Film: Blazing Saddles
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.
If you put a gun to my head and ask me to choose Mel Brooks’s best movie, I’d tell you that he never got better than his debut film, The Producers. It’s certainly his most coherent, and the one that doesn’t rely on being a direct parody of another film or film genre, at least of the ones I’ve seen. However, if you ask me which one I like the best and which one I find the funniest, my answer is Blazing Saddles in a heartbeat.
You’ve probably already seen this movie, and you probably already agree with me that it’s one of the funniest things ever filmed. If you haven’t seen it, you should go find a copy of it as soon as you can and watch it. There’s a fairly decent chance that this film will offend you horribly, but there’s an even better chance that you won’t care because you are laughing so hard at everything going on.
Here’s the basics in case you’re under the age of 15 or have lived in a place where movies are seen as a type of voodoo magic that you fear. A railroad is being built through the west. The foremen, a man named Taggart (Slim Pickins) and his assistant Lyle (the sadly almost unknown Burton Gilliam) send a pair of (and I’m being politically correct here, because the movie never is) African-American workers to see if there’s quicksand on the line ahead. Of these, the one that bears watching is Bart (the great Cleavon Little in a role that should have made him a much bigger star). It turns out there is quicksand, and Bart and his friend sink. Left to die in the quicksand, they escape, and Bart smacks Taggart over the head with a shovel. Just as importantly, because of the quicksand, the train line has to be moved—right through the heart of the town of Rock Ridge.
From here, we are introduced to a few of the other major players. First and foremost is the evil assistant governor, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). He realizes that the land Rock Ridge is on will soon be worth millions, but to get it for himself, he needs to get rid of the people. Taggart and his men attack the town, which causes the people to petition for a new sheriff. In what he thinks is a brilliant move, Lamarr gets the incompetent governor, William LePetomane (Mel Brooks) to appoint Bart to the position.
And hilarity ensues. There are plenty of other great character actors in major parts throughout here, the most entertaining being the giant, stupid, thuggish Mongo (Alex Karras) and the exotic and speech-impaired Lili von Schtupp (the great Madeline Kahn). The townspeople of Rock Ridge are also populated by great character actors (David Huddleston, John Hillerman, and others). Later in the film, Dom DeLuise shows up. Early on, Count Basie makes an appearance as himself. It’s the power of Mel Brooks, evidently.
The film is an obvious parody of the western genre, but there are plenty of other parodies as well. Kahn’s performance is specifically meant to recall Marlene Dietrich’s film roles in both Destry Rides Again and Der Blaue Engel. The movie is also incredibly self aware—the actors frequently speak directly to the audience, for instance. As with any good parody, the jokes are both big and small. There are sight gags aplenty, but a lot of the really funny stuff, or at least a lot of what I find funny here is the subtle stuff. All of the people who live in Rock Ridge, for instance, have the same last name: Johnson. Howard Johnson runs the ice cream parlor, a precursor of the famous hotel/restaurant chain famous for its 28 flavors. Howard Johnson here has a single flavor. Now that’s funny.
Much of the reason that Blazing Saddles works is that there’s more than just regular humor here—there’s a lot of meta-humor as well. There’s almost constant funny going on here, and some of it doesn’t really hit until a couple of minutes or hours after the moment is passed.
It’s interesting to me that Brooks’s career as a director is so limited. For a moment, try to think of all of the Mel Brooks movies you can. If you’re like most people, you can come up with maybe half a dozen, maybe one or two more—this one, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, High Anxiety (maybe), Spaceballs, History of the World Part 1…and then you’re probably tapped. With the exception of a couple of stinkbombs, that’s pretty much his entire directorial output.
He never got better than this film in terms of bringing as much funny as possible. The film is entirely overwhelming with great moments, great lines, and brilliant performances. It does, however, get too meta- near the end. It gets even sillier than it probably should, too self aware. I dearly love this movie, but I could live without the last 10-15 minutes, or at least would prefer something that isn’t so clever by a half. Still, even with that, it’s one of the funniest 90 minutes ever filmed.
Why to watch Blazing Saddles: Mel Brooks at his insane best.
Why not to watch: Guilt feelings over laughing at racial humor in this day and age.