Monday, August 24, 2015

Blazing Saddles

Quite possibly the quintessential (though arguably not the best) Mel Brooks movie, 1974's BLAZING SADDLES has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the funniest comedies of the 20th century, inviting comparison even to Marx Brothers films, though the Three Stooges might be a more accurate reference point. I say that in love, as amongst their relentless silliness many potent social points were made.  Does Brooks achieve a similar result?

If you asked me several years ago, I would've disagreed.  I was one of a handful who just did not share everyone's enthusiasm for what I considered an amusing but far-from-classic send up of Westerns.  What was so damned funny? The infamous campfire scene, where several cowboys are munching on baked beans and, er, creating some music? So many refer to this, explain how incapacitated with laughter they are.  I find flatulence as funny as the next guy, but it's tricky in a film.  Without getting too disgusting, let me say that fart jokes rarely work in movies, T.V. shows, YouTube videos, etc.  They're too staged - part of the hilarity comes from their unexpected intrusion at an inappropriate moment in an inappropriate place.  Contrived farting is no funnier than contrived anything else.

But this is Mel Brooks, the guy who'll do most anything for a laugh.  The desperation got even worse in his later films like HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I and SPACEBALLS.  While there were many very funny gags in those and other films, there were many more dead silences, more tired meta jokes and fourth wall breaking that got old quickly.  Satire is a word used to described Brooks' films, and while accurate it's just too easy to spoof things without creating original humor, or at least having a fresh perspective on what is being satirized.

Brooks achieves this with BLAZING SADDLES.  My recent viewing was a pleasant surprise - despite an abundance of disposable bits there is some pretty astute observation at work.  Mainly race relations. It's the Old West in the late 1800s.  Cleavon Little portrays Bart, a black railroad worker saved from the noose by State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) and "Gov" William J. Le Petomane (Brooks) in order to become sheriff of a frontier town.  Lamarr correctly assumes the townspeople will be outraged that a man of color would be so appointed and predicts that Bart will either be run out of town or killed, allowing Lamarr to buy up the land cheaply.  

Indeed, the folks of Rock Ridge don't take kindly to a "nigger" wearing a badge, having authority.  But Bart is a sharp one, quickly winning over his town (which admittedly is filled with dimbulbs) with his quick wit and ingratiating manner.  He is assisted by Jim, a super fast (though often drunk) gunslinger who is known as the "Waco Kid" (Gene Wilder).  They will team up to stop Lamarr and his gang of thugs, a battle that somehow eventually ends up crashing through the Warner Brothers commissary and out onto Olive Avenue in Burbank.

Many celebrate BLAZING SADDLES for its endearing silliness and puns ("Hedley!"), but underneath the inside jokes and cheerful vulgarity is a sharp conviction of those who discriminate, honestly believe they are an inerrant species.  Watch it closely next time.  There are long scenes with Little and Wilder that eschew easy jokes and reveal some deeper ideas.  Several moments throughout the film, actually.  That Richard Pryor was one of the screenwriters (and originally set to star in Little's role) should give you some idea of the fire within.  It's a film that could never be made as is these days.  Brooks agrees, stating that if you removed the word "nigger" from the screenplay you'd simply have no movie.
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