- Director: Mel Brooks
- Writers: Story by Andrew Bergman, Screenplay by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Al Uger
- Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, and Alex Karras
- Accolades: 3 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actress – Madeline Kahn, Best Original Song – “Blazing Saddles,” Best Film Editing)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to HBO Max, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
I have a weakness for completely absurdist comedy, complete with stupid puns and total non-sequiturs. I’m a fan of the Naked Gun franchise, of Airplane!, of Angie Tribeca, and of Toast of London. But the king of this type of comedy must be Mel Brooks, who directed and frequently starred in a series of spoofs all through the 1970s and into the following years. The difference with Brooks is that, while still being extremely funny, his movies tend to push the boundaries of comedy, in a social commentary sense, in ways that no one has really done before or since, perhaps nowhere moreso than in Blazing Saddles.
The movie works if you’re just watching it as a parody of Westerns (among those I’ve actually seen, this movie owes a heavy debt to High Noon), but there is an entire other level to proceedings in terms of commentary. In an attempt to get the residents of a small Western town to leave so he can build a railway, a corrupt Attorney General (Harvey Korman) appoints a black sheriff (Cleavon Little), assuming the residents to be so racist they won’t put up with him. However, with the help of a washed-up former gunslinger (Gene Wilder), the sheriff wins over the townspeople (grudgingly) and saves the town. Famously, during the final fight the characters literally break the fourth wall, bursting through a wall of the set into the rest of the movie studio. In the end the sheriff defeats the bad guy at a movie theater showing the movie, and then sits down to watch the happy ending.
For what sounds like a fun romp, no movie has ever pulled fewer punches when it comes to race. This starts right in the opening scene, when a railroad boss (Slim Pickens) sends two Black workers up ahead to check for quicksand, since they’re not as valuable as the horses. When the main character rides into town, every resident is seen fearfully getting out their gun . When he tries to say hello to an old lady, she memorably shouts “Up yours, n*****!” When, late in the movie, the sheriff tells the townspeople that they must provide land to the Black and Chinese railway workers in exchange for their help, they grudgingly reply, “OK, but no Irish!”
Mel Brooks has said that he doesn’t think you could make Blazing Saddles today (“Today they wouldn’t let you say the N-word, and without that there’s no movie!”). This may be true as far as it goes, yet the movie has never felt more relevant. You can certainly see the stamp of co-writer Richard Pryor in the commentary on race relations. Brooks’ original intention was for Pryor to play the lead, as well, but the studio felt he was “unreliable” because of his well-publicized drug problems. The role ended up going with Little, who at the time was starring in a short-lived sitcom about a doctor called Temperature Rising. He does a great job here in what became by far his best known role. He is the smartest person in every scene, a fact never doubted by anyone. His sheriff has something of a Bugs Bunny quality to him, an idea emphasized by the movie actually playing the Looney Tunes theme music at one point after he outsmarts a bad guy.
The other main role, of the “Waco Kid,” had to be recast as well. Brooks offered it to John Wayne, who refused, then cast Gig Young, a big star at the time who had three Oscar nominations under his belt. However, Young collapsed on the first day of shooting and had to hospitalized with what was eventually diagnosed as alcohol withdrawal. Left in the lurch, Brooks asked his friend Wilder to step in for the role. Wilder agreed on the condition that Brooks make his next directing project a spoof of Universal monster movies Wilder had been working on. Brooks agreed, and that movie became Young Frankenstein. Brooks worked with a lot of regulars, and they fill out much of the rest of the cast. Genius comedienne Madeline Kahn won an Oscar nomination for her memorable turn as “Lilli von Schtupp.” Kahn acted in several other Brooks films during her career, many of them with similar silly names. In History of the World, Part I, she played “Empress Nympho.” Also memorable in this movie is Alex Karras, a member of the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame, who plays the enormous but simple-minded Mongo. He talks like the Incredible Hulk but gets lines like “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
So yeah, I love this movie, and the reason I love it is how silly it is. Everyone will probably know the scene where a bunch of cowboys around a campfire eating baked beans all fart at once. At another point in this movie, as the sheriff rides triumphantly across the desert as the music swells, the camera pulls back to reveal it is actually Count Basie and his orchestra playing. He and Cleavon Little exchange pleasantries, then he rides on. That’s the kind of stuff that happens all through this movie, and it’s pretty much exactly the kind of thing that I like. If you’ve never seen it, now’s a great time to check out Blazing Saddles.