Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Blazing Saddles (1974)

In the Portland neighborhood I grew up in, a family with four sons lived below me in a cul-de-sac. I was in grade school. Three of the brothers were in middle school and one brother was even in high school.  They were like my big brothers and their interests influenced me. They collected baseball cards so I collected baseball cards. They were into butterflies so I was into butterflies.  They were old enough to go see movies that I couldn't see and I remember they were fond of comedies.  BLAZING SADDLES (1974) was one of those films they saw and talked about.  They would repeat funny lines from the film.  Having not seen the film, I could only try to visualize what they were talking about in my head. It never worked.  At some point, I was finally old enough to see BLAZING SADDLES and fully enjoy the humor that had tickled my older friends funny bones.

In the early 1970's, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks were the court jesters of the comedy genre. Their unique brand of comedy, in particular the film spoof, was widely popular.  Allen and Brooks were the best of the best. Woody Allen film spoofs were more intellectual.  He poked fun at the prison breakout genre with TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969); the science fiction genre with SLEEPER (1973); and Russian literature in LOVE AND DEATH (1975).

Mel Brooks's humor was a bit more sophomoric and silly. Some of the jokes and gags in BLAZING SADDLES would make a fourth grader laugh today. Brooks's films are loving spoofs of more traditional Hollywood film genres.  HIGH ANXIETY (1977) makes fun of Hitchcock's films. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) is a wink to the Universal Frankenstein films.  And of course, BLAZING SADDLES is a wet kiss to the western.  Brooks respects and honors these genres even as he has fun with them. What Brooks and his screen writers Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Alan Uger are really skewering in BLAZING SADDLES is racism.  The stupidity of racism.  Brooks doesn't hold back. Jews, blacks, and gays (and don't forget the Irish) - no minority is spared but the ultimate jab is at bigots and racists.  Brooks portrays them as idiots and buffoons. He exposes the absurdity of racism.

The two westerns BLAZING SADDLES most resembles are the Michael Curtiz film DODGE CITY (1939) and Howard Hawk's RIO BRAVO (1959). The basic premise is the backbone of many a great western. The railroad's expansion out west hits a snag when the construction encounters quicksand along its path. For the railroad to continue, a detour is found but standing in the way is the town of Rock Ridge. Hedley (not Hedy that's Hedley) Lamarr (Harvey Korman), a crooked Attorney General working for the moronic Governor William J. Lepetomane (Mel Brooks) hires a bunch of outlaws to terrorize the citizens of Rock Ridge so that they will abandon their town.  Rock Ridge has no sheriff so Lamarr sends in who he believes will be the worst candidate for the job -- a black man named Bart (Clevon Little). The citizens of Rock Ridge resist at first -- mostly due to their bigotry but Sheriff Bart with the aid of the recently sober Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) outwits the gang of outlaws trying to drive them out of town.

It's a pretty basic plot but it's within that framework that Brooks weaves his comedy anarchy. Although set in the 19th century West, Brooks uses anachronisms for laughs.  A medieval executioner works next to Lamarr's office. Nazi soldiers and Hell's Angels motorcycle gang members make up some of the outlaw gang. In a wagon train flashback scene, a very Jewish Indian Chief (also Mel Brooks) allows Bart's black family to continue west. And in the film's greatest set piece, the big western fight scene between the citizens of Rock Ridge and the outlaws spills over from the Warner Brothers western back lot to a Busby Berkley musical set.  Reality is broken down literally as fighting cowboys crash through the wall of the sound stage and mix with male dancers in tuxedos and coat tails, much to the chagrin of the director (Dom Deluise). The past and the present get intertwined all for the sake of a good laugh (Monty Python's films and television show would also continue this comedy style).

BLAZING SADDLES tweaks all the familiar western stereotypes with black sheriff Bart (Clevon Little) and his Gucci riding bag or Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn), an Elmer Fudd sounding German cabaret singer. There's the quick drawing gunslinger turned recovering alcoholic and philosopher Jim aka the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) and Mongo (Alex Karras), the bad guy's burly henchman who punches horses but is recruited over to the good side. Veteran Western character actors Slim Pickens and David Huddleston contribute to the Western realism and even Ben Johnson (THE WILD BUNCH) makes a cameo appearance. Gene Wilder, Dom Deluise, Madeline Kahn, and Harvey Korman would be part of the Mel Brooks repertoire appearing in future Mel Brooks films. For Wilder, I wish he and Brooks had made more films together. They reached their comedy zenith with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (which Brooks and Wilder co-wrote together). Wilder would go it alone after YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and some of his films like THE WORLD'S GREATEST LOVER (1977) or HAUNTED HONEYMOON (1986) never lit the comedy world on fire.

To me BLAZING SADDLES is the godfather of the raunchy comedy that would continue with such films as ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) and STRIPES (1981) all the way to AMERICAN PIE (1999) and now Judd Apatow's comedies like THE 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN (2005) and KNOCKED UP (2007).  The combination of gross out humor, nudity, and crude language has replaced the smart, sophisticated comedies of the past.

The lifespan of the film spoof has continued as well in part to BLAZING SADDLES. AIRPLANE (1980), HOT SHOTS (1991), and THE NAKED GUN (1988) series all owe their success to BLAZING SADDLES.  Across the pond, the Monty Python comedy troupe from England would follow soon afterward with their own irreverant takes on King Arthur and the biblical film. 

BLAZING SADDLES has held up pretty well over the years.  The film starts out a little slowly and some of the jokes and scenes don't quite get the laughs they intended but Brooks's BLAZING SADDLES was ahead of its time in sheer outrageousness, its fearlessness in tackling stereotypes and situations most films never dared. I would dare to say Mel Brooks was a leading pioneer in the type of modern comedy we see today.

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