Saturday, March 25, 2017

Stubs - Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles (1974) Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Slim Pickens, Dom DeLuise, Mel Brooks. Directed by Mel Brooks. Screenplay by Mel Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Al Uger. Produced by Michael Hertzberg. Color. U.S.A. Run Time: 92 minutes. Comedy, Western.

With the passing of Gene Wilder, one of the films that kept being mentioned was Blazing Saddles. To be honest, when I think of Blazing Saddles, which is hardly ever, I think more of Cleavon Little, but Wilder is very prominent in the film. It had been several years since I had seen the film and it’s one of those films that gets referenced quite a bit, so I thought it was time to watch it again.

There were many things that I had forgotten about the film and others that are hard to forget  (I’m thinking about the infamous campfire scene.) Originally considered as a parody of the Western and perhaps the death knell of that genre, the film was quite a big success, earning $119.6 million on a budget of $2.6 million.

One of the major themes that the film drives home with typical Brooks-ian overstatement is racism and not against the American Indian, but against Blacks and other minorities in the Old West, but mostly Blacks. As anyone who took American History in high school knows, Chinese workers were imported to help build the intercontinental railroad. According to this film, working next to them, if not downright outnumbering them, were recently freed Blacks. And of course, those in charge not only didn’t appreciate them, they freely used the N-word when talking to and about them.

The "N' word flies freely in Blazing Saddles.

It's 1874 when the movie opens and the construction of the railroad has hit a snag. Its planned path, it appears, will take it into a patch of quicksand. Taggart (Slim Pickens) has two of his black workers confirm this, Charlie (Charles McGregor) and Bart (Cleavon Little), being sure to fish out the handcart when it gets stuck, which is deemed more valuable than Bart. In retaliation for the sentiment, Bart knocks Taggart out with a shovel. Such an offense is deemed punishable by death and Bart is taken into custody.

Taggart, with his head still wrapped in a bandage, meets with the corrupt Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) the State’s Attorney General, who also happens to have a financial interest in the railroad. Taggart explains to him that the best alternative route would take the railway into Rock Ridge, a small white township. In order to get them off the land, Lamarr sends Taggart and his crew into the town where they loot the stores, destroy the crops and murder the sheriff.

Taggart (Slim Pickens) and Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) go to visit the governor.

The townspeople meet in the church to discuss what to do next, with the Reverend Johnson (Liam Dunn) encouraging everyone to pick up stakes and flee. But Gabby Johnson (Claude Ennis Starrett Jr.), a wizen old man, gives an impassioned and mumbled speech, Olson Johnson (David Huddleston) praises as “authentic frontier gibberish,” which causes everyone to change their mind. Instead of fleeing, the town demands Hedley Lamarr send them a new sheriff.

Gabby Johnson (Claude Ennis Starrett Jr) give an impassioned gibberish-filled speech.

But Lamarr gets the idea to send a new sheriff that will surely force the town to back down; a black sheriff, saving Bart from the gallows. With the approval of Governor Lepetomane (Mel Brooks), Bart is sent to Rock Ridge.

Bart (Cleavon Little) is the new sheriff in town, much to the chagrin of the town.

The town has thrown out all the stops in their welcome ceremony for the new Sheriff and is in total dismay when Bart rides up with his Gucci saddlebag. More N-words fly freely and the town seems intent on killing him, that is until Bart turns his gun on himself. Fearing that the sheriff is in real danger, the townspeople back down, laying down their weapons, allowing Bart to escape into his office.

Bart has to pull a gun on himself to get out of this mess.

It is in the jail that Bart finds Jim (Gene Wilder), whom he learns was formerly known as the Waco Kid, a quick-draw gunfighter. The next morning, Bart tries again to win over the townsfolk, but retreats back to the jail when an elderly woman shouts racial epithets at him.

Jim (Gene Wilder) is a quick-draw gunfighter who befriends Bart. 

Later, while enjoying a dinner of beans around the campfire, Taggart gets the idea to send in Mongo (Alex Karras), a near-Neanderthal, into Ridge Rock to kill Bart. But Bart manages to both subdue and befriend Mongo. Likewise, German seductress-for-hire Lili von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn) falls for Bart as well.

Mongo (Alex Karras) is sent into town by Taggart, but ends up an ally of Bart's.

Lamarr, now really mad that all his plans are foiled, hatches an even larger plan including the usual roughnecks supplemented by common criminals, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and if that wasn’t anachronistic enough, Nazi soldiers from the future.

But Bart is not to be outsmarted. With the help of the Black and Chinese railroad workers, who help in exchange for acceptance by the whites in the town, build a fake Rock Ridge three miles east of the real town. To give the townspeople enough time to construct replicas of themselves, Bart, Jim, and Mongo put up the “William J. Le P├ętomane Memorial Thruway", which delays the raiding party as they search for dimes for the toll.

Once past the tollbooth, the marauders descend on fake Rock Ridge and wreak havoc. But the dummies are booby-trapped with bombs, which Jim, using his sharpshooting skills, detonates. Following the explosions, the townsfolks descend on Taggart’s gang.

Gunfights in the Old West were never like this.

The ensuing brawl literally breaks the fourth wall, as the fight spills over into neighboring sets, including one in which director Buddy Bizarre (Dom DeLuise) is directing a Busby Berkley-type musical number, of course, not of a subject Berkley would have handled. The fight flows out into the street outside of Warner Brothers’ Burbank studios. Lamarr hails a cab and tells the driver to "get me out of this picture."

Dom DeLuise makes a cameo as a Buddy Bizarre, a choreographer.

Next stop is Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which happens to be playing the premiere of Blazing Saddles. But as soon as Lamarr settles down in his seat, Bart arrives outside the theater on horseback. He confronts Lamarr and, in a spoof of the classic Western gunfight, shoots Lamarr in the groin.

Bart and Jim then go into the theater and watch the movie, in which Bart is telling the townspeople that his work there is done and that he’s moving on. Riding out of town, Bart finds Jim still eating the popcorn from the theater and invites him to accompany him to “nowhere special.” The two ride into the sunset in the back of a black stretch limousine, which drives them off.

Like most of Brooks’ work, post The Producers, Blazing Saddles is filled with verbal and sight gags in a throw-the-spaghetti-at-the-wall-to-see-if-it-is-ready approach to humor; how funny it is depends on how much you think sticks to the wall. Some consider the film to be very funny, in fact. The film ranked No. 6 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Laughs list. Everyone is entitled to their opinions.

An early example of a mainstream film with gross-out humor, a trend I’m afraid has only grown geometrically, Blazing Saddles doesn’t have the shock value it once may have had. Passing gas on film has come to be standard fare even for so-called children’s films. It was an easy gag for Brooks to use; the low hanging fruit of comedy. Given his writing background on television and film, I would have expected something a little more highbrow. 

The humor is a sort of Catskills meets Burlesque mix here with farting, women’s breasts, a man caught in mid-coitus running around with his pants down, a man punching a horse and racial epithets carrying the load. So much for raising the bar on the discourse.

Mel Brooks plays Governor Lepetomane in this "raunchy" comedy.

While there were five writers, including the late stand-up comedian Richard Pryor, credited on the film, as director, Brooks made the final decisions on what to include. Brooks got his start as a writer on television, perhaps best known for his work on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which also featured Carl Reiner and Neil Simon on its staff. Reiner and Brooks also partnered for their now famous 2000-Year-Old Man act on The Steve Allen Show and on record, the latter which sold a million copies in 1961. In 1965, Brooks would team with Buck Henry to create The Man From U.N.C.L.E. spoof, Get Smart, which starred Don Adams.

Following the success of his first film, The Producers (1968), Brooks made The Twelve Chairs (1970). Loosely based on a Russian 1928 novel The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov, the film was not a critical or financial success. Brooks found no takers for his next script, another adaptation, this time of Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.

Brooks, with the help of agent David Begelman, set up a deal with Warner Brothers. Brooks was hired along with Pryor, Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg, and Al Uger as script doctors for an unproduced script, Tex-X (a play on Black Muslim leader, Malcolm X), written by Bergman. Brooks posted a sign in the writer’s room, "Please do not write a polite script". (He apparently got his wish). Pryor, who was Brooks’ first choice to play Bart, left the writing process after the first draft. The film title changed, finally settling on the title, “Blazing Saddles.”

When it came time to cast the roles, the studio, citing his public issues with drugs, refused to approve financing if Pryor was the star. Other casting issues included the role of Hedley Lamarr, which was turned down by both Johnny Carson and Gene Wilder. His luck changed with his ad looking for a Frankie Laine type to sing the opening song and Laine offered his services.

But Brooks’ troubles with the studio over the picture continued. Warner Bros. objected to the constant use of the word “nigger,” the scene of Lili von Shtupp seducing Bart in the dark, the flatulent campfire scene and Mongo’s punching out of a horse, amongst other issues. But Brooks had approval over final content and refused to make many of the changes the studio wanted. Actress Heddy Lamarr would later sue Warner Bros., claiming the running gag on her name infringed on her right to privacy. She settled out of court for a small sum and an apology.

The film features a large cast of movie, television and even music stars. Count Basie and his orchestra play “April in Paris” out in the desert, when Bart is on his way to Rock Ridge the first time, one of the several anachronisms that populate the film.

Harvey Korman, perhaps best known for his role as sidekick to comedienne Carol Burnett on her long-running TV variety show, plays the lead villain here. I don’t think this film shows Korman at his best. I don’t think anyone really comes off at their best. I found myself feeling a little sorry for Slim Pickens, especially in those scenes where he has to grovel to Korman’s Hedley character.

While this film was often cited in Gene Wilder’s obituaries, again one of the reasons for us watching the film in the first place, his character is really almost superfluous to the story. His blue eyes and bright demeanor are not really enough to justify his presence in the film. Oh, his character’s supposed skills with a gun comes in handy at the very end, but it wouldn’t have taken much to have given Bart those skills.

Madeleine Kahn was apparently a little weary of Brooks in the beginning, balking at his request during the casting session to show her legs. But she would not only appear in Blazing Saddles, but also in Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977) and History of the World, Part 1 (1981). In this film, she’s playing a character based on Marlene Dietrich’s Frenchy character in Destry Rides Again (1939). While Kahn would receive a second consecutive Academy Awards nomination for Supporting Actress for the role, she does play it over the top, something that she would continue to do while she worked with Brooks.

Madeleine Kahn plays a Marlene Dietrich inspired role in Blazing Saddles.

The film’s star, Cleavon Little, seemed like a choice a little out of left field when he was cast as a replacement for Richard Pryor. Little, who had appeared on Broadway and on television, had never appeared in a film prior to Blazing Saddles. While he would receive a BAFTA Awards nomination for the most promising newcomer as a result, Blazing Saddles would be the most successful film he would ever star in. While Little does an okay job in a slightly awkward role, one can only imagine what Pryor might have done with the role. It may not have been enough to save the film; it might have made it more memorable. If Pryor had made the film, it would have been the first pairing with Wilder; the two would make four movies together, starting with Silver Streak (1976).

When the film was released it got mixed reviews. Some like Vincent Canby wrote that Brooks “With his talent he should do much better than that.” On the other hand, critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, calling it an audience picture.” It has a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for anyone who cares about such things.

This was the second viewing for me and I honestly can’t remember how I felt about it the first time I saw it. However, my subsequent viewing did not make me a fan. While I like good slapstick, I draw the line at gross-out humor. They are truly the cheap laughs that are guaranteed to tickle funny bones, except now they seem to be the preeminent form of comedy. Why try to be witty when you can just cut to a bunch of cowpokes farting around a fire or have a man punch out a horse? I guess I prefer my humor with a little more thought and finesse, two things Blazing Saddles is sorely lacking.

Also working against it is that the bits aren't new anymore. No doubt there was a shock value when the film was released. I’m sure no one thought that Brooks would have stooped so low, but I don’t believe anyone has such illusions anymore. While he is a very funny man, Brooks will also do or say anything that he thinks will get a laugh. Again, I go back to my throw spaghetti on the wall; some sticks, some doesn’t. On a second viewing, I found that most of the gags didn’t land.

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