We all have a family legacy — something that is passed down from generation to generation, like it or not. Some fight it and try to “change their stars,” others accept it and move on. What should we do? How should we handle family legacy, especially when it’s embarrassing or painful?
In honor of Halloween, I want to look back at Mel Brooks’s classic horror parody Young Frankenstein (1974) to glean an answer. This hilarious tale of the original Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson (played by Wilder), who shuns the family name and heritage, provides a subtle commentary on handling difficult ancestry. We see the young Frederick Frankenstein struggle with his identity, slowly come to embrace it, and determining to see the wrongs made right.
When we first meet the most recent Frankenstein, he’s teaching at an American college and ignoring his dubious family name. As a student presses him on the matter of his grandfather’s work, Frankenstein deflects it as lunacy and distances himself from it. He even tells people that his name is pronounced “Fronk-en-steen” in an effort to further himself from his forefathers.
Soon, however, his family legacy comes knocking when he learns that he has inherited the estate and must go to Transylvania to inspect the property. Arriving at the same castle his grandfather created the monster in, Frankenstein wrestles with the blood in his veins. The housekeeper, Frau Blucher, pushes him toward rekindling his grandfather’s work, but Frederick pushes back.
Frankenstein can’t come to grips with his heritage. He bitterly denies his family’s past and wants to bury it in the graveyard like an unwanted criminal. However, he can’t outrun it. His surname, and all that it means, follows him wherever he goes and haunts him until he faces it.
‘It Could Work!’: Facing Your Heritage
Not long after arriving at the infamous castle, Frankenstein discovers his grandfather’s secret laboratory and journal that details how he created the original monster. Mulling over the book at breakfast, he slowly catches the fire that fueled his forebear. “It could work!” he exclaims.
Next thing he knows, Frankenstein is following in his grandfather’s footsteps, stealing a body and a brain fit for his creation, stitching his monster together, and then attempting the same experiment that reanimates dead life. He finally comes to grips with his family legacy and accepts the lunacy of it as a means to advance science. Frankenstein believes that this time he can successfully accomplish what previous generations could not.
We all have to face our heritage and acknowledge what our family name has come to represent. Maybe it’s bad, maybe it’s good, but we can’t outrun it. No matter what side of the tracks it lands on, we should seek to improve it; or in the case of Frederick Frankenstein, try to redeem it.
‘My Name Is Frankenstein!’: Redeeming A Legacy
As with any good Frankenstein movie, the monster gets loose and wreaks havoc on the nearest village. In the case of young Frankenstein’s monster, however, the reign of terror is hilarious, involving interactions with a girl who wants a playmate and a blind priest. When the menace is retaken, Frankenstein is faced with what his next step should be. Failure stares him down.
Not willing to concede defeat, Frankenstein decides to show his creation love and convince it that it is good and not evil. In a crucial moment of comforting the creature, he finally takes on his family name without shame. He is changing his family legacy and shaping it into something respectable.
His attempt at rehabilitating the monster, which involves a song and dance routine, utterly fails. But by the movie’s end, as villagers pound down the door of his lab, Frankenstein is willing to lay down his own life to redeem his work and his family’s name. He no longer sees his grandfather as a lunatic but as a man ahead of his time. He wants to show that his work is for the betterment of humanity, not its destruction. He embraces his heritage and redeems it with a noble act.
Wrapped up in the zany antics of the movie, it would be easy to miss this aspect of it. With some reflection, its message is deep and moving. Wilder aptly portrays a man who wants nothing to do with what his family has done. He wrestles with destiny itself and slowly comes around to see an opportunity to save his family name and contribute something worthwhile to the world. Unwanted legacy is a heavy burden, but it doesn’t have to be irredeemable. Our ancestors may have made mistakes, but we have a chance to learn from their wrongs and choose a better path.