THE 28, #2: BLAZING SADDLES (1974)
Cleavon Little: Bart
Gene Wilder: Jim
Slim Pickens: Taggart
Harvey Korman: Hedley Lamarr
Madeline Kahn: Lili Von Shtupp
Mel Brooks: Governor Lepetomane
Burton Gilliam: Lyle
David Huddleston: Olson Johnson
John Hillerman: Howard Johnson
Alex Karros: Mongo
Screenplay by Mel Brooks & Norman Steinberg & Andrew Bergman & Richard Pryor & Alan Uger
Directed by Mel Brooks
BLAZING SADDLES if the funniest movie I've ever seen. Considering it is a Mel Brooks picture, that is saying something. This is the genius behind YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and THE PRODUCERS. BLAZING SADDLES is a Western spoof that lacks the polish and refinement of the former, but keeps the poor tastes of the latter, and establishes itself as its own unique creation because it adds anarchy. There is nothing this movie won't do to get a laugh. It is the cinematic equivalent of the Home Run Derby. Every swing is for the fences. The fun is seeing how far the ball will go. It also contains not one, but two of the greatest comic performances in Madeline Kahn's Lili Von Shtupp and Harvey Korman's Hedley Lamarr.
I was only six years old when BLAZING SADDLES opened in February of 1974. It was rated R, so there was no way in hell I was going to get to see it. My two older brothers went, though, and regaled me with all the inappropriate jokes, including the infamous camp fire scene of nothing more than a symphony of farts. Wait, I thought. They made a movie where people farted? We're not even allowed to say the word fart. My dad insisted on the more delicate 'toot.' Everyone has their line and I guess that was Dad's. I finally got to watch a toned down version on network television a couple of years later. Oh, it was funny, but it would be a few years before I finally got to see it in all its shameless glory.
The only thing you need to know about the plot is some crooked government types want to build a railroad right through the town of Rock Ridge. They need the people to leave, so they hire a black sheriff and assume the town will revolt and fall into lawlessness. This tenuous plot serves as framework sight gags and jokes that come so fast you can't keep up. The comedy is broad and sophomoric. The pacing is frenetic and chaotic. The structure is a mess. Racist jokes abound, yes, but they are at the expense of the racist. Brooks makes a wise decision in allowing Bart to be our eyes into this bizarre world. Don't mistake that for the movie having any real depth. It doesn't. It's slapdash mix of everything. Mel Brooks throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. Fart jokes, race jokes, prat falls, wordplay, dick jokes, sex jokes, pie fights, Hitler jokes, dance numbers, punching a horse, and the most delirious climatic fight scene committed to film.
The film gives us a cavalcade of comedic actors at the top of their craft. Madeline Kahn was nominated for an Academy Award for Lili Von Shtupp, a Marlene Dietrich spoof who tries to seduce Bart. The performance is broad and silly, yes, but also manages to be subtle and detailed. There is never a moment where we sense Kahn not being Lili Von Shtupp. She full inhabits the character which makes it all the funnier.
Let the same be said for Harvey Korman as the movie's arch villain, Hedley Lamarr. Korman performs vocal acrobatics, delivers throwaway punch lines and over-the-top monologues. He adds in sublime moments of physical comedy with facial tics and reactions. It is a master class in comic technique. As a young actor who aspired to work in comedy, I studied many of the greats. Jack Lemmon, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Tim Conway, and Gene Wilder (who appears in this and the aforementioned YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and THE PRODUCERS). Two of my favorite comedic performances became most influential. I mentioned Dudley Moore's turn yesterday in ARTHUR. That performance taught me how an actor can so deftly move between light comedy, broad farce, and touching pathos in the same performance. Korman's Hedley Lamarr showed me the importance of honing skills such as timing and the stripping away of inhibition. Mel Brooks movies embrace excess, so the performers must embrace it, too. Harvey Korman's work in BLAZING SADDLES is the gold standard for that embrace.
I sometimes hear people say BLAZING SADDLES could not get made today because it's too much. It goes too far. I disagree. Actually, by today's standards, it's tame and charming. I'm not sure what that says about us, but here we are. I imagine the only problematic device in the movie is its use of the n-word. That would cause considerable amount of debates. I think BLAZING SADDLES could get made today, but it would be over-analyzed to death because of its depiction of racism for comedic effect. This would rob us of the joy the movie instills.