Tuesday, May 25, 2010


"The Producers" director Mel Brooks took the traditional white Hollywood western down an entirely different trail with this audacious 93-minute slapstick horse opera. "Blazing Saddles" (**** out of ****) stands every convention and cliché in the corral on their respective heads and then gives the genre a boot in the butt. Were you to start watching this western satire and not realize that it was a crude, rude, lowbrow comedy with lots of one-liners, vaudeville routines, campy shticks, sight gags, dopey imitations and comic anachronisms, you might either be appalled or outraged by the intolerance toward African-Americans, minorities in general, and homosexuality. Indeed, when "Blazing Saddles" came out in 1974, during the heyday of blaxploitation cinema--you know "Shaft" and "Super Fly"--use of the derogatory epithet N-word still wasn't considered as politically insensitive as in our current multi-cultural society. Moreover, the epithet "faggot" was used, too.

Brooks has said that his lowest common denominator western spoof "truly broke ground, and it broke wind." Mind you, the administrative suits at the studios cringed at the racial degradations as well as the wind-breaking campfire scene where cowboy consume copious quantities of baked beans and break wind. One studio executive wanted Brooks to eliminate this scene and the scene where Alex Karras knocks the horse down, but Brooks refused. Initially, even Brooks had some misgivings about the campfire scene and approach studio executive John Calley who advised him to ‘ring the bell.’ The campfire scene didn’t alienate audiences, and "Blazing Saddles" emerged as one of the top cinematic box office hits of 1974. Basically, a quintet of scribes, including Brooks and future comic superstar Richard Pryor, appropriate the empire building plot about the evil railroad out to destroy a town in its way. The railroad runs into quicksand and their nefarious boss Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman of “The April Fools”) decides to destroy the town of Rock Ridge to obtain the right-of-way without paying a dime. Hedley dreams up a surefire scheme, “If I could find a sheriff who so offends the citizens of Rock Ridge that his very appearance would drive them out of town.” He persuades the incredulous Governor William J. Lepetomane (Mel Brooks) to appoint an African-American railroad laborer Bart (Cleavon Little of “Vanishing Point”) as an all white town’s new sheriff. Brooks and company couldn’t have made this oater at a better time!

One of the railway laborers, Bart, gets into trouble when Taggart (Slim Pickens of “Dr. Strangelove”) dispatches him and his friend Charlie (Charles McGregor of “Super Fly”) to take a hand car down the line to investigate the presence of quicksand. Indeed, the rails have been laid in quicksand because Bart and his friend sink into the stuff. The railroad foreman pulls the hand car out of the quicksand and leaves Bart and his buddy to die. Bart climbs out of the quagmire and wraps a shovel around Taggart’s head. This insolence lands Bart in jail with a date for the executioner, until Hedley decides that he has a better use for him. Indeed, Hedley realizes that he is breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience when he comes up with his scheme. “Why am I asking you?” He turns away from the camera and heads off to see Governor Lepetomane. As upset as Lepetomane is about Bart becoming the new sheriff of Rock Ridge, Hedley spins the situation so that it appeals to the governor. “Yes,” he assures Lepetomane about the egalitarian message it will send to one and all about his liberality, “the first man ever to appoint a black sheriff.” Of course, Lepetomane believes that he can only reap the worst of a bad situation. Hedley struggles to convince him that Lepetomane will win a place in history alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln with his appointment of Bart as the Rock Ridge lawman.

A pimped-out looking Bart dressed in a leather outfit rides a horse with Gucci saddle bags. He rides by Count Basie and his orchestra on the plains as he heads to Rock Ridge. Meanwhile, the dutiful citizens of Rock Ridge have prepared a reception for the arrival of their new sheriff. No, they do not know that he is black. Gabby Johnson (Jack Starrett of “Kid Blue”), a send-up of perennial western character actor Gabby Hayes, spots Bart riding into town and tries to warn his fellow citizens that Bart is an African-American. A bell cuts Gabby off every time that he says the N-word, and everybody believes Gabby is saying, “The sheriff is near.” The townspeople are appalled when they see Bart. Bart ascends the platform and states, “By the power invested in me by the honorable William J. Lepetomane, I hereby assume the duties of the office of sheriff in and for the township of Rock Ridge.” Not surprisingly, everybody pulls a gun on Bart and Bart imitates them by pulling his own gun on himself. The whites put down this revolvers and Bart admires his talent. Later, at a town meeting, the citizens complain about Bart. Harriett Johnson (Carol Arthur of “Making It”) sums up the sentiments of everybody, “The white, God-fearing citizens of Rock Ridge wish to express our extreme displeasure with your choice of sheriff. Please remove him immediately!”

Indeed, the only friend that Bart has in Rock Ridge is a prisoner hanging upside down his jail cell. Jim (Gene Wilder of “Bonnie and Clyde”) surprises Bart when he identifies himself as ‘the Waco Kid.’ “He had the fastest hands in the west,” an incredulous Bart observes. Jim adds, “. . . the world.” Jim demonstrates his swift hands when he grabs a chess piece off the board before Bart can snatch it. “Well, it got so that every piss-ant prairie punk who thought he could shoot a gun would ride into town to try out the Waco Kid. I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille. It got pretty gritty. I started to hear the word "draw" in my sleep. Then one day, I was just walking down the street when I heard a voice behind me say, "Reach for it, mister!" I spun around... and there I was, face-to-face with a six-year old kid. Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away. Little bastard shot me in the ass. So I limped to the nearest saloon, crawled inside a whiskey bottle, and I've been there ever since.” Jim gazes at Bart and inquires, “What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?” Bart explains that his family came west as part of a wagon train. They encountered a Jewish Indian chief (Mel Brooks) and the Native Americans allowed them to settle because they were darker.

Taggart suggests that Hedley send Mongo (Alex Karras) to Rock Ridge to kill Sheriff Bart. Mongo rides into Rock Ridge on a bull, but he doesn’t stay out of jail long. “You can’t shoot him,” Jim warns Bart. “You’ll only make him mad.” Bart dresses up like a delivery boy and hands Mongo a candy gram that blows up in the big guy’s face. The next time that we see Mongo, he is tried up to the barred doors of the jail cell. Miraculously, Bart’s sneaky way of trapping Mongo impresses the strong man so much that he becomes Bart’s friend. Mongo points out that Bart is the only man who has ever whipped him. Eventually, Bart and Jim learn the truth about Hedley Lamarr and the railroad when they question Mongo. All Mongo will admit is that he is “only pawn in the game of life.” Meantime, Hedley decides to send in the voluptuous Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn of “High Anxiety”) to seduce Bart and lead him to his demise. Lili is the epitome of the female vamp. She invites Bart back stage to visit her in her dressing room after her big number. She sidles up to Bart and inquires if it is true what they say about African-American men. The next morning finds Lili fallen under Bart’s spell. She cannot live without him and behaves hysterically when he leaves. “What a nice guy,” she oozes. Hedley has one last idea. He tells Taggart: “I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists.” Our heroes—Bart and Jim—knock out a couple of Ku Klux Klanners and masquerade as them.

Just when everything seems lost, Bart proposes a plan to save Rock Ridge. When the townspeople refuse to listen to him, he observes, “You’d do it for Randolph Scott.” They let Bart speak and Bart’s plan is to build a replica of Rock Ridge that Taggart and his army of desperados can burn down. This is exactly what the townspeople and the railroad workers get together and construct. They build a false-fronted town like Rock Ridge. Jim and Bart slow down the approach gunmen by setting up a toll booth. When Taggart and his men storm into the fake Rock Ridge, they are almost fooled until Taggart kicks down a building that turns out to be a false front. A huge donnybrook erupts in town and suddenly Brooks drops any pretense to realism and we find ourselves on the Warner Brothers backlot. Hedley tries to escape from Bart and Jim and momentarily takes refuge in a movie theater. At the same time, the fight on the western set spills over to another set when Buddy Bizarre (Dom DeLuise of “The End”) is having trouble orchestrating a huge dance number with men dressed up in top hats and tails. The cowboys and the homosexuals tie into each other with hilarious results. Eventually, Bart tracks down Hedley in modern day Hollywood and guns the chief villain dead. Sheriff Bart bids everybody farewell, “Keep the faith, brothers,” and rides off with Jim. They pause at one point and dismount to climb into an El Dorado Cadillac and cruise away.

Incongruity generates the best comedy and Brooks directs “Blazing Saddles” like a profane situation comedy. The idea of a black sheriff sent to save a white western town is a stroke of genius. The Waco Kid is a parody of every reformed gunfighter and the joke is that he is so fast that you never see his guns leave his holsters. Gene Wilder is a revelation as Waco. The biggest surprise occurs near the end when a fleeing Hedley winds up on the set of a movie musical with queer guys galore struggling to perform a dance number. Alex Karras is hilarious as Mongo, a thug who knocks a horse down with his fist.

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