"Hello, handsome. Is that a ten-gallon hat or are you just enjoying the show?" -- Lili Von Shtupp
Director: Mel Brooks
Writer: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Unger
Principal cast members:
It's odd to write about a movie that is so politically incorrect and sharply satirical that it could not be made a few decades later, but such is the case with Mel Brooks' 1974 comic masterpiece, Blazing Saddles. The movie is so liberally sprinkled with racial epithets and toilet humor, it is questionable whether any studio would risk attaching its name to such a film in the twenty-first century.
Brooks' movies are deliberately intended to push the limits of offensiveness. He holds up our stodgy standards for ridicule and in so doing, creates some incredibly funny stuff if we are daring enough to let ourselves laugh at it. In 1974 racial discrimination was just as wrong as it is today. But we had not yet reached the point where the very utterance of a specific n-word was considered a hate crime. Consequently, that specific word is used liberally throughout Blazing Saddles by both black and white characters.
On the one hand, its use by many of the whites is at the very least, historically accurate. As the railroad foreman, Taggart, Slim Pickens tosses it off without regard just as his character might have done in the 1890s. On the other hand, when a little old lady greets Cleavon Little with a hearty, "Up yours, n*****!" the word is shocking and hilarious in its utter inappropriateness. By the end of the movie, David Huddleston perfectly illustrates how meaningless the epithet is in the absurdity that was a Mel Brooks movie when he states, "All right, we'll give some land to the n***** and the ch****, but we don't want the Irish!"
Brooks has a field day in this ribald comedy making fun of prejudices of all kinds. His movie manages to skewer African-Americans, Chinese, Jews, Native Americans, and gays over the course of its absurd story. But no ethnic group comes across looking more stupid and gullible than the European-descended whites who settled the American west. Therein lies the mad genius that allows Brooks get away with what could be the most offensive movie of all time.
Cleavon Little stars as Bart, the former railroad worker chosen to be the sheriff of Rock Ridge. His sole qualification for the job is that he is likely to prove so offensive to the locals as to run them off. Little is masterful in this role. His Bart is a streetwise, 70s-hip cat who is putting one over on the stupid white folks from the opening scene to the big finish. Bart wins over the audience early by tricking prejudiced cowboys into singing their own 'nigger work songs' then later arresting himself to survive a hostile crowd full of loaded guns. He eventually wins over the town itself by overcoming monster cowboy, Mongo, in a memorable cameo by Alex Karras, and outwitting a vicious band of desperadoes assembled by the corrupt attorney general, Hedley Lamarr.
He is assisted in this fight by a washed-up drunken gunfighter known as the Waco Kid and played marvelously by Gene Wilder. The two of them become friends and gradually uncover the plot to destroy Rock Ridge. That plot is being engineered by supreme movie villain, Harvey Korman as the attorney general. Korman is a scenery chewing marvel as he engineers this plot while manipulating an inept governor and a nitwit railroad foreman. Brooks is hilarious as the governor and Slim Pickens is perfect as the cowboy construction engineer, Taggart.
A host of character actors fill in the citizens of Rock Ridge. Part of Brooks' humor is that everyone in Rock Ridge shares the last name, Johnson. Visions of inbreeding fill one's head as they humorously go about their frontier lives, only to have the governor send them an African-American sheriff.
The most dangerous of attorney general Lamarr's weapons, however, is a German vaudeville singer named Lili Von Shtupp. Madeline Kahn is spectacular both onstage and backstage with her wonderful accent and even more wonderful face. Even she is unable to resist the charm of Bart and soon falls in with his plans to thwart the bad guys.
The final fight is naturally a big finish. So big, in fact, that it erupts off the movie lot and into the commissary and adjoining studios in Hollywood, eventually reaching a shootout outside Grauman's Chinese Theater. At that point, there is nothing left for the heroes but to buy a ticket and sit down inside to watch themselves ride into the sunset.
The great thing about a Mel Brooks script is that it never pretends to be more than it is. For instance, we know the jokes in Blazing Saddles are low brow. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is a symphony of cowboy flatulence around a campfire that is heating an enormous pot of beans. There is no pretence of historical accuracy when a film includes an Indian chief who speaks Yiddish, a restaurant owner named Howard Johnson, and Count Basie's orchestra playing tunes in the middle of the sagebrush. In short, there is nothing about this film that is intended to be taken seriously.
Except behind the toilet humor and shockingly casual racism, there is one thing that often gets overlooked. Brooks, as he often does, holds up a mirror to our own moral standards and exposes hypocrisy and the sheer absurdity of prejudice. By making jokes about things we normally dare not to discuss, he forces us to admit how utterly wrong and ridiculous they are. It is in this deeply hidden social conscience, I reckon, that we find some of the touches added by Richard Pryor, a man who was quick to make jokes at the expense of both black and white and expose the sheer absurdity of prejudice. He's also a man who never shied away from a certain n-word. The teaming of Brooks and Pryor was a rare and beautiful thing. This film lets it live on.
Coolness factor: 6
Overall entertainment: 8