“Puttin’ on the Ritz”: Remembering Gene Wilder in “Young Frankenstein”

AP Photo/Dave Pickoff

Mentioning Young Frankenstein tends to conjure the image of Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle wearing top hats and tapdancing to Irving Berlin’s jazzy hit, “Putting on the Ritz.” In the iconic scene, Wilder (playing Dr. Frederick Frankenstein) sings most of the song, and Boyle (as the monster) chimes in with the song’s hook: “Puttin’ on the Rizt!” (or rather, “Poo — tmmm anngh ma Ritz!”)

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The sequence is arguably the finest and most memorable in the Hollywood Halloween classic. But according to director Mel Brooks, the scene almost didn’t happen.

The Idea for “Young Frankenstein”

As Brooks remembers in his book, Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film, Wilder first revealed the idea for the film when the two were shooting Blazing Saddles. At the time, Brooks and Wilder had already worked together on the Hollywood rendition of the Broadway musical, The Producers. Wilder was gaining notoriety as an actor in films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Wilder explained the premise: a parody of classic black-and-white horror film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein”. Wilder asked Brooks if he’d consider writing and directing the movie with him. Brooks agreed.

“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 storyline over Earl Grey tea and digestif biscuits,” Brooks wrote. “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.”

The two wrote together every night after Brooks finished in the editing room for Blazing Saddles. From the start, the duo knew “exactly where we were going”. They’d really run into one major hiccup: A dispute over that notorious “Putting on the Ritz” scene.

Mel Brook’s and Gene Wilder’s Argument Over “Puttin’ on the Ritz”

We had only one fight—and it was a big one—over the scene where the monster dances to “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Brooks remembers. “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.”

Brooks thought the scene was a little too ridiculous, but Wilder thought it was proof of how amazing the monster really was. They agreed to film the scene and see how it went over with test audiences. “Of course, Gene was dead right because it took the movie to another level—our level,” wrote Brooks. “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.”

The result of the two cinematic master mind’s labor of love was a box office hit and quite possibly one of the funniest movies of all time. Wilder starred as the film’s title character, along with greats like Teri Garr (Inga), Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman (Igor), Madeline Kahn (Frau Blücher), Gene Hackman (the blind man).

Wilder and Brooks would both be co-nominated for an Oscar for the script. Young Frankenstein joined The Producers and Blazin’ Saddles as one of the pair’s trio of iconic comedy films. More than 30 years later, Entertainment Weekly would call the duo “horseradish and honey mustard.

Watch: ‘Willy Wonka’ Actor Gene Wilder’s Life and Loves

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