Those who always want to blame “wokeness” and “cancel culture” for not being able to tell racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic or just tasteless jokes don’t realize that the people around them probably weren’t laughing much to begin with. It’s easy to feign a laugh in a crowded room when you don’t want to be the one who stands up and says the Emperor is not wearing any clothes. But people have always pointed to Blazing Saddles as an example of a movie that wouldn’t work today.
Well, it would, if done the right way. The difference between Mel Brooks and dozens of imitators such as Jason Freidberg & Aaron Seltzer is that Brooks loves the material he’s parodying. Todd Phillips says he’s not doing comedies anymore but a lot of his earlier works weren’t that good to begin with. With The Hangover sequels, he basically just ran on empty rehashing racist and sexist jokes that stopped being funny in the 1990s when people realize “Me So Solly” was just stupid.
What people don’t realize about Blazing Saddles is that it wasn’t made so easily. Originally written by Andrew Bergman as Tex-X, it was supposed to star James Earl Jones and be directed by Alan Arkin, before the production fell through. Brooks picked it up and worked with Bergman and Richard Pryor, among others to develop the script more. The title was changed numerous times because Tex-X would have people thinking it’s an X-rated movie. Black Bart was another considered title, but that might also confused audiences as a biopic about the 19th Century highwayman. Brooks finally came on the title of Blazing Saddles while in the shower.
But casting became problematic as Warner Brothers refused to allow Pryor to be cast in the lead. It was later reported that he didn’t take it well and went home in a drug-fueled rage began shooting up his house. And despite what people have thought, Pryor mainly wrote the Mongo character played by Alex Karras and wasn’t added just so they could get away with using racial slurs. Cleavon Little was then cast in the role and I think it helps because you need a more serious established actor.
Gig Young was supposed to play Jim the Waco Kid, but he was suffering through alcohol withdrawal syndrome. John Wayne had been approached at one point early in pre-production but felt it was “too blue” for him. Gene Wilder, who had worked with Brooks on The Producers, was brought in to replace him. Wilder had previously turned down the role of Hedley Lamarr, which went to Harvey Korman. He only agreed to do the movie if Brooks would help him get Young Frankenstein made.
Set in and around the old frontier town of Rock Ridge in 1874, it focuses on Bart (Little) being appointed sheriff of the town as Lamarr, attorney general for the unnamed state, wants the townspeople to leave so he can buy up the property. Bart was working for the railroad company when their foreman, Lyle (Burton Gilliam), sent him and his friend/co-worker, Charlie (Charles McGregor), to take a handcart down to the end of the line to see if they notice quicksand.
Unfortunately, they get stuck in the quicksand and when the main boss Taggart (Slim Pickens) arrives, he has Lyle lasso the hand cart out while leaving Bart and Charlie to crawl out as neither Taggart nor Lyle seem to help or care. Upset, Bart hits Taggart on the back of the head with a shovel and is arrested. Upon telling Lamarr how the railroad has to go through Rock Ridge, he notices the bandage on Taggart’s head and arranges for Bart to be hanged.
But instead of being hung, Lamarr convinces the governor William J. LePetomane (Brooks) to appoint Bart because the gullible governor believes it’ll make him historic. Lamarr sent Taggart, Lyle and other marauders to terrorize and vandalize the town, killing the sheriff, trying to force the people out. Lamarr knows the new railroad will make the property worth millions and he wants it all. But when the town leaders decide to stay, they wire the governor’s office to send them a new sheriff.
They offer Bart a warm welcome until they see that he’s black. A running joke in the movie is that all the people have the same last name of Johnson. Olson Johnson (David Huddleston), Howard Johnson (John Hillerman), Van Johnson (George Furth) and Dr. Sam Johnson (Richard Collier) all seem to be the town leaders. There’s also Rev. Johnson (Liam Dunn) who is the local clergy and Gabby Johnson (Claude Ennis Starrett Jr.) as the town drunk. Brooks sets up a wonderful cast to make you think you’re actually watching a western. Huddleston had previously been in Rio Lobo and Bad Company. Hillerman had been in High Plains Drifter. And Pickens himself was a cowboy true and true. So, going into this movie, it feels like a western.
However, the appearance of Bart makes them angry and turn their guns on him. One of the funniest gags is Gabby who is using a spyglass watching out for Bart riding into town is the first to notice Bart’s black and tries to tell the townspeople but every time he says the N-word, it’s drowned by by the sound of the ringing of the church bells. The use of the N-word has been controversial but it’s used to show the ignorance of the people who use it. Gilliam, himself, went up to Little in between filming and apologized for having to use the racial slurs because he’d never say that to black people. Little told him it was okay because they were acting in roles.
Taking advantage of their stupidity, Bart gets away and secludes himself inside the sheriff’s station where he meets Jim (Wilder) who is a drunk. The two become friendly and get to know each other playing chess. Jim says that he used to be The Waco Kid and shows Bart how fast his hands are by snatching a chest piece easily right in Bart’s grasp. Jim has been drinking after finding himself face to face with a 6-year-old kid and “the little bastard shot me in the ass” after years of killing people.
Bart’s initial attempts to gain over the townspeople go back when an elderly woman says, “Up yours!” and calls him the N-word when he’s trying to be pleasant. Bart thinks once you establish yourself they have to accept you. However, Taggart and Lyle have sent Mongo (Karras) a hulking, brutish but very dimwitted person to Rock Ridge to take care of Bart. But Bart cleverly foils him which leads to Mongo become impressed with Bart and change his ways to become more friendly.
Lamarr then tries to get Lili von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn), a German burlesque performer, to “seduce and abandon” Bart. But she too finds that there’s something about Bart that she’s attracted to and finds herself falling madly for Bart to which he replies, “You’re making a German spectacle of yourself.”
In the end, Lamarr and Taggart decide they need to build an army of the worst to drive the people out of Rock Ridge. And it’s up to Bart and Jim to find out what’s happening because the townspeople “would do it for Randolph Scott.” It’s a similar story that is often told in many westerns of the sheriff or marshal trying to stop the corruption of a railroad barron or a high-ranking official. What’s so interesting is you can take out all the jokes and still tell it as a straight-forward western and it’d probably work. And Brooks and his team know this.
Yet, he spins it by showing us how some of the westerns were very racist in their older ways. Revisionist westerns were making the rounds in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. So, using comedy was always Brooks’ tool, the way he did in The Producers with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Mocking the notion of the good guys in white shows just how racist and one-sided the old westerns were as they often made Native Americans the vilains and black people almost non-existent even though about a fourth of all cowboys of the Old West were black people. Wayne himself won an Oscar playing Rooster Cogburn inspired by U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, a black man.
But Brooks isn’t trying to make a big statement. From the beginning where the old Warner Bros. logo burns away and then we see the title come at us toward the screen with a crack of a whip, it feels like an actual movie rather than satire. And then we hear Frankie Laine sing so wonderfully over the soundtrack. Laine reportedly didn’t know it was a comedy and Brooks didn’t have the heart to tell him because he sung it so well. That’s good. There doesn’t need to be too many winks at the camera.
People can see the tropes and cliches and how they’re being toyed with. Brooks doesn’t insult our intelligence. He asks us to play along with him. At one point in the climax, when the people of Rock Ridge are battling out with the marauders, the camera pulls back and we see that it’s a backlot on the WB studio. Then, we switch to a soundstage where Dom DeLuise is Buddy Bizarre directing a musical that is interupted when the literal fourth wall breaks from the other set where the cast of Blazing Saddles comes on.
Watching Blazing Saddles escalate like this is a reminder that we’re watching a movie and it’s not to be taken seriously. The brawling goes from the sound stage to a studio commissary where a pie fight breaks out and there’s another actor playing Hitler. In the end the movie has a showdown between Bart and Lamarr outside the Grauman’s Chinese Theater which is showing Blazing Saddles. What’s so amazing is how it all works.
And in the end, Bart and Jim ride off into the sunset first on horses, then getting into a limousine and finishing the ride. You have to laugh at how it turns the normal conventions of westerns on their side. But at the same time, it’s not being disrespectful. It’s one thing to portray all the white people as morons. Yet, after he defeats Mongo and comes up with the way to stop Lamarr’s army, Bart earns the towns’ respect. He also them work with the black and Chinese workers from the railroad to complete this task.
Not to get too preachy, Brooks and his team of writers are saying that we as a society have to learn to live and work together to stop the people who only want to destroy us. That’s a theme that is universal and it’s as true today as it nearly was 50 years ago. This is part of the reason it’s endured all these decades and still as funny now as it was years ago.
Produced on a budget of $2.6 million, it made over $119 million in North America theaters alone becoming the highest-grossing comedy at the time. While some critics didn’t care for it, others, such as Roger Ebert, highly praised it. Kahn received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance which was a parody of Marlene Dietrich. The title song was nominated for Best Original Song with Brooks wrtting the lyrics and John Morris, who often scored his movies, composing the music. It was also nominated for Best Editing.
It would be a good year for Brooks as his other movie Young Frankenstein, also released in 1974, would be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (for both Brooks and Wilder) and Best Sound. However, some people didn’t think Saddles was too funny. Hedy Lamarr didn’t like the running joke of people confusing Hedley’s name with Hedy’s. She sued for $100,000 claiming it was an ivasion of her privacy.
An attempt to turn Saddles into a TV sitcom called Black Bart itself never got past the pilot phase. It has been included on the DVD Blu-Ray but it’s hardly worth watching. I’d recommend someone see it once just out of curiosity, but it’s not too good.
And while filmmakers still continue to push the envelope, those screaming of “wokeness” or “political correctness” need to study Blazing Saddles and see what Brooks did. There’s a big difference between making fun of people for something that they can’t change and making fun of something they can change easily but stubbornly refuse to do.
What do you think? Please comment.