Director: Mel Brooks
Producers: Michael Hertsberg (Crossbow, Warner Bros.)
Writers: Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, Alan Uger (screenplay)
Photography: Joseph F. Biroc
Music: Mel Brooks, Vernon Duke, John Morris
Cast: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Harvey Korman, Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn, David Huddleston, Liam Dunn, Alex Karras, John Hillerman, George Furth, Jack Starrett, Carol DeLuise, Richard Collier
On the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Films: 10th Anniversary broadcast, Mel Brooks was asked to discuss the Marx Brothers, and he deservedly praised them as his idols. “They were genius,” Brooks says. “I’m honored to be someone in their shadow.” No doubt this was a heartfelt statement, but one can still detect an air of disappointment that this shadow looms so large. Not one of Brooks’ comedy classics made the same list. This is a listology travesty, to have a list of 100 American films without even one by Mel Brooks, who owned three of the Top 13 in AFI’s 100 Laughs. Perhaps this is why he was awarded the 2013 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award: to set the record straight.
Indeed, comedies unfairly struggle in such discussions of history’s greatest films. Due to varying comedic tastes and differing funny bones, it’s hard for people to agree on the greatness of a comedy, even near impossible to get one voted out of the 7-range on IMDB. Still, when the conversation narrows specifically to the realm of comedy, Brooks is a given, and Blazing Saddles is often the standard bearer. The film makes lists compiled by both high-brow (#6 on AFI’s 100 Laughs) and low-brow (#9 BRAVO’s 100 Funniest Movies). Can you imagine a comedy world without the contribution of Blazing Saddles?
The film takes viewers back to the Old West, circa 1874, only it’s a Brooksian West completely askew from popular western myth. The film opens along the construction of a new railroad, where the black rail workers, led by the charismatic Bart (Cleavon Little), find themselves building toward a giant patch of quicksand. Immediately, the railway has to be rerouted, but the only option is to build through the fronteir town of Rock Ridge, a place where everyone’s named Johnson and Johnson is always right. Anxious to push his railway through, the evil, calculating State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) sends a band of thugs, led by redneck Taggart (Slim Pickens), to ransack the town and drive out the people.
When after the attack the people of Rock Ridge demand Gov. Lepetomane (Brooks) appoint a new sheriff, Hedley convinces him to pick Bart for the job, sure that the first black sheriff will be a failure in a town full of racists. But, with the help Jim (Gene Wilder), a former gunslinger known as “The Waco Kid,” the town prospers, prompting Hedley to send out his secret weapon, sexy seductress Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn), and eventually organize another town raid. As Bart and Jim prepare for an ambush, the citizens of Rock Ridge pitch in to build a fake replica of the town in what amounts to the most postmodern climatic brawl in the history of film.
Written by Brooks, Richard Pryor, Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg and Al Uger, Blazing Saddles contains the most laugh-out-loud moments of any Brooks film, and possibly of any film period. One can find a new bit of hilarity with each new viewing, be it the oddball victims at the gallows, the many innocent bystanders during the town raid or a classic scene in which Bart holds himself at gunpoint. But more than just clever gags is the writers’ ability to stage jokes, like clever double entendres (“Excuse me while I whip this out”), a new take on cliched convos (“Ok, where were we? Wait, where are you?”) or a diatribe building in intensity to an unexpected conclusion (“Methodists!”).
Underlying all of it is a spoof on the western genre and all it stood for — a church congregation spoofing the High Noon tradition by singing a plot-telling song; a redneck said to speak “authentic fronteir jibberish;” Bart on horseback riding up on the very band that’s playing the film score; a hitman so bad that he can punch out a horse and rip swinging doors right off the hinges; Hedley’s statement, “‘Head ’em off at the pass?’ I hate that cliche!”; and most obviously, the camera pulling back to reveal the Warner Bros. lot, the western action spilling over into a Warner musical production during a gigantic brawl where Hedley announces to his men: “Now you will only be risking your lives…whilst I will be risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.” The whole thing is very postmodern, obliterating cinema’s “fourth wall” and paving a new path for future comedy.
The film’s impact rages on, with multiple films referencing the “badges” quote as if they’ve never heard of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. See also the impact on Forrest Gump (1994), where Tom Hanks copies Wilder’s, “My name is Jim, but most people call me…Jim.” And for even more recent comedy influence, check out Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), which takes obvious cues from the “schnitzengruben” scene.
Perhaps even more impressive (for those so inclined), Blazing Saddles was the first film from a major studio to include fart jokes, here guys all sitting around a campfire eating plates of beans and ripping a chorus of monster ones (A).
“Piss on you. I’m working for Mel Brooks!” Pickens yells at the end of the film, summing up the entire attitude of Blazing Saddles. In effect, the film looks straight at audiences and says, “In this one, anything goes, and you better throw political correctness out the window.” Here, no one’s safe, with cries of “n*ggers,” “f*ggots,” “b*tches” and “ch*nks,” not to mention a Jew calling something “too Jewish.”
Such edgy material has opened the film to charges of racism, but this is a little short-sighted, seeing as an African American (Pryor) co-wrote a script that knowingly takes on prejudices in order to destroy them. Each time a white character says, “The sheriff is a ni-(BONG!),” the racist remarks are used to mock that character’s ignorance. In this way, the entire film is an exercise in blasting bigots and mocking the Old West’s segregated image.
What better way to do it than to have a black sherriff ride into town, one named Bart, as in “black Bart,” mocking the whole idea of “black” as a villainous quality (in the Old West, the bad guys always wore the black hats). It’s Bart who has all the symphathy in the film, making Blazing Saddles, if anything, the opposite of racism and an important statement in an era of blaxploitation in film. Just listen to Slim Pickens’ Indian speech –“Here we take the good time and trouble to slaughter every last Indian in the west and for what? So we can appoint a sheriff that’s blacker than any Indian! I am depressed.” If any viewers actually think like this, Brooks has one answer for you, the same answer Jim tells Bart after being called the n-word: “You gotta remember these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land, the common clave, the New West. You know, morons.”
That particular exchange was itself a foreshadowing of Silver Streak (1976), in which Pryor and Wilder teamed for buddy comedy greatness. Every fan of the film knows that Pryor was himself considered for the role of Bart before Brooks finally decided on Little, a truly gifted talent who died way too young. Of Little, Brooks once said, “My rule was not to eat with actors, but I enjoyed him so much that I begged him to eat with me.” (B)
Take that for what it’s worth. In any case, Blazing Saddles is a smorgezborg in casting.
Wilder, back with Brooks after The Producers (1968), is utterly charming as the whiskey-swiggin’ Jim, and Korman is very immitable as the calculating Hedley, constantly on defense to differentiate himself from famed actress Hedy Lamarr. His exchanges with Pickens are the stuff of legend, particularly describing how to “work up a Number Six … a whoppin’ and a whompin’ every little thing that moves.” Then, of course, there’s Kahn and her mastery of the Dietrich-type saloon singer, delivering sassy lines (“Is that a ten-gallon hat or are you just enjoying the show?”) and spinning a sultry voice out of a speech impediment (“Ooh, a wed wose, how womantic”). The performance earned Kahn an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and has since been named one of history’s 100 Greatest Performances by Premiere magazine.
Of course, the casting would not be complete without an appearance by Brooks himself. His appearances in his films are legendary — as a clumsy Moses in History of the World Part I; as the Yoda-spoof Yoghurt in Spaceballs (“May the Schwartzzz be with you!”); as a werewolf, a cat hit by a dart and the voice of Victor Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein; and as Rabbi Tuckman in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. But of all his appearances, none can surpass his cross-eyed, cigar-puffing Gov. Lepetomane, staring at his secretary’s cleavage (“Hello boys, have a good night’s rest?”) and desperately trying to connect with his ball and paddle (“This friggin thing is warped! Why do I always get a warped one?!”).
Brooks’ touch is all over this film, writing, directing, even composing the lyrics for four original songs, including the Oscar-nominated title song, sung by Frankie Laine with whip-cracking music by John Morris. Blazing Saddles will always remain Brooks’ finest hour (and a half) and arguably the funniest movie anyone has ever done.