Wilder and Boyle in the "Puttin' on the Ritz" scene. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

It was really a fierce, fierce collaboration, and we were devoted to our script. We had only one fight—and it was a big one—over the scene where the monster dances to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” I told Gene it was a great idea, it was funny, but it was too far outside of our salute to the black-and-white classics. We could go as far as the zipper in the creature’s neck, but we didn’t want to be too ridiculous. Gene said, “No, it’s proof of how incredible Frankenstein’s creation is.” We fought and we fought, and I said, “Okay, I’ll film it, and we’ll test-screen it, and if enough people agree with me that it’s too silly, then we’ll take it out.”

Of course, Gene was dead right because it took the movie to another level—our level. We left James Whale, and we went to where we wanted to be. That’s what audiences were paying for. They weren’t paying for a true artistic resemblance to James Whale’s movies. They wanted to laugh.

In a way it was an affirmation of something I learned while writing sketches for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows in the 1950s: Jokes alone don’t work, but jokes that emerge out of characters and stories we love do work. Sid used to ask me interminable questions about the life of the characters we created. “Would he wear a coat on a hot day? Would he pick up the check, or would he wait? What does he like? What does he hate?” He wanted to know every aspect of the character. On Young Frankenstein we asked ourselves, Would the monster enjoy a nice Irving Berlin tune? Yes, he would, and so would the audience.

Excerpted from Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film, by Mel Brooks with Rebecca Keegan (Black Dog & Leventhal).