By Steve Vivona
Warner, $24.95, Widescreen/Standard
When I was ten years old nothing was funnier that a good fart. I'm happy to report that 20 years later the same still holds true. Director Mel Brooks knew that and he used anything he could to get a laugh. When I first saw "Blazing Saddles" it was the profanity and bodily functions that made me laugh, and while they still do, I appreciate it now on an entirely different level.
Brooks has made a career out of lampooning genres, and "Blazing Saddles" was his first foray into that kind of film. Previously he directed "The Producers" with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. It was a brilliant comedy about a struggling showman who hatches a scheme to net millions on a sure-fire flop. He followed it up with "The Twelve Chairs," an interesting misfire set in 19th century Russia.
When "Blazing Saddles" came along the Western was dying. Aside from a few John Wayne films the early Seventies sounded the death knell for this once-popular genre, and Brooks is credited with placing the final nail in its coffin. He skewered all the cliches and conventions that the Western had built up over the previous 50 years or so. And except for Clint Eastwood no one touched the genre for the next 20 years!
Using the old save the town from the evil land baron story as his framework Brooks (with a writing assist from Richard Pryor and co-star Gene Wilder) concocted one of the funniest and sharpest satires I've ever seen. The script is filled with every type of humor from the satiric to the scatological. It also helps to have a working knowledge of the genre and of Hollywood in general. You need to know who Randolph Scott is to get at least two jokes.
The nefarious Hedley Lamarr (comic genius Harvey Korman) plans to run his new railroad through the peaceful hamlet of Rock Ridge. The defiant townspeople refuse to leave and he looses his neanderthal henchmen, led by the slovenly Mr. Taggart (Slim Pickens), to go in a whoompin and a whompin!
Dejected and without protection of law, the townsfolk petition the governor for assistance. Unfortunately the Hon. William J. LePetomae (Brooks) is firmly in Hedley's pocket, and in a move clearly designed to further dampen their spirits, he sends them a black sheriff (the late Cleavon Little in a career performance).
Sheriff Bart meets with resistance and outright hostility at first. His only friend is the Waco Kid (Wilder), a drunken gunslinger who has given up the racket after some little bastard shot him in the ass! Slowly Bart and the Kid are able to rally the townspeople against Lamarr and his goons, and the film eventually becomes an all-out free for all spilling out on to the Warner Bros. lot!
"Blazing Saddles" (along with "Young Frankenstein") represents Brooks at the height of his craft. His career lost steam in the mid-Eighties as he toned down his broad humor for a PG-13 audience, and has never been the same since. However this is a film that, in my humble opinion, is comedic perfection.
The jokes come fast and furious and are designed for the non-politically correct world of happy memory! There is no way Brooks could get away with some of the humor found in "Saddles" today. A Jewish man, Brooks never singled out one group and he often went after his own people more than any other race. It would be impossible to accuse the man of bigotry and racism when he holds his own race up for ridicule.
In addition to Korman, Wilder, and Little, it's important to mention the contribution of the late Madeline Kahn as Lily von Schtupp, an obvious parody of (or homage to) Marlene Dietrich. What I love about this film is Brooks is never afraid to stick within the confines of the genre hes spoofing and brings in time-displaced characters like a World War I-era German lounge singer. He breaks the "fourth wall" entirely during the film's climactic brawl, where the characters interact with the audience and are fully cognizant they are in a movie.
I never tire of "Blazing Saddles." Even after seeing the film hundreds of times I still laugh, and during the infamous campfire scene I'm usually near tears. Why did Brooks lose his edge? I can think of two reasons. His most brilliant works were collaborations with Gene Wilder: "The Producers," "Saddles," and "Young Frankenstein." His other films from the Seventies are well done, such as "Silent Movie" and "High Anxiety," but they are nowhere near as funny (except for "History of the World Part I" which comes close).
The second reason would have to be catering to a younger audience in a more politically correct era. Except for "Spaceballs," which is mildly entertaining, his later efforts are just not funny. Films like "Life Stinks" (his low point), "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and "Dracula: Dead and Loving It," are mere shadows of his former glory, and it's really a shame because he is such a brilliant comedian.
I content myself with multiple viewings of the classics. More beans, Mr. Taggart?