Film Review: BLAZING SADDLES
Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, Madeline Kahn, David Huddleston, John Hillerman, Jack Starrett, Burton Gilliam, Alex Karras, George Furth, Mel Brooks, Dom DeLuise, Liam Dunn, Robert Ridgely
Directed by Mel Brooks
Screenplay by Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Alan Uger
Produced by Michael Hertzberg
Music by John Morris
Songs by Mel Brooks
Release date: Feb. 7, 1974
“What in the Wide World of Sports is a-going on here?” –Taggart
“I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille.” –Jim, aka The Waco Kid
Buddy Bizarre: “What in the hell do you think you’re doing here? This is a closed set!”
Taggart: “Piss on you! I work for Mel Brooks!”
Forty years ago today, on Feb. 7, 1974, Mel Brooks’ classic “Blazing Saddles” was released—to universal laughter—and film comedy, film westerns, film satire and just plain film in general were never really the same again, and although that’s a terrible cliché (“I hate that cliché!”), in this particular case, it just happens to be twue, er, true. It’s twue, it’s twue!
Although much has been written about “Blazing Saddles” during the past four decades, the fortieth anniversary of this seminal, innovative, inventive and groundbreaking film—accolades that are literally twue, er, true—provides a good opportunity to revisit the film. And to explore in an in-depth manner just why the film is important, why it matters, what made it so groundbreaking and influential, and just how this raunchy, but somehow still very classy and stylish, comedy sketch, skit, song and whatever-seemed-to-work movie immediately laughed its way into public consciousness and influence and zeitgeist and popular culture and never left. Considering, again, the very influence and importance that the film comedy has obtained through the decades, it’s worth the time to examine just how such a trailblazing—word usage pun intended—film satire has captivated popular entertainment for four decades.
On a very simple, pure and basic level, “Blazing Saddles” is simply hilariously funny—for all 95 minutes, from the opening moments through to the brilliant, transcendent ending. Viewed simply as a collection of sketches, skits, jokes, pokes, puns, one-liners, two-liners, slapstick bits, physical bits, word gags and sight gags—looked at as a collection of comedic staples similar to Harvey Korman’s Attorney General Hedy, er, Hedley Lamarr’s (That’s Hedley!) list of required criminals in one of the best word-usage passages of the film, among many—one examination could simply rest on ticking off a series, or entire film’s worth, of just funny scenes.
And there’s nothing wrong with just enjoying “Blazing Saddles” as just that—an hilariously funny film that makes you laugh out loud for an hour and half. And that could be said for many films. If a film makes you laugh for 95 minutes, and a film lightens your load and mood and makes you feel better, well, there’s not much argument against the simple success of that achievement. If watching “Blazing Saddles” and some of the hundreds of film comedies that the film influenced and paved the way for–including but not limited to “Animal House,” “Airplane!,” “The Naked Gun,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and its sequels–over and over again, and still laughing, even if you know what’s coming, even if you know all of the lines, then good! Laughter can indeed be the best medicine, and there is something to be said for watching the same film, or television show or play, over and over again and still laughing. In all the history of popular entertainment, with all the thousands of films that have been released, with all of the thousands of film comedies, so-called comedies and attempted-comedies, that basic, simple achievement of making one laugh during repeated viewings is still a rare achievement. Still. Laugh, and the world laughs with you, the saying goes. But laugh with a classic comedy that everyone enjoys over and over again, and everyone laughs with you even louder.
But “Blazing Saddles’ is much, much more than just a laundry list of standard comedic ingredients to be checked off, as if running through a Basic Comedy 101 tutorial or classroom lesson about what is funny and what is funny in a film satire comedy. And why “Blazing Saddles” is literally much more than just a funny film is what helps transcend the film to its various higher levels of film, comedy, popular culture and entertainment influence and standing.
Hedley Lamarr [to himself]: “A sheriff! But law and order is the last thing I want. Wait a minute…maybe I could turn this thing into my advantage. If I could find a sheriff who so offends the citizens of Rock Ridge that his very appearance would drive them out of town.”
[Looks into the camera.]
Lamarr: “But where would I find such a man?”
Lamarr: “Why am I asking you?”
“Blazing Saddles” was released, as noted, in 1974—a time of intense, and astonishing, experimentation, daring, innovativeness and intentional groundbreaking in film at all levels, from student films to short films to television films to independent films, all the way up to mainstream, big-budget Hollywood films, big-budget independents and even documentaries (yes, innovativeness in documentaries—the documentaries of this period broke ground, too).
This was also a time of extraordinary cultural, sociological, political, artistic and historical change, again, at all levels, from the country to suburbia to urban centers to Middle America to the increasingly influential and dominant Baby Boomers to the increasing power, influence—and changes—of the World War II and post-war generations. This was a time of complete—and welcome–upheaval, with the United States, and the world, wrestling with the demons of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam, Nixon, a very real generation gap, war protests, civil rights and human rights movements, environmental movements, equal rights movements, feminist movements, and seismic movements wherever you turned in any other area of life. Old, stodgy, puritanical and antiquated twentieth-century and even pre-twentieth century belief structures and conventions were crumbling, falling by the wayside, every week and every month. And right along with this atmosphere of upheaval, anti-establishmentism, protest, underground influence, a loosening of bygone belief systems, standard-breaking, rule-breaking, convention-breaking and cultural, social and political change, the arts—in every category, including film–were a major factor in these myriad sea changes that were changing everything, changing the world, changing the way the world operated and the way people viewed the world.
As Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Paul Schrader, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Stanley Kubrick, Alan Pakula, Milos Forman, Bernardo Bertolucci and Robert Altman, and others, could tell you, this was an exciting time to be a filmmaker. Mirroring the sweeping societal changes taking place, all for the better, these young, daring filmmakers seized the moment, knowing that the stodgy old conventions and ways of doing things were steadily being blown away. Conventions, standards, rules, guidelines? We don’t need no stinking conventions, standards, rules or guidelines!
These filmmakers took a strong hold onto a firm opportunity to experiment boldly in film in just about any manner that they could–and in the process they created dozens of some of the best films in Hollywood history, breaking ground in whatever form, way, shape or manner that they could break ground. Explicit sex? Yes. Graphic violence? Yes. Unusual, bizarre storytelling techniques, formats and narratives? Of course. Oddball and difficult and extreme main characters? Yes. Different ways of presenting basic talking, conversing, communicating and dialogue? Yes. Experimental directing, cinematography, camera techniques, use of technology, use of lighting, use of sound and sound effects, costuming, story structure, character arcs, character traits, use of anti-heroes and unlikely and unlikeable protagonists, music and every other basic aspect of filmmaking? Yes. This was all there—experimentation, breaking ground, breaking down stodgy and outdated barriers, at every level of filmmaking. And filmgoers didn’t get a bunch of drug-induced, confusing juvenile nonsense—they got a continual stream of, again, many of the very best films in Hollywood history.
And here, amidst the creative maelstrom, firestorm and whirlwind of change taking hold in every corner of the filmic room, was Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks and a mind and vision that had been as daring, innovative, experimental and rule-breaking as any Coppola, Bertolucci, Forman or Scorsese for years, actually.
Lamarr: My mind is aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.
Lamarr: Ditto? Ditto, you provincial putz?
Melvin James Kaminsky—later Mel Brooks–was born in Brooklyn in 1926, and his upbringing mirror the upbringing of tens, or hundreds, of thousands of others in that region at that time—sons and daughters of Eastern European Jews who fled persecution and found better, if somewhat ramshackle and struggling, lives in the boroughs of New York City and the towns of Northern New Jersey. Jewish and Yiddish humor, jokes, stories, storytelling, songs and music were important aspects of these lives, these families, these cultures. And soon, many of these young Americans found themselves entering World War II and fighting for their newfound American mixed-culture lives and communities. After the war, they were heroes, and the world was rightfully their oyster, and many went to college and work and educated themselves on the G.I. Bill and in the exploding country, economy and changing cultural landscape that marked post-World War II America. The country was strong, inventive, powerful, and rebuilding itself. And those in the arts found opportunity in the exploding, so-called Borscht Belt nightclubs, resorts and clubs in the Catskills and elsewhere, enjoying the wealth and strength and opportunity not just in the country at large, but in the growing, changing and popular art forms that were marking a slow, steady transition from radio and clubs to the future mediums of television and film on a larger scale. But first, there were the clubs, and radio, and early television.
Max Kaminsky, now Mel Brooks, a war veteran, took full opportunity of this burgeoning post-war scene and started performing—he played drums and piano, emceed at clubs, and performed stand-up and skits and jokes in clubs and nightclubs and resorts, joining the classic era of largely Jewish, largely Eastern European-descended entertainers and performers that were all over the place, from the Catskills to Manhattan to the boroughs to the swamps of Jersey. Brooks caught the clever ear and eye of one of the great comedic innovators and rule-breakers of the era, his friend Sid Caesar, and the rest, as they say, is history. Brooks became one of the group of now-classic writers who worked on Caesar’s shows, “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” at the dawn of television. He started writing, producing, directing and performing—in television, in films, on stage. He wrote early musicals, he wrote sketches about 2000-year-old men that he performed with friend Carl Reiner, and he created “Get Smart,” itself a bit of a television groundbreaker in its satire, and, finally, in the late 1960s, he started producing and writing what would become a string of daring, innovative comedy films, including 1968’s “The Producers,” which at that time was not a Broadway musical but another rule-breaking film that freaked out everyone who Brooks’ tried to get to produce it. But he eventually prevailed, and the original “Producers” became a classic in its own right and its own way, paving another trail for a string of Brooks satire films that would dominate box offices for more than a dozen subsequent years.
What does all of this have to do with “Blazing Saddles?” Everything. For to know Mel Brooks is to know “Blazing Saddles,” and to know “Blazing Saddles” is to know Mel Brooks.
Taggart: I got it! I know how we can run everyone out of Rock Ridge.
Hedley Lamarr: How?
Taggart: We’ll kill the first born male child in every household.
Hedley Lamarr: [after some consideration] Too Jewish.
That Brooks background—condensed for space and time here—is most certainly not too Jewish, but Jewish it is, infused and imbued with a rich history of Jewish and Yiddish and Eastern European and New York and New Jersey humor, culture and sensibilities. And infused and imbued with the Borscht Belt, the Catskills, performing before thousands of paying and laughing and newly-prosperous Jews, and with the humor, intelligence and inventiveness of his early-television cohorts Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Mel Tolkin. All of that is Mel Brooks, and all of that is evident and present in everything that Mel Brooks has done. And all of that is present throughout “Blazing Saddles.”
The film is a cosmic vapor of invention that borrows from just about every Borscht Belt and early television gag, skit and sketch. The gags and one-liners can appear borrowed or stolen at first glance—but they are not borrowed or stolen. In the context of “Blazing Saddles,” what Brooks slyly and ably and crazily did was take these old jokes and gags, place them all in the unlikeliest of places—a Western, and in the Old West—and then add racy, raunchy, then-groundbreaking humor and gags and jokes that were decidedly non-Borscht Belt, non-‘50s television and even, at the time, non-1960s or non-1970s broadly-accepted or broadly-seen film humor. One underlying brilliance here was to take old comedic conventions, add some new, anti-establishment, anti-convention comedy conventions, mix them all up in a cosmic comedic stew, shake it all up, throw it up in the air, stir it in a pot, throw it against the wall, and basically just use everything, whether it appeared to work, stick, taste good or stick to the wall. However, in the end, it all did indeed work, stick, taste good and stick to the brain.
And in that daring mix of old and new, Brooks and his co-writers made sure that the new was new. Make sure it offended everybody—not just the stiff upper class, or authoritarian figures or conventional villains, all of which were the standard targets of film comedy for decades—but everybody. That meant whites, blacks, Indians, rednecks, city slickers, standard villains and heroes, homesteaders, cowboys, politicians, Jews, Methodists, Germans, the Irish—everybody. That meant throwing in scenes that were literally never presented before on scene. That meant a daring comedic use of racial and nationalistic slurs and insults—some daring still, even three years after Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” broke ground in this area on television. That meant having scenes that seemed at first glance not to make any usual narrative sense. That meant regularly breaking the fourth wall—which was not new, but it’s still always inventive. That meant having story and narrative often taking a back seat to simple gags, jokes, slapstick and sight gags. It meant taking everything—old humor, new humor, Borscht Belt humor, Catskills humor, “Your Show of Shows” humor, “2000 Year Old Man” humor, “Get Smart” and “Producers” humor and new, bold, experimental 1970s convention-breaking humor–and presenting it in the novel form of a Western satire comedy film.
More specifically, it meant having a character—football player Alex Karras’ philosophical Mongo—actually throwing a punch at a horse, and knocking that horse to the ground. (Karras was also given a great line for his mentally-slow villain: “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”) It meant having a posse of criminals on horses stop in their tracks in the middle of the West and not proceeding forward because a dime-tollbooth throughway—again, in the middle of the open West–had suddenly appeared in front of them. (An irritated Taggart says that somebody’s got to go back and get a shit-load of dimes.) It meant having Cleavon Little’s sheriff appear riding across the desert to bouncy, upbeat jazz—and then having modern-day jazz’s actual Count Basie appear with his full orchestra—playing in the middle of that desert to nobody. It meant having Madeline Kahn’s Lili Von Shtupp performing in an Old West saloon with a bunch of effeminate dancers dressed as some type of weird leather-crowd Nazi storm troopers—not exactly the usual show you’d see in an Old West saloon. It meant making fun of, well, such rarely-mentioned and certainly unfunny issues like, well, rape and bestiality. It meant having Bart, a black sheriff in an Old West town, and Gene Wilder’s Jim, aka The Waco Kid, smoking a joint in the town sheriff’s office—in the Old West. It meant an Indian chief, played by Brooks, speaking Yiddish. It meant everyone in the backwoods Old West town of Rock Ridge being named Johnson—including ice cream shoppe owner Howard Johnson. It meant Harvey Korman’s evil attorney general Hedy, er, Hedley Lamarr addressing soon-to-be-marauding-villains on horses in the Old West desert and calling them schmucks, telling them to “go do that voodoo that you do so well,” bragging that he could be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and then preening like Charlton Heston’s Moses before the Jews fled the Pharaohs into the split-open sea.
It meant having the first character to ever fart in a film.
And, finally, it meant suddenly, abruptly, bizarrely and, yes, brilliantly, breaking down the fourth wall—literally—and taking the film harshly out of its somewhat-safe Old West story and set and time-jumping, with no explanation, to a present-day Hollywood sound stage where an effeminate director is directing a Busby Berkeley-like group of effeminate dancers, and thus having the film streaking and roaring and bounding beyond any reasonable narrative, storytelling, theory or conventional film presentation that anyone had ever seen before.
All of this is what made, and makes, “Blazing Saddles” so unconventional, innovative and groundbreaking. The film, even in 1974, and even after a decade of unconventional, groundbreaking filmmaking by rule-breaking directors, producers and actors, was still unlike anything anyone had ever seen in a film comedy before. That sounds clichéd, also, but, again, its twue, er, true.
Those last five minutes, where the film careens back and forth in time and space and story and doesn’t seem to make any easily-explainable sense, is often seen by some folks as confusing, out-of-place, nonsensical and literally out of the bounds of standard, conventional storytelling and filmmaking. Yes. Exactly. That’s exactly what it is—it’s all of that, and more. The very fact that what is occurring—all of it in those last five minutes, from the back-and-forth between the Old West to modern day and back to the Old West, and the cows in the movie theater, and everything else—is indeed confusing, out-of-place, out-of-bounds, nonsensical, jarring and unexplainable. Which is what made it unique, entertaining, innovative, groundbreaking, unusual, original—and funny.
Now some diehard film and comedy fans may suddenly wonder, “Why ‘Blazing Saddles?’” when the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges and other early film comedy stars were breaking conventions, breaking the fourth wall and even performing many of the same style of gags and jokes, forty or so years before “Blazing Saddles.” Yes, they, and others, were indeed doing just that—but even then, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, even with Groucho turning to the camera and cracking one-liners every fifth scene, with Abbott and Costello parodying horror and fantasy and other types of genres much like Brooks did on a hot streak after “Saddles” in the 1970s (“Young Frankenstein,” “High Anxiety,” Silent Movie”), and with the Marx Brothers adding quite unconventional, nonsensical sight gags regularly that had nothing to do with the story being told, these were still films in which, well, no one punched a horse, no one said “up yours [racial slur],” no one joked about rape and bestiality, no one ever farted around the campfire, no one ever insulted everyone, and no one ever broke the fourth wall quite like Brooks broke the fourth wall during those psycho last five minutes. The early film comedy performers were unconventional, too, but they were not quite as unconventional as Brooks was with “Blazing Saddles” in 1974.
Hedley Lamarr: I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists.
But what about the basic standards of filmmaking—production, direction, writing and acting?
“Blazing Saddles” succeeds easily in all these major areas. Look at the production design of the film—even amid the comedy, you get the feeling that you are in some dinky, backwoods, hinterland Old West town, which is called Rock Ridge in the film. The design of the sheriff’s office, the saloon, the church, the streets of the town, and the landscapes in the outdoors scenes all recall and suggest the Old West. The costumes are all classic Old West—from Lamarr’s evil villain suit to Slim Pickens’ black hat and black vest as the redneck sidekick Taggart, to Jack Starrett’s hilarious mish-mash of Old West Gabby Hayes Western wear, even Bart’s Rodeo Drive-inspired designer sheriff’s uniform.
Mel Brooks’ direction of “Saddles’ is confident, assured and tight and close in regards to the camerawork throughout the film—there are no empty spaces, no wasted spaces, and everything that occurs is shot in close-up quarters so you don’t miss the gag, don’t miss the line and can enjoy the great comedic expressions and acting that is taking place every second. His timing, pacing, staging, blocking and delivery direction is just simply assured in every scene. Watch the blocking in certain scenes, the placement of people, the choreography of the actors’ movements, and how the actors interact with each other in each scene. With all good comedy, timing, pacing and chemistry are key, and the actors are all skilled enough comedic actors that their talent, merged with Brooks’ assured direction, shine in every moment.
And the acting—well, whenever you put Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Slim Pickens, Burton Gilliam (who plays Taggart’s equally-redneck sub-sidekick Lyle, who was the first film character to fart on screen in film history), Dom DeLuise, David Huddleston, John Hillerman, George Furth, Liam Dunn, Mel Brooks, Jack Starrett and Alex Karras in one film, are you going to fail on the acting scale? No, and everyone contributes—even Hillerman, who’s not exactly the king of comedy, but he is irritating and annoying enough in his Hillerman style that in the context of the film, it’s just funny. These are just great, stand-out supporting actors. And you have Little and Wilder and Korman and Kahn working at the top of their respective games. Little and Wilder may be the main characters, but it’s really the great Harvey Korman who steals the film. Korman’s character—modeled after every stock, clichéd movie and Western villain in all of film history, including Jack Lemmon’s very similar villain in Blake Edwards’ “The Great Race”—is in scenes with every major character, interacts in some hilarious scenes of varying intensity, and has some of the best lines in the film, one of which appears above, when he expertly lists all of the type of classic Western villains he wants to drive out the citizens of Rock Ridge.
The writing—credited to five people, including Brooks and Richard Pryor—simply takes a simple Old West story of politicians wanting to drive out the citizens of backwoods Rock Ridge so they can build a railroad through the town and goes from there. One of the tactics that Lamarr dreams up to drive out the citizens of Rock Ridge is to send Little’s Bart, who is black, to the town as the new sheriff, thinking it will stir up the town and drive everyone away. Instead, the citizens learn to like, work with and trust Bart—and his bevy of Old West black friends who are working on the railroad. Eventually, Bart, Wilder’s Old West gunslinger and alcoholic Jim, aka The Waco Kid, Bart’s railroad friend and all of the Johnsons in Rock Ridge band together and drive out and defeat Lammar, Taggart, Lyle and the other gunslingers and Methodists. That’s the basic story, but of course the script shines because of all of aforementioned lines, scenarios, gags, sketches, skits, one-liners, jokes and dialogue.
In the end, all of this somehow came together and produced “Blazing Saddles,” which in turn turned real Westerns upside down and inside out for a while, influenced a new generation of comedy writers, actors and directors, paved the trail for additional raunchy, yet funny, film comedy satires, and proved that raunchy comedy with modern-day sensibilities can indeed make tons of money (which “Saddles” did) and get nominated for Academy Awards. Not for Korman, alas, but for Kahn, for best supporting actress; for best film editing (a notable achievement for a comedy); and for best music and original score, another notable achievement for a film comedy. And along the dusty filmic trail, “Blazing Saddles” became one of the great film comedies of all time.
Jim: [who still has his popcorn and soda from the Chinese Theater] Where you headed, cowboy?
Bart: Nowhere special.
Jim: Nowhere special? I always wanted to go there.
Bart: Come on.
And in yet another brilliant move, at the end of “Blazing Saddles,” Bart and Jim, their work done here, thank you ma’am, ride their horses out of Rock Ridge into the Western desert—straight to a waiting limousine. As a ranch hand takes the horses, Bart and Jim enter the limousine, and, expertly, beautifully, the limo drives off into the sunset, as the theme music for the film plays on the soundtrack. This marks a hilarious—and beautiful—ending to a hilarious and, comedically, beautiful classic film.
Bart and Jim may ride off into the sunset, but Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” will never ride off into the sunset. For as long as people need to laugh, as long as conventions need to be broken, as long as people need sharp satire, as long as great film writers and actors and directors cry out for entertainment justice…BULL! Okay, okay, you caught me. As Bart said toward the end of the film, “To speak the plain truth, it’s getting pretty damn dull around here.”