Six Damn Fine Degrees #64: Madeline Kahn’s moments to shine

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Just like Alan (so charmingly revisited in last week’s post), one of my favourite comedies of all time is Peter Bogdanovic’s screwball delight What’s Up, Doc? (1972). Besides the great rapport between Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, the perfect sense for timing and the riotous chase up and down the streets of San Francisco, I was most in love with one supporting actress in particular, the lovely Madeline Kahn. Her role as O’Neal’s annoying fiancée Eunice could easily have been a thankless one as the target of our spite and schadenfreude. Kahn, however, infused it with so much comedic energy, her ear-piercing voice chasing after her soon-to-be lost fiancé “Howard!”, to the audience’s great enjoyment. She was not too fond of her role, however, caught in ugly frocks and atrocious wigs and constantly making a fool of herself, but she certainly left an impression on one man in particular: upcoming comedy director Mel Brooks.

Even though they were never romantically involved, Mel Brooks’ look of absolute adoration in the above picture is no pretense: He was absolutely in love with Madeline Kahn’s talents, as he makes abundantly clear in his new autobiography All About Me!:

“I first saw Madeleine in her stunning Broadway debut in Leonard Stillman’s New Faces of 1968 and had followed her career ever since. I saw her in Peter Bogdanovic’s wonderful films What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon. She was one of the most gifted people – her timing, her voice, her attitude. The camera was in love with her, and if she’d wanted, she could have been a legitimate Metropolitan Opera singer. She had the pipes! The richest, deepest vibrato. She could sing anything”. And he also knew her well enough to understand why she hadn’t pursued such a career: “The only thing that held Madeline back was a psychological defect called modesty”. (All About Me!, pp. 212-213)

When Brooks was casting his third film Blazing Saddles (after the surprise success of The Producers and The Twelve Chairs), he found the first of a series of perfect roles for Madeline Kahn to finally shine in all her comedic and musical glory. Lily von Schtupp, a sultry German saloon performer, was a priceless Marlene Dietrich parody and hommage at the same time. Her song “I’m Tired”, written by Mel Brooks himself, was a hilariously detailed number with Kahn expressing her exhaustion with the world of men while strutting the small stage and drawing everybody’s attention to her rollicking presence.

From then onwards, Mel Brooks would find more opportunities for Kahn to leave an indelible impression in even the smallest parts. It was his anarchic send-offs of anything from horror, western, history to Hitchcock that would bring out the best in her. Blazing Saddles was followed by arguably Brooks’s best, Young Frankenstein in 1974, and Kahn was hysterical as Gene Wilder’s fiancée traveled to Transylvania just to fall in love with the monster itself and breaking into “Sweet Mystery of Life” in ecstatic delight.

She was also perfectly cast as the ultimate pastiche of the Hitchcock blonde, a frantic mix between Kim Novak, Grace Kellly and Tippi Hedren in High Anxiety (1977). As the kidnapped professor’s daughter, her nerves are strained to the utmost, which she hilariously expresses in one of her best moments in the film. The scene displays one of her greatest talents: the breathless delivery and the use of her melodic voice for absolute comic effect.

According to her biographer William V. Madison (Being the Music, A Life from 2015), even though she decided against a career in opera and opted for the theatre and movies instead, her musicality was part of her success as a comedian: “She has that kind of musicality to her voice—her inflections…It was the way she might ruminate over something while she was talking” and also that “this explains the curious self-enclosure of her performances, the sense of outraged privacy that was her funniest mode”.

Kahn would also briefly appear in Brooks’ episodic A History of the World, Part I (1981) as the sultry Empress of Ancient Rome before partly going back to theater and television and struggling to find a worthy follow up to her 1970s roles. She had few memorable appearances until the 1990s, most notably in Clue (1985) and TV’s Cosby Show, and she went on to win accolades on the stage as Judy Berlin and winning a Tony for The Sisters Rosenzweig. Far too early, Kahn tragically passed away from cancer in 1998, aged 57.

Thanks to YouTube, many of her film and musical performances are left there to enjoy. One of her most watched ones, it seems, finally pays tribute to both her true musical and comedic talents. In 1988, she was asked to perform at the celebration of Irving Berlin’s 100th anniversary and came up with a pricelessly entertaining version of his “You’d Be Surprised”.

Even though I’m not surprised, it feels as if she had so much more to give in her days, but for the time she had, to me, she was never able to shine as brightly as under Mel Brooks’ direction.

Madeline Kahn would have turned 80 this September.

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