Movies We Like
Once upon a time in the golden period of films known as the 1970s, Mel Brooks was, along with Woody Allen, the biggest directing name in comedy. Both had been on the legendary writing staff of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the '50s (along with Neil Simon and Carl Reiner) and both brought a distinctly Jewish tone to their slapstick. While Allen represented the Manhattan highbrow, Brooks’s style lurked more in the offensively low end Borscht Belt style. By the '80s, when Allen's status raised to the level of genius, Brooks’s comedy had already become passe and completely juvenile, working in the obvious (Spaceballs, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, etc.). But his early string of comedies, from The Producers through High Anxiety, created a lot of laughs, peaking in 1974 with two comic masterpieces: Young Frankenstein and, maybe even better, the bawdy western spoof Blazing Saddles.
The western spoof is almost as old as the western itself—you had Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West, The Marx Brothers in Go West, Mae West and W.C. Fields did My Little Chickadee, and Bob Hope had The Paleface and then Son of Paleface, not to mention Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich (which Blazing Saddles actually directly spoofs). The '60s saw an examining of the western most directly through the Italian spaghetti westerns and American western comedies such as Cat Ballou and Support Your Local Sheriff! In the '70s, the reexamining went to the extreme as the western was turned in on itself and poked at by post-modernists with films as broad as Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, to the sci-fi camp of Westworld. Blazing Saddles is more than a spoof; it’s one of the rare big laugh comedies that actually has something to say about contemporary racial politics, making it much closer to the later, intellectually ambitious films than the earlier yuk-fests.
Taking its cue from a number of westerns including Once Upon a Time in the West, High Noon, and High Plains Drifter, Blazing Saddles uses the classic “town folks vs the greedy people” set-up. Oily State Attorney General Hedly Lamarr (Harvey Korman, who almost steals the film) is buying up cheap land along the railroad as it moves out West. When quicksand diverts the route through the frontier town of Rock Ridge, he sends his henchmen Taggart (Slim Pickens) and a posse to terrorize the townsfolk into abandoning their property. Instead, they ask the governor (Brooks, in one of numerous little roles he plays here) to provide them with a sheriff. Lamarr and the governor devise a plan to provide a sheriff they will surely hate, a black train-track worker who is about to be executed named Bart (Cleavon Little). When they see his cool-ass Gucci sheriff outfit the townsfolk react like the small town bigots the higher ups expected, calling him the N-word and even trying to lynch him. But when he saves the town from a brute monster of a man, Mongo (one time Detroit Lion Alex Karras), they begin to take a shine to him and even depend on him to save them.
Sheriff Bart partners up with a onetime notorious gunslinger that’s now sleeping it off in the drunk tank, Jim AKA The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder). Eventually Lamarr puts together a nasty posse with Klansman, rustlers, Arabs, desperadoes, Mexican bandits (referencing a line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and, as you expect from Brooks, Nazis (making Blazing Saddles the only other western besides Duck, You Sucker that I’m aware of to reference WWII so blatantly). They are instructed to go rape, loot, and pillage Rock Ridge. With Mongo now joining Sheriff Bart and Jim, they also recruit Bart’s black railroad co-workers to help the townsfolk build an exact replica of the town for Lamarr’s killers to attack. This leads to a giant fight that spills into a present day movie studio where a Busby Berkeley like director (Dom Deluise) is trying to shoot a dance sequence, mayhem ensues, until the inevitable showdown between Sheriff Bart and Lamarr in front of the Chinese Theater of Hollywood Blvd.
Never afraid to break the fourth wall, Blazing Saddles is so crammed with ideas and film references, from Hedy Lamarr’s name (apparently she sued the movie) and blaxploitation jiving to Bugs Bunny, a Count Basie cameo, and most famously, Madeline Kahn popping up as Lili von Shtupp, a direct parody of Marlene Dietrich singing a song spoofing the one she performed in Hitchcock’s Stage Freight. She also plays out a back room seduction scene with Bart that spoofs the one had with Gary Cooper in Morocco. Kahn, one of film’s great female comic actresses, even got an Oscar nomination for her brief appearance. The entire cast nail their roles: Pickens and the bit players all play on western stereotypes perfectly. This is the best film role for Korman, a sketch comedy legend. Wilder, not Brooks’s first choice for the role of a washed up drunk, is especially entertaining, his playing it cool being so against type.
Little was also not the first choice to play Bart; Brooks wanted Richard Pryor but the studio rebelled, finding him too dangerous and controversial to depend on. So instead Pryor joined the writing team along with Brooks, Norman Steinberg (My Favorite Year), Andrew Bergman (The Freshman), and Alan Uger (TV’s Family Ties). Little made a name for himself on Broadway and then was mostly known for his appearance in Vanishing Point as Super Soul and one of the great All in the Family episodes as a burglar who holds the Bunkers hostage. No matter how ground breaking a stand-up comedian Pryor was, Little brings a cool strength and leading man presence that a trained musical theater thespian carries, and that Pryor would not have.
In its day, Blazing Saddles was considered maybe the most offensive big studio flick ever made. Mongo punching a horse, gay jokes, cowboys eating beans and farting around a campfire, all offensive but, under Brooks’s skilled direction, all very funny gags. Today, the most shocking thing is the use of the N-word. In a comedy today, a (white) character would only speak that way to show what an extreme character he is, and he would probably have something bad happen to him in the end. But the casualness of Rock Ridge’s townsfolk, so vulgar and mean spirited, actually adds to the humor. It’s been said that a film such as A Clockwork Orange is so filled with ultra violence as to turn the viewer off to violence, then perhaps Blazing Saddles is so filled with racist characters it shines a light on the extremity of racism that still existed in the America of 1974, making racists just look ridiculous. When Bart says to the kindly looking old lady “And isn't it a lovely morning?” and she replies, “up yours n....”. It’s not hard to declare that they don’t dare make comedies like Blazing Saddles anymore.