Thursday, September 8, 2016

Blazing Saddles (Crossbow Productions, Warner Bros., 1974)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I gave our envoi to the late comedian Gene Wilder by watching the 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles, the third film directed by Mel Brooks and the first one to be a real blockbuster hit. His first, The Producers, had done O.K. at the box office — it would acquire cult status later, especially after it was first shown on TV — and his second, The Twelve Chairs, had been a total box-office flop. (I remember the TV ads for this, which just made it look confusing: a bunch of people running around beaches in Yugoslavia searching for 12 fancy chairs, one of which contains a fortune in jewels hidden therein by an aristocratic family in Russia to keep the Bolsheviks from getting it.) Brooks was in what is now called “movie hell” when he received an offer from Warner Bros. to direct a script by Andrew Bergman with the unpromising title Tex X, about a Black sheriff who takes over a small town in the Old West and re-establishes law and order against the attempts of a predatory land baron to drive the residents out. Brooks told PBS for the documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise that at first he turned down the job since he didn’t want to direct a movie he hadn’t also written, but then Warners offered him $100,000 for the job and Brooks decided that for that money he’d be willing to direct a movie based on someone else’s script. The script went through the usual committee process — the final screenplay is credited to Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Alan Uger — though Brooks, who cut his teeth in the writers’ room of Sid Caesar’s TV classic Your Show of Shows alongside Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart, said he didn’t mind working in a room full of other writers. Pryor got involved both because Brooks felt he needed help writing for a Black character and also because Brooks wanted him to star in the film; he was willing but the “suits” at Warners were worried about Pryor’s already legendary drug use and vetoed him. Instead Brooks got Cleavon Little — a superior choice because he was both more deadpan and considerably sexier (and, this being a Mel Brooks film, sex is inevitably an important part of the plot!) — to play Bart, the Black sheriff who comes to the rescue of the town of Rock Ridge after Governor William J. LePetomane (Mel Brooks), attorney general Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), and railroad construction boss Taggart (Slim Pickens), hatch a plot to send in outlaws to despoil the town and make its settler residents abandon it so Hedley and his co-conspirators can snatch (a word Brooks milks for all its sexual connotations!) the land on which Rock Ridge stands and make a corrupt killing selling it to the railroad.

That’s about all the plot it has, and about all it needs; it’s basically a series of comic set-pieces, from the opening in which Bart and his friend on the railroad gang are ordered by Taggart to sing “one of those authentic nigger spirituals” and instead go into a Mills Brothers-style version of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick out of You” to the sequence in which the Rock Ridgians are awaiting their new sheriff, only to be shocked out of their proverbial gourds when he turns out to be Black (the N-word is used so constantly throughout this film it couldn’t be remade today). “Pardon me while I whip this out,” Bart tells the townspeople, reaching into his crotch and pulling out … his appointment papers from Governor LePetomane making him sheriff of Rock Ridge. Gene Wilder enters the cast as Jim, a.k.a. the Waco Kid, whom I’d always thought was a parody of Lee Marvin’s performance as Kid Shelleen in Cat Ballou (itself a wild spoof of Western clichés that seemed much tamer once Blazing Saddles existed) but which also has elements of Gregory Peck’s performance in The Gunfighter, notably the plot point that as the Waco Kid’s rep grew so did the number of people determined to knock him off to earn their own gunslinger fame as the man who shot him down. He tearfully confesses that when he noticed that the latest would-be challenger who told him to reach for it was just six years old, that was when he gave up being the Waco Kid and became a drunk instead. In one scene he holds out his right hand and keeps it so stone-stiff Bart says, “Steady as a rock” — and the Waco Kid says, “Yes, but I shoot with this one,” and he holds out his left hand and it shakes like Sister Kate’s bowl of jelly on a plate. Earlier the Kid had come to in his cell, and in an upside-down point of view shot he sees Bart, the new sheriff, through the bars (a clear copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s shot of Ingrid Bergman discovering Cary Grant upside down after her night-long bout of alcohol in Notorious). “Are we awake?” Bart asks Jim, who’s sleeping upside down hanging from his feet on the cell’s bunk bed. “We’re not sure,” Jim replies. “Are we … Black?” “Yes, we are,” says Bart, to which Jim a.k.a. the Kid replies, “Then we’re awake … but we’re very puzzled.”

To destroy the new sheriff Lamarr (whose name was picked by the writers because it sounded like the classic-era film star Hedy Lamarr — they set up a running gag throughout the movie where Hedley is always being called “Hedy Lamarr,” and he replies, with varying degrees of exasperation, “That’s Hedley!” At one point someone tells Hedley that “this is 1874 — you can sue her!,” and in fact Hedy Lamarr did sue Warner Bros. for poaching her name and the studio settled out of court) first sends in killing machine Mongo (former football star Alex Karras) — oddly the DVD version we were watching cuts out the various schemes by which Bart tries unsuccessfully to subdue Bart and only includes the one that finally works (he dresses up as a Western Union messenger and offers, “Candygram for Mongo!,” and the package he gives him contains a bomb — later Bart says, “The hardest part was inventing the candygram, and of course I won’t get credit for it”) — and then, when that doesn’t work, calls in seductress Lili von Schtupp (Madeline Kahn) — the last name is a Yiddish vulgarism for sex Lenny Bruce used often, and the character is a screamingly funny parody of Marlene Dietrich, complete with missing “r”’s — at one point she even writes a note and the “r”’s are replaced by “w”’s throughout — and a song called “I’m Tired” which Mel Brooks wrote himself as an obvious parody of “The Laziest Gal in Town,” which the real Dietrich sang in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950). I remember that when Blazing Saddles first came out the Rolling Stone reviewer complained that “Brooks hates the Germans so much they get dragged anachronistically into Blazing Saddles,” but the critic obviously didn’t know that Dietrich had made at least two Westerns, Destry Rides Again (1939) and The Spoilers (1942) — The Spoilers was geographically a “Northern” since it took place in Klondike-era gold rush Alaska, but iconographically it was a Western and Dietrich’s co-stars, John Wayne and Randolph Scott, were Western people — and Kahn’s characterization here was clearly based on her role in Destry (as well as her star-making turn in The Blue Angel).

Eventually the final invasion of Rock Ridge is foiled — only the fight spreads out from the Blazing Saddles set across the Warner Bros. lot to an adjoining soundstage where screaming-queen director Buddy Bizarre (Dom DeLuise, later a Mel Brooks regular) is filming a musical number called “The French Mistake.” The fight spills out all over Hollywood and into Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where Hedley Lamarr finally gets his (after stopping by the candy counter and ordering Raisinettes, whose manufacturer rewarded Brooks for his product placement with a lifetime supply of their product!) and Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder turn up to watch the ending of the movie, in which their characters ride off into the sunset … in a Cadillac. When I first saw Blazing Saddles during its initial theatrical release I was put off by the ending, but now I think it’s as funny as the rest of the movie even though the whole “French Mistake” number is pretty homophobic (a decade later, when Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft did their remake of To Be or Not to Be — Ernst Lubitsch’s screamingly funny dark comedy about the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II and the efforts of husband-and-wife acting team Carole Lombard and Jack Benny to resist it — his writers inserted a sympathetic Gay character to protest the Nazi oppression against Queers and a lot of critics were surprised that Brooks depicted Gays positively after all the rather crude jokes against us he’d made before) and, as Charles pointed out, the movie’s relentless sexism rather gets to a modern viewer after a while. (If Brooks and his writers had somehow been able to get a parody of Doris Day’s Calamity Jane character into Blazing Saddles it would not only wear better, it’d be even funnier than it is!)

Of course I also liked the magical appearance of Count Basie and his orchestra in the middle of the desert as Cleavon Little rides by in a magnificently decked out horse, complete with a saddlebag labeled “Gucci,” and Basie high-fives Little as he passes; and also the nice in-joke in which everyone in the town of Rock Ridge has the last name “Johnson” — the ice-cream parlor is run by, natch, Howard Johnson; and one of the residents is named Olson Johnson, after the real-life 1930’s and 1940’s comedy team Olsen and Johnson (who also made a film with Count Basie — the 1943 Universal production Crazy House). There were even a few in-jokes I hadn’t got before, like the one in which Hedley Lamarr’s executioner Boris (Robert Ridgely) — a character spoofing Boris Karloff’s role as Mord the Executioner in the 1939 film Tower of London (with Basil Rathbone starring as Richard III) — is about to hang a man in a wheelchair (he’s trying to hang the person and the wheelchair simultaneously and lamenting that “this is an unusually difficult case”) and Lamarr says, “Ah, the Dr. Gillespie case.” (In the late-1930’s Dr. Kildare films from MGM Dr. Kildare was played by Lew Ayres and his boss, Dr. Gillespie, was played by Lionel Barrymore, who used a wheelchair on screen because his arthritis had got so bad he needed one for real.) Though I wouldn’t necessarily call Blazing Saddles the funniest movie ever made (even among Brooks’ movies it’s seriously rivaled by The Producers and Young Frankenstein, and of course if you reach backwards to Chaplin, Keaton, the Marxes, Laurel and Hardy, and W. C. Fields, you can find movies even funnier!), it’s a film that holds up brilliantly and, as I said when it was new, has the courage of its own bad taste — even though the bean scene, inspired (Brooks said) by the fact that so many non-comic Westerns showed cowboys subsisting on a diet almost exclusively of beans without showing any of the usual after-effects of consuming them, has had a highly negative effect on future comedies by convincing writers and directors that involuntary body functions are in themselves funny. They’re not, but Brooks’s flatulence scene is.