Blazing Saddles (1974) – Directed by Mel Brooks – Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman, Mel Brooks, David Huddleston, Alex Karras, Dom DeLuise, and Count Basie.
BLAZING SADDLES isn’t so much a movie about the West as it is a movie that uses the West as the setting for its humor. Which is to say that as much as it draws on certain Western films and conventions, Mel Brooks isn’t putting the Western under his microscope the way, say, Scream uses slasher horror movies, or the Scary Movie franchise directly lampoons the most recent, notable horror movies of its time. What Mel Brooks appears to be trying to do with BLAZING SADDLES is make you laugh, any which way he can, with the Western as the broth to concoct his soup.
If Brooks’ intent was to make us laugh, then BLAZING SADDLES is an unqualified success as an amazing number of bits that Brooks and his team of writers (which included Richard Pryor) throw up on the screen work. The basic plot sees Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) convincing the Governor (Mel Brooks) to appoint a black sheriff (Cleavon Little) to the town of Ridge Rock in the hopes of getting the town people to leave so he can profit from the coming railroad. Lamarr keeps throwing things at the town and the town, led by Black Bart and the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), keeps resisting until finally Bart kills Lamarr outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on the night that BLAZING SADDLES premieres.
In between, Brooks employs anything and everything in an attempt to get you to laugh. There are individual moments that work because of their absurdity, such as when Mongo (Alex Karras) punches a horse. There are sight gags (a Howard Johnson’s in the Old West), sound gags (the copious farting as cowboys sit around eating beans), and sound and sight gags (the dueling musical numbers between the railroad work crew and their overseers). There are plenty of funny lines and humorous musical numbers. There are scenes that don’t work (ironically, perhaps, mostly involving Brooks), but they are few and the movie keeps things moving so quickly that even an unfunny scene doesn’t weigh the film down before you’re onto the next attempt to make you laugh.
Lots of humor is derived from the sheriff being a black guy. When he first arrives in town, the townsfolk’s celebration turns silent at the mere sight of him, and then they turn their guns on Bart, who thinks his way out of the jam by acting crazy and turning the crowd in his favor. Thinking his way out of problems is the hallmark of Bart’s tenure as sheriff. He’s the smartest guy in the movie and he knows it. When faced with the challenge of Mongo, Bart delivers the large man a candy-gram that blows up in his face, which earns his respect. At the end of the film, he convinces the townsfolk that they need to build a replica of the town to trick Lamar’s gang into attacking the wrong place.
There’s a bluntness to the racial humor that derives its humor from the increasingly outdated stereotypes, the time setting of the film contrasting with the time period in which Brooks is making his film. Brooks uses the bluntness of the white people not wanting the black sheriff around for some bits, and Bart exploiting that racial divide in others, such as when he goads some KKK members to chase him by asking, “Hey, where are all the white women at?”
The presence of the KKK is time appropriate (even if the Klan’s popularity had waned by the mid-1870s), but Brooks loves to derive humor from anachronisms. There’s a running joke about people pronouncing Lamarr’s first name as “Heddy” instead of “Hedley,” and Lamarr’s gang including Nazis and bikers. They set up my favorite joke of the movie. When the townsfolk needs more time to put their fake town together, Bart and Jim put up a toll booth in the middle of the desert with a toll of 10 cents. The gang arrives and stops and instead of simply going around it, Taggart (Slim Pickens) exasperatedly asks anyone if they have a dime, and when no one does, angrily snaps that “somebody’s gonna have to go back and get a sh*tload of dimes!”
In BLAZING SADDLES, Brooks has assembled a terrific comedy that’s as funny as it is inappropriate. There is a message of racial unity at the end, when Bart convinces the town to give the railroad workers some land in exchange for their help and town leader Olson Johnson (David Huddleston – the future Jeffrey Lebowski) replies that they’ll give land to the blacks and Asians, “but not the Irish!” before relenting into a happy melting pot of handshaking and fighting Lamarr’s gang. This is Brooks at the height of his comedic powers and while this is a film that derives humor from anachronisms, the film itself is still fresh and hilarious nearly forty years on.
An addendum: the Blu-ray edition of BLAZING SADDLES contains the 1975 pilot for the TV show spin-off of the movie called Black Bart. The sitcom stars Louis Gossett, Jr. in the Bart role, now the sheriff of another town. Steve Landesberg (who’d go on to appear in Barney Miller) was his drunk, Confederate officer deputy named Reb. While not down and out terrible, the racial humor doesn’t translate as well to the TV sitcom format and it doesn’t appear to be a big loss that the show wasn’t picked up. It is worth a watch, though, if you get the Blu-ray, but isn’t necessarily something you want to track down.