By Brian Skutle
When you watch some of Mel Brooks’s films as an adult- especially if you watched them as a child- you might be surprised by how much he got away with when it came to adding double entendres- or sometimes, brazen sex jokes- to his films. It’s not surprising in a film like “Blazing Saddles” (1974), which is outwardly rated R, but the more I’ve watched “Young Frankenstein” over the years, it’s hilarious how much he gets away with.
My mother is a massive Mel Brooks fan. I didn’t see “Blazing Saddles” until my teenage years, but “Young Frankenstein” (1974) was regularly in the rotation at a young age, and one we would watch a lot together. It’s one of the most quotable movies of all-time, in addition to being a masterpiece-level parody. It’s also unapologetically horny, and that is where Teri Garr comes into the picture. As Inga, she is Frederick Frankenstein’s assistant in the film. But as Madeline Kahn’s Elizabeth asks upon her arrival, “What is it, exactly, that you do do?” By that point, a lot more than just helping with his experiment to create life from death. For the audience, she’s become a fundamental part of the humor of Brooks’s film, as well.
Inga could have just been a ditzy blonde meant to be the butt of sex jokes for 105 minutes, and when we first meet her, that’s certainly how she is set up. When Frederick (Gene Wilder) arrives, Igor (Marty Feldman) has a carriage for him, but when he throws his luggage in the back, he hits someone. That someone is Inga, who just happens to be laying down. She offers Frederick a roll in the hay…literally; the horse-drawn carriage is filled with hay she’s laying in. I’m not sure what catches our attention first- Garr’s outfit, with its low neckline, or her comedic accent- but we’re on board with her character. I like how Brooks sets up the sexual humor in this film in a way that isn’t explicitly vulgar, but is also easily decipherable; if you figure it out when you’re watching this as a kid, you feel as though you’re pushing boundaries. When Frederick marvels at the castle’s door knockers, Inga’s response is a great example of Garr’s ability to deliver the punchline for a joke in a way that helps define her character, as well.
As Frederick begins to move towards the destiny of his name, we see Inga’s role become more well-rounded. She does, indeed, start as the frightened blonde, but when the mysterious music leads them to uncover a secret passage in Frederick’s room, her ability to learn and adapt is on display when they have to figure out a way to keep the passage open, while also finding them light to travel down the passage. (“Put…the candle…back.”) In this film, a lot of Garr’s performance is defined by her physical acting. Her eyes seem continuously curious and unsure. The way she bounces off of Wilder and Feldman when it’s the three of them together, especially in the laboratory. Her giddy excitement during the highs, and her empathetic support for Frederick when the worst happens. And her delivery of the simplest lines keeps us fixated on the way her face looks when she says them. She’s not the broadest performance in the film (I don’t even know if she makes the Top 5), but she brings as much animated energy as everyone else in the film.
When I think of Teri Garr, this is the performance I think about the most. I’ll admit that there are several of her most noteworthy performances- including her Oscar-nominated turn in “Tootsie”(1982)- that I’m not familiar with, or would need a rewatch to remind myself of. The two I do really remember, however, are “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”(1977) and “Mr. Mom”(1983). While her role as the worried wife in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi drama, and the wife who swaps responsibilities with her husband when he loses his job in “Mr. Mom,” are very different than Inga, all three do have a common element- they show Garr is more than capable of holding her own with actors with a manic energy to them. This was the earliest example of that in her career, and it remains the most memorable.
Read Brian’s review of “Young Frankenstein” at Sonic Cinema.
Read Brian’s thoughts on Teri Garr as a Spielberg mom at In Their Own League.