Friday, June 28, 2013
Film #152: BLAZING SADDLES
My first solid memory of Blazing Saddles--a movie that absolutely shaped my view of movies--came upon its 1974 release, when my young eyes paid note to its dazzling one-sheet. The film‘s rustic logo was set upon a background that reflected the film‘s unique structure. There was its hero, Sheriff Bart (played by a dauntless Cleavon Little), riding a rearing steed, wearing incongruous mirrored sunglasses while a silvery boom mike hovers overhead. This image was backed by an Indian nickel featuring Mel Brooks, the film’s co-writer, co-star, and director, as a war-painted Native American (a role many Jewish actors filled in the Western genre’s heyday). Around the edges of the coin ran the words “Hi, I’m Mel. Trust Me.” Even though I didn’t grasp all of its implications, the colorful chaos of this ad sent my movie-loving mind into a tailspin, and I had to know more.
But, generous as my parents were about taking me to any movies I wanted to see at the drive-in, they never gave in to my request to see this one--perhaps because of its R-rating but most probably because of my mother’s abject dislike of almost all comedies. It would be years until I finally saw Blazing Saddles properly projected in widescreen 35mm, probably on a double bill with Brooks’ twin 1974 hit Young Frankenstein or maybe with his 1976 film Silent Movie (both of which I also love). This first REAL viewing insisted on my adoration of the film’s underappreciated photography, sound, art direction and location work (aspects that are usually lost on pan-and-scan TV prints).
Blazing Saddles literally burns up the screen upon its arrival, as the Warner Brothers logo is cremated and replaced by the film’s moniker. On the soundtrack appears the first of the film’s many musical injections, a perfectly suited--and resolutely arch--ballad sung by western icon Frankie Laine (“Band of Gold”) and written by the film’s mastermind Mel Brooks, in collusion with his most valuable scoring partner John Morris (who also provided music for Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and perhaps most importantly, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, which Brooks produced). Despite this pretty standard opening, Brooks’ film instantly guns down the western genre by pointing out the inherent racism that infects it (this is a thing that keeps so many in the 21st century from enjoying westerns, often wrongly, and I implicate Tarantino in this lineup). It opens upon a railway being built by train of Chinese and black workers; one Chinese worker collapses with exhaustion, resulting in the film’s first laugh line: “Dock that chink a day’s pay for nappin’ on the job.” Nearly all the racist jokes in Blazing Saddles highlight the revolting disregard the buffoonish whites have for not only non-whites, but for non-Americans, too (even the film’s black lead, Cleavon Little, utters racist Hispanic and Germanic jokes).
It’s here we should note the film was co-written by Brooks along with Norman Steinberg, Alan Uger, story writer Andrew Bergman (who went on to pen such great farces as Fletch, The In-Laws and The Freshman) and, perhaps, most importantly, Richard Pryor, whom I suspect delivered the movie’s most incendiary jokes. Still, you can see the team collaborating on the film’s first display of insanity: the smooth singing of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You.” The song is invoked when a red-necked cowpoke (vigorously played by 70s-movie-mainstay Burton Gilliam) requests a “nigger work song” from the largely black workforce. This culminates most ridiculously not in the Porter song, which is beautifully arranged a capella, but by a suggested alternative--a version of “Camptown Ladies” sung and ridiculously performed by a bunch of arm-waving, hip-thrusting cowboys whose embarrassing display of unmanliness results in the arrival of the film’s first outlandishly committed and unlikely supporting player.
“What in the Wide Wide World of Sports is-a goin’ on here? I hired you people to get a little track laid, not to jump around like a bunch of Kansas City faggots.” With this, Slim Pickens, a real-life rodeo star who graduated into westerns, and then into comedies as diverse as Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Spielberg’s 1941, punches his way into the movie and then has a follow-up line that climaxes with him being smashed on the noggin with a shovel: “Send a wire to the main office and tell them I said OW!” and dutifully, his goofy second Gilliam scribbles the message down—“Main office, tell them I said ‘ow’…gotcha.”
The superb screenplay then jets to another setting: the frilly office of Hedy (that’s Hedley) Lamarr. Harvey Korman, who was in 1974, one of TV’s biggest stars as part of The Carol Burnett Show, absolutely nails it as the effete, ruffle-shirted villain who sets this movie’s never bothersome plot into motion. In so many comedies, especially these days, plot gets too much screen time and overcomes the laughs. Blazing Saddles should be screenwriting-class material in ensuring that this never again happens. Yes, the film trades on familiar old western tropes, but even when it’s overexplaining its plot turns, as it does joyfully in its third act, it always remembers to keep these moments fun (this is thanks to the film’s energetic supporting cast of character actors, whom we’ll examine shortly).
The introduction of Hedley Lamarr reveals one of the most vivid aspects of Blazing Saddles: its utter disregard of time and place. This is maybe a joke that’s lost on present-day audiences, but Hedy Lamarr was best known as the sexy Austrian actress who appeared in Algiers, Boom Town and Samson and Delilah. Headley’s insistent anger at being called “Hedy” is still riotously funny to me, just as it was when I was a young film buff who vaguely knew who Hedy Lamarr was. Blazing Saddles stands not only as an American film that bravely pioneered smashing the fourth wall, but also as a movie with scads of references in its arsenal. Jesse Owens, Easy Rider, Cabaret, Busby Berkely, Bugs Bunny, Randolph Scott, Cecil B. DeMille, Howard Johnson’s, “Have a Nice Day’’--all make appearances here. It is, in that way and in many others, the forefather of Airplane!, Top Secret, Hot Shots, Scream, Scary Movie, and scads of other movie-spoofing comedies that have come in their wake…not to mention many of Mel Brooks’ subsequent directorial works (only Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs and his most unfortunately neglected Life Stinks reject the spoof mode, with his Oscar-winning The Producers choosing to spoof the stage rather than the screen).
Korman’s first scene in the movie introduces his snarling, expertly coiffed villain, but it also reinforces Slim Pickens’ silliness as his ass-whomping cohort, who shrinks at Hedley’s admonishments but is nevertheless later seen attentively scrubbing Hedley’s back as Korman sits soaking in a bubble bath, pining for the comfort of his treasured squeaky frog. Their relationship is decidedly home-erotic, a theme to which Blazing Saddles returns to occasionally, and a theme which even something as beautifully serious as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain approached nearly thirty years later: that is, what did female-deprived, and only presumably straight, cowboys do for emotional and physical relief out on the trail? Is this a question that also killed the western genre, simply because it was a query too uncomfortable to answer for the genre’s largely straight fans?
The unhinging of genre is furthered, briefly yet strongly, by the introduction of a very minor character: a hunchbacked, chain-mailed town hangman straight out of a British-tinged Basil Rathbone movie. This character’s appearance was the moment where I, even as a know-it-all 12-year-old, knew I was in uncharted yet fascinating territory. But here in this scene is where dangerous exposition comes into play, but the film still skirts being boring. Hedley looks into a law book, seeking how to steal the valuable town of Rock Ridge--which stands in opposition to the railroad’s progress--from its homestead owners (a Western cliché right out of something even as recent as Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West). Looking in a thick law book for a solution, Hedley’s fingers lead him to “Land snatching…land, land…see snatch.” And here another introduction is made: sexual and linguistic vulgarity. This was a first in ‘70s mainstream comedy filmmaking, and we’ve been feeling the reverberations, for better or (much more often) for worse, in the comedy genre ever since. Even Brooks himself, in films like Spaceballs and History of the World, Part One relied on smutty jokes too much for his audience reactions. But audiences reacted nonetheless, and there we have it. Still, Brooks himself was never more bawdily clever than in Blazing Saddles and in his most regal comedy Young Frankenstein.
Subsequently, we get another song: “Rock Ridge,” written wholly by Mel Brooks, as a narrative that introduces the troubled town, complete with punctuational comic stuntwork and the film’s first breaking of the fourth wall (“Have you ever seen such cruelty?”). The scene culminates with the song being vulgarly wrapped up as a hymn in the local church, where the whitebread, inbred population attempt to rally their forces against the bushwhackers trying to drive them away. This scene reveals more of the film’s astounding supporting cast, which includes John Hillerman as Howard Johnson (Paper Moon, Chinatown), Liam Dunn as Reverend Johnson (Papillon, What's Up Doc?), and David Huddleston (Bad Company and, most famously, Jeffrey Lebowski in The Big Lebowski) as Olson Johnson. In addition, you have Jack Starrett as gibberish-spewing Gabby Johnson (“Hey, the sheriff is a ni—BONG!”), newcomer and Detroit Lions tackle Alex Karras as the dreaded Mongo and, as Harriett Van Johnson, Carol Arthur gets one of my favorite laughs as a meek schoolmarm addressing the congregation with a surprising brazenness that waylays the congregation most brilliantly. Plus we get the director himself in three curt roles: as the leader of the Sioux nation, as a very briefly seen airplane pilot, and as the cross-eyed Gov. William J. Le Petomaine. This distinctly vaudevillian character, with the bold white letters GOV.on the back of his long-tailed jacket, is a blustery fool with wild interest in bloviating (“I didn’t get a ‘harumph’ outta that guy”) and tit-worship (“You mad bitch, you”). It’s the governor’s desire for political ladder-climbing that allows for the appointment of Bart as the new sheriff of Rock Ridge, and therefore nearly puts the town into Hedley Lamarr’s greedy hands.
And here--HERE--comes perhaps Blazing Saddles' most historically significant contribution to film. Here is a movie that’s made by a white filmmaker, but also is instantly invaluable to the black identity in movies. Cleavon Little’s sexy, appealing, funny, smart, forgiving Bart is always one step ahead of the white audience, and his white co-stars, and thereby ends up hopping from a hangman’s noose to riding a steed through the countryside, astride a Gucci saddle and decked out in slick brown suede bedecked by a silver star, backed by the brassy sounds of the Count Basie Orchestra. Bart encounters Basie himself soon after his close-up, and gives a knowing soul handslap to the Count, as if to say, “Hey, ain’t it great? We’re both pioneers!” It’s a beautiful moment, their meeting; it has wings. Mel Brooks’ film, which at the time of its release, became the #1 top grossing western of all time, is the first (and nearly only) western to feature a black man as its lead. And though Little’s performance is comically rubbery and physical, he also makes for a helluva majestic Western hero (and does so by firing only one shot from his gun).
The film follows with my favorite scene: Rock Ridge residents have gathered to await their new sheriff, with Hillerman’s Howard Johnson practicing his welcome speech. “As honorary chairman of the welcoming committee, I offer you this laurel…and hardy handshake.” This might be my favorite joke in the movie, but once again, it’s one I surmise might be also lost on future generations. Certainly, if we take a peek at the film’s movie poster, with the brilliant W.C. Fields-inspired tagline “Never Give a Saga an Even Break,” we must realize that so much of Brooks’ winking humor comes from his forebears—those comedy stars of the '30s that surely lead him to TV comedy, writing for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, alongside such bright lights as Carl Reiner and Woody Allen. I have to say now that I think it’s a universal alignment that, at the time I’m writing this piece, Mel Brooks has recently been awarded the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement. I should say here that, past 1978’s Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety, I’ve been disappointed with Brooks’ cinematic output. But with everything from TV's Get Smart to The Producers to, with a long hiccup, Life Stinks, I am resolutely a fan. I adore his most of his work, but moreover I adore his persona: his devotion to his late wife Anne Bancroft, his unfailing humor everywhere he appeared, and ultimately his ability to bound from TV (he won Emmys for his TV work with Sid Caesar) to records (he was famous for his Grammy-winning ‘60s work with Carl Reiner on The 2000 Year Old Man) to shorts (his mid-'60s work with Ernest Pintoff on The Critic resulted in an animated short film Oscar) to stage (his 2002 stage adaptation of The Producers resulted in a record number of Tonys). To me, Mel Brooks is a steely hero.
Little’s first statement as sheriff--“Excuse me while I whip this out”--may be Blazing Saddles' most quotable quote, and the scene gets more riotous as it goes along. But in the interest of keeping things fresh for those who haven’t seen the film, I will henceforth try to keep the film’s best lines to myself…and so I‘ll attempt to only mention what I further love about the film. I love Gene Wilder as the laconic, hopeless Waco Kid, whose appearance ensures hope for the future of black/white relations (his interplay with Little is wonderfully cozy). I love Madeline Kahn, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of the gravelly-voiced, Marlene Dietrich-flavored Lily Von Schtupp, “The Teutonic Titwillow” (God, how I giggle it when she entreats visitors with “Wilkommen, bienveneu, velcome, come on in.“). Von Schtupp is employed by Hedley Lamarr to seduce Bart but instead falls madly in love with the shewiff (“It’stwue, it’s twue…”). Her stage song warbled to the randy cowboy audience, also written by Brooks, is called “I’m Tired,” and should have been nominated for an Oscar along with his title theme to the movie. Consider these lyrics:
Sick and tired of love
I've had my fill of love
From below and above
Tired, tired of being admired
Tired of love uninspired
Let's face it, I'm tired
I've been with thousands of men
Again and again
They promise me the moon
They're always coming and going
And going and coming
And always too soon
Couple this with Kahn’s floppy, yawning, leggy performance, ultimately alongside a chorus line of Kaiser-helmeted WWI Germans who cart her exhausted body offstage, and you have an unforgettable screen portrayal that rivals her role as Peter Boyle’s Elsa Lanchester counterpart in another Mel Brooks movie, Young Frankenstein which, truly amazingly, arrived the same year as Blazing Saddles. (Outside of Coppola, also on fire in ‘74 with The Conversation and The Godfather Part II, has any other American filmmaker--save maybe Steven Soderburgh with Oscar-nominated turns in Erin Brockovich and Traffic in 2000, achieved such an astonishing one-two hat trick in the space of a year?)
And then there’s that farting scene. I despise flatulence humor, but the superb comedy sound work in Blazing Saddles makes this famous moment work, as does Pickens disgusted reaction. Finally, in its third act, the movie begins to gleefully implode. This first happens with an unexpected collaboration between the racist township and Bart’s mostly black but still diverse former rail mates (Huddleston has the great and truthful bargain: “We’ll give land to the niggers and the chinks, but we won’t take the Irish”), and then with the bold underlining that all we’ve seen before is pure artifice. This begins with townspeople, in order to fool Hedley Lamarr’s wranglers (“Go do that voodoo that you do so WELLLLLLL!”), agreeing to Bart’s outrageous plan to build a fakey façade of Rock Ridge, its main street littered with brush and bobble-headed townspeople cutouts.
Then, finally, we get into that thing that truly blew my eight-year-old mind: Cowboys, in midfight, with the camera panning over to Burbank, California studios, and zooming in on a set where Dom Deluise is snippily directing a chorus line of gay, tuxedoed male dancers performing yet another Mel Brooks song called “The French Mistake”:
Throw out your hands!!
Stick out your tush!!
Hands on your hips
Give ‘em a push!!
You'll be surprised
You're doing the French Mistake!!
When the brawling western cast literally busts down that fourth wall and invades the musical set, it’s just comedy at its most surreal and delightful (I smile at how the cowpokes can’t bring themselves to really hurt the nancy boys). And, finally, when the film reaches its climax, outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with Hedley—a villain to the end—trying to use a fake student I.D. to get a discount ticket to see the end of the movie THAT WE ARE WATCHING…well, can I just say that for me, this sealed the deal. Seeing Blazing Saddles at twelve years old was love at first sight. I still look at its comic machinations today with astonishment. I don’t think anything like Blazing Saddles or, surely, Young Frankenstein will ever be made again, mainly because there will never be anyone as tasteful and tasteless, and trustworthy, as Mel Brooks.