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Still stifling laughter 40 years after 'Young Frankenstein'

Gerry Hirschfeld, the director of photography for “Young Frankenstein” and many other big Hollywood films, is 93 now and living in Ashland at Mountain Meadows Retirement Community with his longtime wife, Julia, 80, who did continuity in many of his movies.

The hilarious "Young Frankenstein," a send-up of the original black-and-white '30s movies of the same theme, broke much new ground for comedy, so much so that Hirschfeld could barely recall the main schticks of the movie, 40 years later, without breaking down in laughter.

“That one scene, where Marty Feldman came up and chewed on Madeline Kahn’s white sable stole, I mean, we couldn’t even shoot that, the cameraman was laughing too hard and jiggling the camera.”

But they finally shot the classic gag scene and, says Hirschfeld, would shoot most scenes a dozen times, with director Mel Brooks consulting with actors and others over how to make it a little bit better each time, though only he could see what had to be done.

“Mel was the master of comedy. He was great,” says Hirschfeld. “He would do a shot so many times. I was interested in becoming a director at that time and would study him. Each time it was a little bit better. I learned persistence from him.”

To commemorate the movie's 40th anniversary, Brooks had prints of his hands (thanks to a prosthesis, one hand has six fingers for comic effect) and shoes cast in concrete outside the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and a new Blu-ray edition of the film was released the next day.

Hirschfeld also became friends with the film’s main star, Gene Wilder, who would would study Hirschfeld’s work because he was thinking about becoming a director.

Hirschfeld, a native New Yorker, got in film by the sheerest of coincidences, joining the Army in World War II and getting assigned to making training films, this on the strength of knowing how to shoot still black-and-white photos. One of his fellow filmmakers in the Army was from Hollywood and took him back there after the war.

His first feature film, shot for the Army as a civilian, was “Shades of Gray,” documenting the spectrum of traumatic stress on everyone involved in war — and, he notes, was used as a study decades later for the Oscar-winning Best Picture “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Gaining in reputation, he was contacted by Sidney Lumet, director of “Fail-Safe” (1964) as head of photography — and, along with Frankenstein, calls it his favorite film. Both were shot in black-and-white, for emotional impact. "Fail-Safe" led to a friendship with Henry Fonda (the president trying to avoid nuclear war in the movie) and Hirschfeld yarns about bumping into the famed actor in Central Park, trying to eat a hot dog and explaining he has to keep his back to the streets or people will come up trying for autographs and conversation.

Hirschfeld was close friends with actor Richard Benjamin of “Goodbye Columbus” and when Benjamin directed “My Favorite Year,” he called on Hirschfeld to shoot it.

In the 1980s Hirschfeld realized all his crew were dying and that stress was a big factor, so he retired to Ashland in 1987, continuing to work on a smaller scale till 1993. He taught cinematography at Southern Oregon University for five years and has been the sole judge for best cinematography for the Ashland Independent Film Festival, as well as one of a select few to judge movies for Oscars every year.

“It’s been the best job, if you know what you’re doing, of any job one could ever get," Hirschfeld said. "You spend three or four months a year working and you get to know all the actors. They’re very nice people on the whole. It’s a very gratifying feeling watching your work in a theater.”

Hirschfeld is father of four sons, two of whom worked in Hollywood. In 2006, he won the coveted President’s Award of the American Cinematographers Association and authored the exhaustive book, “Image Control; Motion Picture and Video Camera Filters and Lab Techniques,” which he calls something of a landmark, because most masters in the trade refuse to tell their secrets. 

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Gerry Hirschfeld holds his Presidents Award from The American Society of Cinematographers Tuesday in his Ashland home. Daily Tidings / Julia Moore
Peter Boyle, as the Frankenstein monster, jokes around with Director of Photography Gerry Hirschfeld and Director Mel Brooks on the set of Young Frankenstein. Photo courtesy of Gerry Hirschfeld