The original trailer for Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein concludes with a false apology.
“Personally directed by Mel ‘Blazing Saddles’ Brooks!” narrates the director, full-throatedly hyping his forthcoming horror comedy to 1974 audiences. “In black-and-white…no offense.”
None taken, especially by Portland film programmer Elliot Lavine, who’s screening the classic riff on the Frankenstein story at Cinema 21 on Saturday, Oct. 30. Lavine’s life’s work is practically in black-and-white. The scholar and filmmaker became a San Francisco film scene fixture for 40 years by programming both classic and obscure mid-20th century movies (especially noir) at iconic theaters like the Roxie before relocating to Portland in 2017.
Young Frankenstein marks the first of four monthly screenings Lavine is hosting at Cinema 21, on the heels of a series of Oregon State University film classes he taught at the theater in 2018 and 2019.
In his mind, the black-and-white cinematography was and is an undeniable part of Young Frankenstein’s appeal on the big screen. Visually, Brooks’ comedy about Victor Frankenstein’s grandson (Gene Wilder) taking up the family’s reanimating ways maintains such a staunch commitment to the bit that it doesn’t parody 1930s Universal monster movies so much as craft its own spontaneously irreverent version. Audiences might well feel the normal, genuine sympathy for The Monster (Peter Boyle) right up until he and Dr. Frankenstein tap dance in tailcoats to Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” For his part, Lavine remembers Young Frankenstein as “one of the last cool movies” he saw theatrically in his hometown of Detroit before moving to San Francisco in 1975.
“Obviously, it becomes hysterically funny as soon as [the characters] open their mouths,” Lavine says. “But there are long passages where you can watch it out of context and think, ‘Oh, this is a really interesting horror film.’ People were mesmerized by the look of the film.”
After moving to Portland and starting to program at Cinema 21 and Hollywood Theatre, Lavine discovered a film scene in the center of his ideal Venn diagram: audiences “ravenous” for classic films but without many prior opportunities to have experienced them in theaters.
“[I was] putting up films that maybe San Francisco audiences had seen 10 or 20 times easily,” he explains, “but most [Portlanders] were finding the experience really new, at least in the theatrical setting.”
Lavine remembers realizing the vast potential for his repertory screenings in Portland in 2019, opening his long-running I Wake Up Dreaming noir festival at the Hollywood. Kicking things off with the Jacques Tourneur classic Out of the Past, Lavine sampled the packed house, asking how many people were seeing the 1947 noir (starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas) for the first time.
“Easily two-thirds of the hands went up,” he recounts. “I said, ‘Boy, I came to the right place.’”
To begin this fall’s monthly Cinema 21 screenings, Lavine will introduce the films for 10 to 15 minutes, giving the audience the opportunity to feed off of his sheer enthusiasm for titles like November’s The Wanderers and December’s Remember the Night. Decades of press make note of Lavine’s contagious cinematic evangelism, cultivating audience approachability through years of teaching film courses for Stanford, San Francisco State, and Oregon State universities.
“People are magnetized to him,” says Cinema 21 manager Erik McClanahan, who’s observed Lavine’s film classes draw upward of 80 moviegoers. “You could see the appeal was, yeah, the films he was showing, but people loved interacting with him.”
Throughout November, Lavine is also programming Monday nights at the Hollywood. His The Future Is Now series spotlights ‘50s and ‘60s cross sections of science fiction and film noir: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Five (1951), Seconds (1966) and A Face in the Crowd (1957). In black-and-white, the lot of them.
“I’m going to be everywhere for a while,” Lavine says of this post-lockdown autumn. “After a long hibernation, it’s great to get out there.”
SEE IT: Young Frankenstein screens at Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 503-223-4515, cinema21.com. 11 am Saturday, Oct. 30. $8.