Tuesday, July 24, 2012

From My Collection: Blazing Saddles Movie Review

I can’t imagine sitting down and watching Blazing Saddles now for the first time and coming away enjoying it very much. It’s got some funny gags, classic lines, and as a satire of the Western genre and the marginalization of black people in the United States it can be searingly funny. But much of what made the film work so well was that it was made the early 70s. Mel Brooks was a well-known name, but he was not yet a well-known satirist. The Producers was a big success a few years earlier, but Young Frankenstein would follow later in 1974 and still to come were High Anxiety and History of the World: Part I.

Though Blazing Saddles has been cemented in the annals of classic American comedies, it wasn’t universally revered in the beginning. Of course I loved it as a kid. I didn’t get a lot of the racial humor, but I understand why the central premise was funny. Mostly I liked the goofiness of it, which is the kind of comedy most kids are drawn to. Some of us eventually grow out of that, so I thought it was time to give the film another shot – this time as a grown man many years removed from the last time I saw it and after two years of regularly writing film criticism. Knowing what jokes are coming give any comedy a little less bite. I still knew nearly all the lines and though I can’t say I guffawed at any point, I did appreciate a lot of the humor in a way I don’t recall as a younger man.

The film really shouldn’t work. It was cobbled together by a cadre of screenwriters sitting in a room hashing out the jokes. They included Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Alan Uger, Andrew Bergman (who wrote the story that got rehashed by the team), and the late great Richard Pryor. Together they threw in everything but the kitchen sink. The basic idea is it’s a western taking place in 1874, made with jokes that nod toward 1974: a black cowboy rides past Count Basie’s jazz band; he uses a Gucci saddle and wears a velvet outfit; and the entire finale breaks the fourth wall (almost literally) as a melee crashes onto the set of another film on the Warner Brothers backlot.

Brooks and his team assembled, at face value, a send up of the Western genre that includes a village under attack by marauders, the need for a courageous sheriff to save them, unforgiving politicians, corrupt businessmen, a washed up gunslinger, a sexy chanteuse in the vein of Marlene Dietrich, and a hilariously juvenile scene involving copious consumption of beans and plenty of gas. Blazing Saddles goes farther than Brooks’ successors in the spoof genre ever dared to venture. From the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team to the Wayans brothers, I can’t recall any spoof that even touched on culturally significant issues.

As the black Sheriff Bart, Cleavon Little is mostly the straight man to a cast of comedic actors. He has his moments, to be sure, but Brooks makes what I imagine is a calculated decision to avoid having the principle black character act the clown in a way that could have undermined everything he was trying to do. Nor is he the butt of the jokes, but rather the impetus for other characters being depicted as fools. Gene Wilder plays Bart’s partner, the Waco Kid: Fastest Hands in the West. Wilder was an actor of inspired comic genius in the 70s. Along with Willy Wonka and Frederic von Frankenstein, this completes a triumvirate of brilliant comedic performances. Always a standout in whatever she touched, Madeline Kahn plays the prostitute Lili von Shtupp, a parody of several Marlene Dietrich roles that earned her an Academy Award nomination. Oscar accolades weren’t in the cards for Harvey Korman as Lt. Governor Hedley “Hedy” Lamarr, even though his character makes an on screen appeal for a nomination. Slim Pickens also has a role as an earnest and well-meaning, but dim-witted cowboy.

Blazing Saddles is more than a genre spoof – it’s a satire of not only depictions of black and other minority characters in America’s beloved Westerns, but also of contemporary attitudes toward people of other races. The premise of the movie is that the corrupt businessman Lamar wants the railroad to pass straight through the peaceful town of Rock Ridge. He orders the marauders to terrorize the villagers until the sheriff quits. When the people demand that the governor (Mel Brooks) post a new sheriff, Lamar convinces him to appoint a black man, a move that is sure to drive the townspeople to abandon their homes. Perhaps that film has more resonance today given the current occupant of the White House. It’s worth noting that the story, such as it is, doesn’t contain much of a plot. It’s thrown together and rather slipshod in its execution, but the level of humor compensates such that you don’t really consider how facile it is.

Modern audiences might consider most of the language and situations to be quite tame by today’s standards, but I still think it’s pretty shocking when Sheriff Bart gives a good morning greeting to an elderly woman who responds, “Up yours, nigger!” The N-word is used earlier in the film, but not until that moment does it have the full force and effect of jolting you in your seat. The movie riffs on the entire idea, anathema in Hollywood at the time, that a black man could be the hero. For the sake of historical accuracy, it’s certainly understandable why Westerns had virtually all-white casts with the exception of villainous Indians, an ethnic group that gets a nod by Brooks playing a Chief in a flashback story told by Bart about a time the Indians let him and his parents go because “they’re darker than us.” The racial reversal is very funny in itself, but by having the Indians speak Yiddish, Brooks manages to bring the historically put-upon Jews into the mix.

The witty and wonderful screenplay that is full of laughs and the occasional great acting more than make up for a climax that runs a bit off the rails and suggests that the writers couldn’t quite come up with a plausible ending that didn’t involve a post-modern crossover into a 1940s style musical. I hope I can keep coming back to this movie into my old age and find something to laugh at like I do now.

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