Marty Feldman's first Hollywood role in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein didn't go exactly to plan - but it produced comedy gold
Gene Wilder remembers that Mel Brooks could be a strict director when he wanted to be: "If I or Madeline [Kahn] or Cloris [Leachman] were not doing what Mel wanted he would pull on the reins and if he wanted more he would start tugging. Marty didn't respond well to the tugging. I'm not saying there was anger but as soon as the reins were loosened Marty would respond like anyone with freedom. That means that maybe he would go off half-cocked in the wrong direction but the next take he'd go off full-cocked in the right direction!”
On his very first day of filming Young Frankenstein, Marty was reining himself in. He was fully aware that this was a Hollywood film and he wasn't the star of the show. That opinion quickly evaporated as more and more of the cast and crew fell under his charm, but that first scene was a nerve-racking experience for Marty.
Ironically, it was the very scene that Gene Wilder had sent over to tempt him to take on the role: the scene in which Igor is introduced on the platform of the Transylvanian Station. "That was the first movie I did in Hollywood and the scene was actually my first night's filming on a Hollywood movie and I was scared bleepless!” he said. "Gene's lovely. His timing in that is like Oliver Hardy. It forced me to be Stan Laurel because his timing was so like Oliver Hardy... it was a night shoot, very cold, and I was freezing and very scared. [On the 'walk this way' line] he pauses... and I sort of adlibbed ['this way' and handed him the stick to come down the stairs like the hunchback] – it's a terribly old music hall joke. I did that to make the crew laugh and Mel Brooks said, 'Let's shoot it'. I said, 'Mel you can't, it's an old joke!' and Mel said, 'I want to shoot it!' So we did it and we did it the other way without that joke and afterwards Gene said to me, 'Are you going to tell Mel to take that joke out? It's terrible.' And I said, 'Well, I don't want it in. You tell him. You wrote the script.' We both said, 'Mel, please take that out,' and he left it in. He said, 'I think it's funny.' Audiences laugh at it. Gene and I were both wrong. Mel was right.”
That "terrible old joke"
The scene was lovingly constructed almost solely to introduce Marty's character in a startling manner. The platform set of over 30 feet and the train, permanently fixed on the MGM backlot, were beautifully lit by Gerald Hirschfeld. As Frankenstein is left on the platform and the laugh that the "Pardon me boy, is this the Transylvanian Station?” line gets dies down, the tension is built up with sound effects and a shuffling from off camera. As Mel Brooks says of that moment: "Anybody who knows anything about movies will remember and cherish the laughter that Marty Feldman has given to the world.” But that terrible old joke that rounded the scene off was one that Marty probably would have winced at even during his variety days with [comedy act] Morris, Marty and Mitch.
Still, Mel Brooks seemed determined to keep it in; until the final cut. Assistant editor Bill Gordean says that: "After several preview screenings with employees in the studio the panic set in about whether the film was getting bogged down and too slow. Mel was starting to take out some gags. He said: 'We're going to take out the gag at the railroad station at Transylvania when Marty says to Gene: 'Walk this way,' and Stan [assistant editor Stanford C. Allen] said: 'No! Please don't do that,' and Mel said: 'No, it's coming out. It's a cheap joke.' Stan said: 'Yeah, it's a cheap joke but it's funny. Please don't take it out!' So finally Mel relented and said: 'OK it can stay for the preview but it's coming out Saturday.' That scene came on, the audience howled and we came up to Mel afterwards on the sidewalk and said: 'OK, well, do we take it out tomorrow?' And he said: 'Get outta here!' And I give Stan the credit for that because Mel may well have taken it out of the movie and you would never have seen it.”
Mel Brooks has subsequently admitted that: "I like cheap jokes. If they made me laugh then I would keep them in. For me there is never really an audience. I don't know what will make them laugh...That's just me, folks. If I laugh I hope other people will too.”
The "walk this way” line certainly made them laugh. Brooks tries to include it in "every movie I make since, certainly To Be or Not To Be.” The line had such a cultural impact that Aerosmith recorded Walk This Way after attending a late night screening of Young Frankenstein, and included it as a tribute on their album Toys in the Attic. It became arguably their best-known song: all thanks to a silly ad-lib from a very nervous Marty Feldman.
Marty Feldman: The Biography of a Comic Legend by Robert Ross is published by Titan