David Huddleston — aka The Big Lebowski from "The Big Lebowski" — threatens Cleavon Little in "Blazing Saddles." Credit: Warner Home Video
‘Blazing Saddles’: 40th Anniversary Warner Home Video $24.98
You don’t have to go far to find assertions that “Blazing Saddles” could never be made today. Mel Brooks himself says it on his film’s new, 40th anniversary edition, treating the comedy classic like contraband smuggled from wilder times. True, if released today it would cause outraged think pieces from the likes of Salon. But if anything, viewed in 2014, it’s almost tame. It’s almost tame for 1974. In its time the film’s racial bluntness ruffled some feathers, but it fared far better than Ralph Bakshi’s “Coonskin,” from the subsequent year — an animated whirling dervish about Harlem gangsters that was barely released due to its presumed-to-be explosive content. (Both films, interestingly, were made by white Jews.)
The reckless, sometimes questionable “Coonskin” makes “Blazing Saddles” look like “Sesame Street.” That’s not a bad thing: It isn’t so much a politically incorrect machine as the embodiment of hip liberalism, offering a naked plea for racial unity through subversive jokes that do their best to hide the sincerity running through it. It’s not so much vulgar because of what it’s saying but because of how, even for a Brooks film, it will do anything for a laugh.
Many of those jokes are about stupid white people, chiefly the members of an Old West town who react virulently when the state sends them an unflappable black sheriff (Cleavon Little). But even more are about the western genre, which is treated with equal parts hostility and reverence. (There are also a lot of jokes that are just people saying "s—." This is funny.) Brooks and his writers frontload the racism obscured in old westerns, with characters casually deploying the n-word — a running gag that made even Brooks nervous. He had to get the blessing of Little and co-writer Richard Pryor, who Brooks wanted to play the lead but who was seen as too erratic. (Brooks says Pryor at one point during the writing process — which was generally fueled by drugs and all-night brainstorming sessions — disappeared to Cleveland, and couldn't answer why he chose Cleveland.)
At one point in "Blazing Saddles," Mel Brooks plays a Native American chief who speaks Yiddish. Credit: Warner Home Video
But Brooks still loves westerns even as he tears them down. As “Young Frankenstein” did to old Universal monster movies, Brooks is making a valentine, and he assumes everyone is smart — not just enough to be on his side politically, but to get all the references to the great, or even semi-obscure, westerns. No doubt at this point in history the parodies will be many viewers’ first brushes with such western biggies as “authentic frontier gibberish”-spouting sidekick Gabby Hayes and Marlene Dietrich’s crooning fatale in “Destry Rides Again.” (Madeline Kahn, who scored an Oscar nomination as "Teutonic T—willow" Lili von Shtupp, is still the Dietrich impersonator to beat.)
In fact, the gags are fired so consistently that any simple message is hard to find. That’s probably a good thing, and its funniness over message-mongering is not doubt why it had major crossover appeal. (It was the first comedy to cross the $100 million line.) Like a lot of Brooks films, it’s scattershot if charmingly so, and its power lies in its lack of craft. (“Young Frankenstein,” by contrast, is a beautifully accomplished technical pastiche that nails the look of its targets, on top of being even funnier.)
“Blazing Saddles” has been quoted and clipped to death, but there’s still gold to be mined. The anachronistic jokes usually kill, including a throwaway line about Little’s Sheriff Bart having to invent the candygram to defeat Alex Karras’ fearsome Mongo. (“And they probably won’t even give me credit for it.”) Meanwhile no wear and tear could ever do damage to Slim Pickens' send-up of his own Western work or Harvey Korman’s elegantly evil Hedley Lamarr. (That Brooks assumed everyone would get a silly joke about Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr joke is a huge part of its appeal.)
Probably the most shocking thing in the film isn’t its racial jokes, but Gene Wilder. A last-minute replacement for Gig Young, he takes a break from his most enduring shtick — letting epic agitation drive him into a shouty, sweaty frenzy — and plays laconic and quiet. He’s not even being funny; he could have legitimately have had a career playing westerns — had “Blazing Saddles” not helped kill it when it only had a touch of life left in it anyway.
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