#4 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.
This movie was simply too successful financially for Mel Brooks’ career to go in any other direction. His genre parody of westerns, mixed with a comedic takedown of racist attitudes, was a box office success and eventually became a cultural touchstone at levels his previous two films could never dream of reaching. Gone are the funny but sad tales of human struggles, replaced by almost pure comedic chaos. I can’t really complain since I do enjoy the results.
One of the early interesting things about this film to me is that, as a genre parody, it functions as a Western pretty straight forwardly. The elements range from typical Western to completely zany, but the story underlying it all is pretty straight forward small people against land grabber stuff that’s been present since John Ford made Straight Shooting in 1917. A nefarious Attorney General of an unnamed western state wants to scoop up soon to be valuable land because of a railroad at minimal cost by driving out the populace of the small town of Rock Ridge and buying the land from under them. The difference is that the Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) is a loquacious ham who needs his green ducky in the bath, his chief henchman Taggart (Slim Pickens) is an amusing idiot, the governor Le Petomane (Mel Brooks) is a cross-eyed moron, and the plan involves sending a black sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little) to help drive the people out purely because he’s black.
The comedy comes from a wide mixture of sources, feeling more like what one might expect from the writer of a sketch comedy show than what Brooks had previously delivered in his first two films. There are plays on genre convention, like everyone in the town being named Johnson, mixed with anachronistic flare like the local executioner being dressed as a medieval executioner (complete with outrageous arm movements back and forth). It’s mostly a combination of heightened western elements with crazy out of left field additions that combine in unexpected ways, always for laughs as the intentions.
I have a small issue, though, and that’s for the first two-thirds of the film its mostly just amusing. Maybe this is familiarity breeding some level of numbness to the comedic antics since I’ve seen the film so many times, but I mostly grin through the comedy as presented through most of the film instead of laugh. What’s left after that? The story of a black man coming to a racist little town and winning them over. Because Brooks and his cowriters are smart enough to understand that story comes first, that story works first and foremost (though a joke that amounts to a story beat, Bart taking himself hostage, has always felt like an odd workaround that never quite worked). It’s not saying anything too deep beyond “racism is bad” (with perhaps a bit of “the powerful try to pit people against each other” thrown in for good measure), but it’s solidly built.
Bart gains a sidekick in the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), a former gunslinger who turned in his guns for a whiskey bottle when something tragic happened to him a couple of years before, and I think the scene where the Kid tells his story is one of the best examples of turning genre convention upside down in the film. The story he tells, being the fastest gun in the world and attracting every thrill seeker to fight him, feels straight from a Randolph Scott western, but it’s capped by an outrageous ending (getting shot in the butt by a six-year-old kid) that provides the punch line on what we think we know.
Another source of comedy is the music. From the opening title song, written by Brooks and sung by Frankie Laine, to “The Ballad of Rock Ridge” that amusingly becomes a sung hymn by the characters in church (complete with expletive to end it) and “I’m Tired,” performed by Madeleine Kahn as the Marlene Dietrich inspired Lili Von Shtupp (probably the funniest thing in the movie up until the big finale), Brooks used music to help both ground the film in the conventions and feel of the genre while also finding more examples for comedy along the way.
Now, the ending. In Brooks’ two previous films, he could have gone for increased insanity to close out his pictures, but he chose some kind of sweet and sad catharsis. Here, he goes the One, Two, Three route of increasing insanity until its ending. There’s no attempt at any kind of emotional denouement. He knows exactly what kind of anarchic ending he wants, and he delivers in spades with a big showdown on the streets of Rock Ridge between the good guys and the bad guys spilling over into the Warner Brothers lot, the commissary (where an actor playing Hitler in another movie just salutes on top of a counter while everyone fights below), and eventually to a theater down the street where Hedy (sorry, Hedley) watches the end of the movie he’s in where Bart rides up to the theater on his horse for the final showdown. This is pure insanity, and I love it.
I’m willing to believe that I’ve simply become too close to the film for the comedy to have that kind of shock value a lot of it needs for the humor to work. I’m still amused by large portions of the first 2/3 of the film, consistently smiling, but the film doesn’t really become hilarious to me until its finale. And hilarious I do find that ending.
The movie is anchored by Cleavon Little’s performance as Bart, playing the cool, urban Richard Pryor stand-in as a counterpoint to the rustic surroundings he’s in. Wilder is largely quiet as the Waco Kid, playing a man of few words, especially once he decides to take up his guns again, a markedly different performance from the neurotic Leo Bloom in The Producers. The supporting cast is responsible for a lot of laughs on their own, from Slim Pickens just generally being himself to the denizens of Rock Ridge who end up playing up their stereotypes very well, and even Alex Karras as Mongo, the surprisingly thoughtful brute sent to destroy Bart who ends up on his side.
Funny, backed by solid, basic storytelling, and ending with a riotous conclusion that just embraces comedic anarchy, Blazing Saddles is still a very fun trip into the Old West.
7 thoughts on “Blazing Saddles”
Funny. that ending is the part I don’t like, always seemed like a lazy way out of finding an actual ending to the movie we’ve been watching all the way up to that point.
My dad always said that Brooks didn’t know how to end the movie, but I think he did.
The regular ending is just the defeat of the ruffians in typical western ways, with a shootout in or around Rock Ridge. Brooks just took the ideas and embraced the silly, which seemed to be his entire idea behind the whole thing. Tell a western, but in as silly a manner as possible.
It’s giving the audience what they expect, the face off between good and bad, and just pushed the boundaries in every direction, looking for the jokes. I like that kind of humor. Go for broke. Leave sentimentality behind and just embrace chaos.
Be an agent of chaos.
One of my top movies of all time, as well being in my top 100 list, of course.
Endlessly quotable, absurdist, anti-racist…the cliché is to say ‘this movie couldn’t be made today’, but sometimes clichés are true.
Neat facts, the singer Frankie Lane did NOT know he was singing for a comedy. He played is straight, singing with tears on his face in the studio, supposedly. Mel Brooks felt very guilty about that. Likewise, much of the studio and crew also didn’t know what kind of movie Mel was making until near the end.
I think it’s a masterpiece of audacity, comic timing and ‘out of left field’ jokes that riffs on Western tropes perfectly without hating Westerns.
6 stars out of 5
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