#158) Blazing Saddles (1974)

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#158) Blazing Saddles (1974)

OR “Pie Fight at the O.K. Corral”

Directed by Mel Brooks

Written by Brooks & Norman Steinberg & Andrew Bergman & Richard Pryor & Alan Uger. Story by Bergman.

Class of 2006

The Plot: When the town of Rock Ridge comes between him and his railroad construction, Attorney General Hedy Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) hatches a plan. He gets a black railroad worker named Bart (Cleavon Little) appointed sheriff, in the hopes that his race will cause the all-white town to vacate the land. Bart, alongside has-been gunslinger the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), helps defend Rock Ridge from a brute named Mongo (Alex Karras), a Marlene Dietrich-esque chanteuse (Madeline Kahn), and Lamarr’s band of criminals and Methodists. All of this wrapped in a comedy that skewers every Western, takes down the racial inequality of the ‘70s, and doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as it does bulldoze it to the ground.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a “riotously funny, raunchy, no-holds-barred Western spoof” and praises Brooks and the cast. There’s also a detailed essay by NFR staple Michael Schlesinger.

But Does It Really?: Full disclosure: This is my favorite Mel Brooks movie. Some are better films overall, but this one makes me laugh the hardest. Brooks managed to take a dying genre and a script by five writers and turn in into one of the funniest films ever. And in the midst of all the lowbrow humor, Mel comments on American racism more effectively than most “message movies”. There’s the frequent refrain of “you could never make ‘Blazing Saddles’ today”, and that may be true, but when the original is this good, why would you want to?

Shout Outs: Lots of films spoofed in this one, notably NFR entries “High Noon”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Morocco”, “Cabaret”, and “Destry Rides Again”. And keep an ear out for a brief allusion to Mel’s own “The Producers”.

Everybody Gets One: Writer Andrew Bergman, actors Cleavon Little, Harvey Korman, Alex Karras, and Count Basie.

Wow, That’s Dated: Racial politics aside for one moment, let’s instead focus on the cultural references that were already dated in 1974: Mel and company note such obscurities as Richard Dix, Dr. Gillespie, Olsen & Johnson, “You Do Something To Me”, and most importantly, Randolph Scott.

Title Track: We get ourselves one hell of a title song!

Seriously, Oscars?: In a year dominated by “The Godfather Part II” and “Chinatown”, the Academy was hip enough to give “Blazing Saddles” three nominations: Editing, Song (for the title number), and Supporting Actress for Madeline Kahn. The film lost all three nominations, but thanks for inviting them to the party. And sadly, in his plight to destroy Rock Ridge, Harvey Korman risked an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Other notes

  • In the “You couldn’t make it today” discussion, I would argue that they have. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is, like “Blazing Saddles” before it, a film that tackles racism in America through an unconventional genre (in Peele’s case, a horror film). The comparisons end there, but “Get Out” is as much a comment on racism today as “Blazing Saddles” was for the ‘70s.
  • How did Cleavon Little not become a film star after this? His performance is flawlessly charming, sympathetic, and uproariously funny. It’s a shame his film career never took off.
  • This film brings about what I call “The Mel Brooks Ratio”: the more screen-time Mel Brooks has in his own movie, the worse it is. “Young Frankenstein”? No Mel, a classic. “Life Stinks”? Well…
  • Harrumph!
  • Gene Wilder is the last person you would expect to play a washed-up alcoholic gunslinger (Gig Young was originally cast), but whatever quality the Waco Kid needed, Gene had it and boy does it work.
  • A western spoof with fart jokes doesn’t need to have outstanding cinematography, but there’s some excellent work being done throughout by Joseph Biroc. Fun Fact: He also filmed “It’s a Wonderful Life”!
  • REDFACE WARNING. I love this movie, but you don’t get off that easy, Mel.
  • Ah, the infamous campfire scene. Burton Gilliam’s inaugural flatulence changed movies, and definitely not for the best.
  • Speaking of iconic moments, I shouldn’t laugh at Mongo punching a horse, but here we are.
  • Two words: “I’m Tired”. Oscars, you nominated the wrong song.
  • Speaking of, I’ve always had a soft spot for Madeline Kahn. She was one the rare actresses in the vein of Carole Lombard who could be simultaneously funny and sexy. Kahn was consistently great no matter the movie (and she did a few turkeys in her time).
  • During this viewing I realized that there isn’t a single excessive scene in the film. Elements of certain scenes are unnecessary, but every scene either advances the plot or develops character. Find me a modern comedy that does that.
  • That ending is very bizarre. But hey, if you’re going to write yourself out of a corner, that’s a fun way to do it.
  • Here are just a few of my favorite lines:

“Well, that’s the end of this suit.”

“If you shoot him you’ll just make him mad.”

“The bitch was inventing the candygram.”

“Mongo only pawn…in game of life.”

“Hey where are the white women at?”

“They lose me right after the bunker scene.”

And the best line not in the movie: “You’re sucking on my arm.”

Legacy

  • This was Mel Brooks’ first bona fide hit as a director. When “Blazing Saddles” was released, Mel was already working on his next project; a screenplay by Gene Wilder called “Young Frankenstein”.
  • Try this one on for size: Mel had a stipulation in his “Blazing Saddles” contract that if Warner Bros. wanted to maintain the rights to the film, they’d have to produce a sequel or a TV series within six months of the film’s release. Nowhere did it say that the TV series ever had to air, so for four years Warner Bros. filmed a TV show called “Black Bart” starring Louis Gossett Jr. that was never intended to be seen. When Warner Bros. finally gave up on a sequel, they cancelled the show and gave the rights back to Mel. The pilot for “Black Bart” aired only once on CBS. Weird, right?
  • “Blazing Saddles” still gets referenced and quoted quite a bit, but probably by no one more than Mel himself.
  • A confident black leader takes over a bigoted town, where have I seen the real-life, mostly inspiring but ultimately depressing version of this? Hmmm…

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