Friday, October 29, 2010

Blazing Saddles (1974)


          After making a wholly original film, The Producers (1968), and a goofy literary adaptation, The Twelve Chairs (1970), comedy giant Mel Brooks found his true niche in 1974 with the spectacular one-two punch of Blazing Saddles, released in February of that year, and Young Frankenstein, released in December. Satirizing film genres freed Brooks to stack gags on top of gags without having to worry about inventing new stories, since he repurposed elements from old films to create solid narrative foundations. Yet rather than just firing off jokes in these first two spoof films, Brooks took care to imbue even the most preposterous characters with likeable humanity—so, for instance, Blazing Saddles focuses on a black sheriff who combats Old West prejudice by making a fool of every racist he encounters. More importantly, Blazing Saddles reaches such dizzying heights of comic insanity that it’s one of the funniest movies ever made.
          The picture began as an original script by Andrew Bergman, who later became a comedy director in his own right, and the story went through a spirited metamorphosis as Brooks and others added characters and jokes and themes. At one point, comedy legend Richard Pryor was hired to smooth out potentially offensive race jokes, but instead fixated on penning gags for the existentially confused man-child Mongo (Alex Karras), who at one point sadly opines, “Mongo just pawn in game of life.”
          The main story this brain trust generated involves the devious machinations of corrupt politician Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), who wants to demolish a small town and make room for a railroad in which he has a financial stake. By manipulating his state’s oblivious governor (Brooks), Hedley gets a black man, Bart (Cleavon Little), assigned as the town’s new sheriff. Upon seeing the color of the lawman’s skin, the town’s welcome wagon turns into a lynch mob, but soon Bart teams up with alcoholic gunfighter Jim (Gene Wilder) to save the day by confronting Hedley. The story, of course, is of minor importance, because Blazing Saddles is like a vaudeville revue filled with screamingly funny stand-alone gags, most of which are better discovered than described.
          Befitting its tagline, “Never give a saga an even break,” Blazing Saddles upends every imaginable convention of Hollywood Westerns. Conniving villains are made to look ridiculous (Hedley freaks out during bath time when he can’t find his rubber ducky); racial stereotypes are exploited for outrageous laughs (Little’s line, “Excuse me while I whip this out,” has become immortal); and, of course, the picture contains cinema’s most infamous demonstration of the effect baked beans have on the male digestive system, the symphony of campfire flatulence heard ’round the world.
          Everyone in the movie is terrific, with Little exhibiting charisma and great timing while Wilder gives an uncharacteristically soft-spoken performance as his sidekick. Korman is pure genius from start to finish, and Brooks regular Madeline Kahn slays as put-upon German seductress Lili Von Shtupp. The movie goes off the rails toward the end, albeit intentionally, so inspiration eventually gives way to desperation—but the chaos helps give Blazing Saddles such extraordinary shelf life that it’s one of the few modern movie comedies that can still leave fans gasping for air while laughing at the same jokes for the hundredth time.

Blazing Saddles: RIGHT ON

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