Program Notes: Blazing Saddles (1974)
Blazing Saddles isn’t really a movie.
It’s a bunch of funny ideas on a particular topic – in this case the classic Hollywood Western – spun out by the anarchistic mind of Mel Brooks.
Subtlety of execution? Say what?
The late, great film critic Pauline Kael definitely had Brooks’ number, calling him “the cutup in the audience whose manic laughter and unrestrained comments stop the show. Essentially he is the audience; he’s the most cynical and the most appreciative of audiences – nobody laughs harder, nobody gets more derisive. His comments aren’t censored by the usual caution and sentimentality, but his crazy-man irrepressibility makes him loveable; he can be vicious and get away with it because he’s Mel Brooks, who isn’t expected to be in control.”
Certainly Blazing Saddles isn’t under control. It often threatens to fly apart – and does so in its final moments when a frontier brawl overflows a back-lot Western street and inundates a nearby soundstage where an old-fashioned musical is being filmed. The movie ends with hairy, filthy cowboys and a chorus of gay men in tuxedos and top hats attacking each other with whipped-cream pies.
Now in fairness to Brooks it must be noted that he is capable of first-rate storytelling. His follow up to Saddles, Young Frankenstein, was a brilliantly controlled parody of the old Universal Studio horror pictures. Brooks wasn’t just trying to make fun of those movies, he was consciously working to emulate them, so much so that he had the lab equipment from the original Frankenstein dragged out of mothballs and reassembled for his production.
Making a genuine homage forced him to practice discipline. It doesn’t happen often.
Usually Brooks has been indifferent to the shape of his movies. He’s not trying to tell a story. Rather he’s throwing gags at the screen and hoping some of them stick.
And that’s the case with Blazing Saddles.
It opens with a whip-cracking nonsensical title song performed by Frankie Laine (of High Noon and Rawhide fame), then sets up the premise of a rapacious railroad out to grab a small town that lies in the path. To clear the way the railroad magnates pull political strings to have a black sheriff (Cleavon Little) assigned to the burg, thinking this will tear the racist townsfolk apart.
Of course it doesn’t work out that way. The sheriff and a one-time gunfighter (Gene Wilder as the Waco – pronounced “Wacko” – Kid) turn the tables on the bad guys.
Brooks himself appears as the corrupt Governor Lepetomane (the original Le Pétomane was a French vaudeville performer whose specialty was, literally, singing out of his rear end). Harvey Corman is his unscrupulous assistant. Madeline Kahn is the seductive German songstress Lili Von Shtupp (“shtupp” being Yiddish for illicit intercourse).
There’s a scene of black railroad workers singing a traditional Negro song (Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You”) and one demonstrating the effect of an bean-rich diet on the cowboy digestive tract.
But amidst the low humor and bawdy asides Brooks does succeed in illustrating the racism (anti-black, anti-Indian) at the heart of the traditional Western movie. But to call Blazing Saddles a “message” picture would be a serious mistake.
So just sit back, put your rational side on standby and let Blazing Saddles dance all over you. If a particular joke falls flat, don’t worry. There will be another one heading your way in a second or two.
The series Make ‘Em Laugh features films voted the best American comedies of all time by the American Film Institute.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.