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15 Things You Might Not Know About Young Frankenstein

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20th century fox

1. Studio Executives tried Tricking Director Mel Brooks into Shooting the Film in Color

By the mid-‘70s, black and white cinema was an endangered species. Nevertheless, Brooks felt strongly about replicating the feel of Universal’s classic Frankenstein films by going colorless. However, not everybody shared his vision. Columbia Studios’ brass thought the style was unmarketable and, as Brooks explains in this delightful interview (skip to 47:40), used some slippery tactics in an attempt to get their way:

“They said ‘Okay, we’ll make it in black and white, but on color stock so that we can show it in Peru, which just got color. And I said ‘No. No because you’ll screw me. You will say this and then, in order to save the company, you will risk a lawsuit and you will print everything in color. It’s gotta be on… black & white thick film.”

Thankfully, Brooks prevailed, though 20th Century Fox wound up taking charge of the project.

2. Star and Co-Writer Gene Wilder Convinced Brooks to Forgo his Usual Cameo Appearance

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Brooks usually gave himself a part in his own films, from Blazing Saddles’ loopy governor to the wine-selling Rabbi of Robin Hood: Men in Tights. These characters regularly broke the fourth wall and “winked” at the audience, something Wilder felt would clash with Young Frankenstein’s tone. So, as a condition of his taking on the lead role, Wilder made Brooks agree to remain off-camera.

However, the director did provide some howling:

As Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) takes his first ride to the family castle, the distant wolf cry which startles him is a sound Brooks actually vocalized himself.

3. Early On, We Hear the Exact Same Conversation Repeated in Both English and German

En route to Romania, our protagonist catches a train to New York, whereupon he hears an American couple bickering. In the very next scene, Frederick (now on a Transylvania-bound locomotive) witnesses a European pair having an identical, word-for-word exchange in German

4. One of Igor’s Best Moments Inspired a Hit Aerosmith Song

“Walk this way!” Marty Feldman’s Igor instructs his master, who proceeds to copy the hunchback’s shuffling gait. Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler found this line hilarious and repurposed it as the title of a track about high school lovers.

5. Hans Delbrück Was a Real Person

As Frederick readies his monster, he sends Igor to fetch a very special brain which rests in a jar labeled “Hans Delbruck: Scientist and Saint”. The actual Hans Delbrück (1848-1929) was an accomplished military historian whose son, Max, won a Nobel Prize for his work with viruses.

6. Several Props Had Previously Appeared in the Masterful 1931 Frankenstein Film

Taking his feature-length tribute to the next level, Brooks included much of the faux lab equipment used in that earlier picture.

7. Teri Garr Based Her Character’s Voice on Cher’s Hairdresser

Garr made several appearances on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and used Cher's German wig-stylist as a model for ditzy lab assistant Inga’s heavy accent.

8. Brooks Hired Kenneth Mars After the Actor Signed Off on an Odd Costuming Choice

The two had already collaborated in 1968’s The Producers, and while casting Young Frankenstein, Brooks offered Mars the role of grumpy Inspector Kemp, but not before pitching an eccentric wardrobe gimmick that ultimately wound up on-screen.

“He [said],” Mars later reminisced, “‘Let me ask you this… if you’re wearing an eye patch and you’ve got a monocle on top of the eye patch, is that too much?’ I said ‘Of course not.’ He said ‘Good, you’re hired!’”

9. Gene Hackman Specifically Asked Wilder for a Part in Young Frankenstein Because he “Wanted to Try Comedy”

According to the movie’s Blu-Ray commentary, Hackman—who’d been thrice nominated for an Academy Award (and won one in 1971)—learned about Young Frankenstein through his frequent tennis partner Wilder and requested a role. Ultimately, ‘Harold’—the lonely blind character he briefly portrayed—sparked one of the most memorable sequences in comedic history.

10. Peter Boyle Had to Wear a Special Pad Over His Crotch to Avoid Getting Scalded During the Famous Blind Man Scene

During their hysterical encounter, sightless Harold winds up accidentally dumping a bowlful of hot soup onto the poor creature’s lap. Fortunately, Boyle’s protective gear kept him from having to method act his way through the ordeal.

11. A Huge Percentage of the Movie Had to Be Deleted

“For every joke that worked, there were three that fell flat,” says Brooks, who whittled Young Frankenstein down to its current runtime after observing several mixed reactions from test audiences. This cut material included a clip in which Frederick’s relatives listen to a recorded will left by his great grandfather Beauvort von Frankenstein whose message starts skipping and nonchalantly repeats the phrase “Up Yours!”

In addition, the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number was nearly axed as well. Brooks reportedly felt that having Dr. Frankenstein and his monster tap dance to an old Irving Berlin song seemed “too crazy.” Hearing this, Wilder—who though it brilliant—snapped and came “close to rage and tears” before Brooks unexpectedly changed his tune. “I wanted to see how hard you'd fight for it,” said the director, “And I knew if you fought hard enough, it was right...You did, so it's in.”

12. Wilder was Constantly Cracking Up During Takes

According to Cloris Leachman, “He killed every take [with his laughter] and nothing was done about it!” Shots would frequently have to be repeated as many as fifteen times before Wilder could finally summon a straight face.

But, to be fair, he certainly wasn’t the only one who couldn't always keep it together.

Young Frankenstein sees Marty Feldman’s comic genius on full display, which was often more than his castmates could handle. For example, the scene where Frederick’s fiancée Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) greets him at the castle generated a lengthy gag reel because Feldman—whose character starts ravenously gnawing on her mink scarf—kept everyone in stitches with his manic over-acting.

13. Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were the 1st and 3rd highest-grossing films of 1974, respectively

“It’s good to be the king!” Before this pivotal year, the funnyman’s earlier efforts—The Producers and The Twelve Chairs (1970)—netted mixed reviews and had lackluster box office performances. But after turning out these back-to-back hits at breakneck speed, Brooks’ reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest comedic directors was secured.

14. Leachman Was Asked to Reprise Her Role for the 'Young Frankenstein' Musical

After getting eliminated from ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, Brooks offered the 82-year-old actress a chance to take a second stab at playing Frau Blücher for his on-stage Young Frankenstein musical, but the show’s run ended before her schedule freed up.

15. Throughout the Shoot, Brooks Offered Wilder Directing Advice

Knowing his star dreamed of one day sitting in the director’s chair, Brooks made a point to give him as many pointers as possible before shooting concluded. Wilder reminisced, “Mel would say, ‘Do you know the trouble I’m in because I didn’t shoot that close-up? Don’t do that.’ I would say, ‘To whom are you talking?’ ‘You, when you’re directing.’”

Though both headed various productions after Young Frankenstein, they’d never collaborate on another flick. Nevertheless, the pair’s shared legacy is unimpeachable. All three of Brooks’ movies in which Wilder appeared—The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein—have been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry and included on the American Film Institute’s “100 Funniest Movies of All Time” list.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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