Mel Brooks once said his films "rise below vulgarity." Witness Blazing Saddles, a film so politically incorrect it should come with a surgeon general's warning for the easily offended. The film is full of racist language, Black jokes, Jewish jokes, gay slurs, religious blasphemy and cruelty to both animals and old ladies. There are at least three jokes about rape, two jokes about improper use of cattle (one of which I've already counted in the rape jokes) , and one joke about implied masturbation between a cowboy and his bathing boss.
I've a rule about comedy which states that nothing is offensive to me so long as it's funny. Luckily, Saddles is hilarious, but every joke is a powderkeg of potential offense. Nothing is sacred in its skewering of the Old West, and I know every perverted line of dialogue in this film by heart. I try not to work in absolutes, but Blazing Saddles is easily the funniest movie I have ever seen.
When I saw Blazing Saddles in the theater, I remember seeing a sign on the doors of the General Cinemas Hudson Mall in Jersey City. It read, "Please be aware that Blazing Saddles contains material that may be considered offensive to some viewers. The management is not responsible for its content." It was as if the R-rating wasn't fair warning for sensitive viewers. I can't tell you how many people were offended by the film, but I'm sure it's plenty. As Steve Martin once said, "comedy is not pretty." I can tell you that, in 1974, I was too young to understand any of the jokes in this movie...except one. And it was a smelly, groundbreaking doozy, too.
With Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks began his career of spoofing movie genres. (The Producers is too original to truly be classified a spoof.) What made Brooks so adept at this during the '70's was his willingness to toy with the boundaries of genre characteristics. By taking the familiar and adding a clever spin to it, he managed to create parodies that stuck to the rules of the genre while poking fun at it. Blazing Saddles is definitely a Western, with scenes around a campfire, gun battle showdowns and a sheriff who wants to clean up the proverbial one horse town. Except this time, the good guy wears black. Or more accurately, he is Black.
Blazing Saddles began as a story by Andrew Bergman about a racist town in the Old West dealing with its new sheriff, Black Bart. Black Bart lived up to his name in the most obvious way possible, which doesn't sit well with the citizens. Bergman's Tex X was then fleshed out to feature length by no fewer than five writers, including Bergman, the director Mel Brooks, and comedian Richard Pryor. With such geniuses of tasteless hilarity stirring the pot, they're bound to cook up something naughty.
And naughty it is. Saddles is chock full of lines that couldn't be repeated in a family newspaper when it was released. There are also more uses of racial slurs than any movie this side of Quentin Tarantino's oeuvre. Every bad word you can think of is uttered, except the granddaddy of them all. There are F-words in Blazing Saddles but not one occurrence of the one of which you're thinking. If it were made today, it would probably be PG-13, but then again, there is no way this movie could have been made today.
In order to make a great parody, the movie needs to function as a credible example of what it is parodying. With its widescreen cinematography, gorgeous images of open spaces and obviously fake art direction, Saddles looks like an old fashioned color Western. It is even edited to feel at times like we're watching one, a feat that earned John Howard and Danforth Green an Oscar nomination. Most importantly, the story is straight from the genre, even if it's a mishmash of stories.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: a town is overrun with bad guys who want to make the townsfolks' lives miserable. Then, on the horizon, a hero appears. There's a new sheriff in town, and he's going to get rid of the thugs and clean things up. Now add the forward progress of the railroad, some corrupt politicians, and an old drunk who used to be the fastest gun in the West. Toss in Marlene Dietrich, some Indians and some musical numbers, and you've pretty much got every single cliche in the Western playbook. You could make one hell of a Western out of that. Blazing Saddles chooses to make mincemeat instead.
Saddles takes place in Rock Ridge, a fictional town where everybody's last name is Johnson. This includes Howard Johnson, whose ice cream store has just one flavor, and whose outhouse has a strangely familiar orange roof. Rock Ridge is an ideal place to live; its location is another matter. In order to be completed, the railroad needs to run through the land on which Rock Ridge stands. When the film opens, we see a historically accurate representation of railroad workers, former slaves and unfortunate men from China. My ethnic studies class taught me that they had a saying about Asians working on the railroad: "He hasn't a Chinaman's chance." The first scene in Blazing Saddles shows a Chinese guy passing out from the heat. The insensitive Lyle (Burton Gilliam) says "dock that chink a day's pay for nappin' on the job." I'm sure, in 1874, the Chinese were looked at with as much disdain (and as much racial slurring) as Black people, to whom Lyle turns to next.
"How about a good nigger work song," he asks them. The Black railroad workers get together, and one is expecting some kind of Negro spiritual. Instead, the workers, led by Bart (Cleavon Little) sing Cole Porter. Never mind that the Porter song they sing had been written 60 years later. Blazing Saddles' tagline is "never give a saga an even break," but its theme is never judge a book by its cover. Especially if it's a Black cover.
Lyle and his White counterparts are completely confused by "I Get A Kick Out of You." "What the hell is that shit?!" asks Lyle. "I mean a REAL song, like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot!" The Black guys don't know that one. "Well, how about The Camptown Ladies?" he asks. They don't know that one either.
It turns into a production number, broken up by the big boss, Taggart (western legend Slim Pickens). Taggart yells "what in the wide wide world of sports is a-goin' on here?!" He chastises his men for "prancing around like a buncha Kansas City faggots!" It's at this moment you realize that, despite being full of potentially offensive racial and gender humor, Blazing Saddles is out to depict the practitioners of hate in a manner as ridiculous as their beliefs and practices. Lyle and company look hilarious out there dancing and singing, and Taggart evoking a 1974 TV show in 1874 gives the hint that the film is tipping its hat toward commenting on the attitudes of that year.
For all its comedy, Saddles stays rooted in realism when depicting the prejudices of the time. When there's a rumor that quicksand may be ahead of the track they are laying, Lyle offers to send some horses down to investigate. Taggart hits him in the head. "We can't afford to lose any horses, you dummy!" he bellows. "Send over a coupla niggers." Black men are worth less than horses, but it's far far worse than that. When Lyle sends Bart and his main man Charlie (Charles McGregor) down to investigate, they ride their hand cart directly into the quicksand. (Before that, Bart says "Sir, he specifically requested two niggers. To tell a family secret, my grandmother was Dutch." Lyle sends him anyway. You know what they say: One drop of Black blood...) When Taggart and Lyle come to the rescue, Lyle lassos and pulls out the one thing that's important to them: the hand cart.
"They're going to let us die!" cries Charlie. Bart tells him not to panic, and they both make it out of danger. After they crawl to safety, Taggart tosses them a shovel. "Don't just lay there gettin' a suntan," says Taggart. "Ain't gonna do you no good no how. Here take that shovel and put it to some good use." Bart takes his advice.
Taggart seeks the help of Attorney General Hedy Lamarr ("that's HEDLEY," says the actor who portrays him, Harvey Korman). First, he needs permission to destroy the town of Rock Ridge so that the railroad can run through it, thereby avoiding the quicksand. Second, he wants Lamarr to hang "that uppity nigger that went and hit me over the head with a shovel." Lamarr agrees, and also approves the means to get rid of the citizens of Rock Ridge. "We'll run a number 6 on them," says Taggart cheerfully. "We'll make Rock Ridge feel like a chicken that got caught in a tractor's nuts!"
The people of Rock Ridge are roughed up and abused. But the folks in Rock Ridge aren't deterred. They wire the incompetent Governor William J. LePetomane (Mel Brooks) for a sheriff to help them fight the outlaws. Lamarr sees this as an advantage. His logic: send the citizens of Rock Ridge a sheriff who so offends them that they voluntarily leave town.
Bart is about to be hanged when Lamarr gets a brilliant idea. "Don't worry," says the one-eyed executioner to Bart "Everyone is equal in my eye." Lamarr prevents the execution and brings Bart to his boss. LePetomane is busy engaging in the kind of stuff Bill Clinton was doing in his government office when they arrive. "Who's this," asks an irritated and blue-balled Governor. "It's the new sheriff of Rock Ridge," replies Lamarr. LePetomane means to pull Lamarr to the side. Instead he pulls Bart by accident.
Lamarr convinces LePetomane that this is what will immortalize him in the history books. He hired the first Black sheriff. "He won't last a day," says the Gov. Lamarr tells him that it doesn't matter. The duo sends Bart to Rock Ridge where the townsfolks are certainly not tolerant of other races. They'll get so fed up, Lamarr thinks, that they'll leave town. Since the Rock Ridgers are about as tolerant of Blacks as David Duke, the plan seems foolproof. It isn't.
Once the plot is in motion, Brooks and company go into comedic overdrive. Blazing Saddles gives us the has-been gunslinger legend out to prove himself (Gene Wilder), Indian ambushes, and a German chanteuse eerily reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich (Madeline Kahn). Never mind that the legend has superpowers of speed, the Indians speak Yiddish and Dietrich sings about how exhausted a certain body part of hers is.
First, the gunslinger. After Sheriff Bart evades being shot by the citizens of Rock Ridge, he meets the one prisoner in his jail. The prisoner's named Jim, and he's very confused to see a Black man with a sheriff's star. But the two quickly bond. "What do you like to do?" asks Bart. "I dunno," says Jim. "Play chess. (great comic pause) Screw." "Let's play chess," says Bart.
Over the chess board, Jim tells Bart his story. He was once known as The Waco Kid, the fastest gunslinger in the West. But as word of his legend spread, everyone wanted to fight him. "I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille," says Jim. But after an unfortunate accident, Jim has crawled into a bottle of whiskey and hasn't come out since.
Jim is Blazing Saddles' Sidekick Negro, though unlike any of his Black counterparts, he is actually given a side story and a chance to grow. Jim even accepts his Sidekick Negro role. He mentions to Bart that he got a letter "addressed to the Deputy Spade." However, instead of teaching our hero Soul(TM), Jim warns him about what he's facing as the one spot on the dalmatian that is Rock Ridge. Bart, who until this point has been using stereotype to keep the citizens from shooting him, tells Jim "once you establish yourself, they got to accept you." After partaking in some of Snoop Dogg's favorite lung filler, Bart leaves. He encounters an old lady. "Mornin' ma'am, and isn't it a lovely mornin'?" he pleasantly asks. "Up yours, nigger!" she tells him.
On the DVD documentary, Mel Brooks says in order for Bart's success to resonate, the old lady has to break his heart. And she does too. The next shot is of Bart looking dejected and Jim trying to soothe his wounded ego. Gene Wilder, an underrated comedian in my opinion, delivers his lines with some of the best comic timing I've ever heard.
"What did you expect? Welcome sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You've gotta remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know..." (long pause)
As soon as Jim's speech is finished, they hear a huge rumble. The townspeople outside know what it is before they do, and they freak out. It's Mongo, a huge, simple-minded thug sent by Hedy Lamarr to finish off Bart and terrorize the town. The town has seen Mongo before, and they're all terrified. He did in the last sheriff. Mongo (played by George Papadopoulis himself, Alex Karras) is so bad he rides into town on a yak. When an officer complains about where Mongo parked his yak. Mongo punches out the officer's horse.
Suddenly, the town that wouldn't accept the suave urbanite Bart is now begging him for help. "How do you like that?" he asks Deputy Spade. "Now they want help!" But Bart goes out and vanquishes Mongo using the device he invented, the CandyGram. "The bitch was inventing the Candygram," Bart tells Jim, "and they probably won't give me credit for it." Soon after, the old lady who insulted him earlier brings him a pie. "Sorry about the Up Yours, Nigger," she says as she gives him the pie. She thanks him for capturing Mongo, and then she cautions "you will have the good taste not to mention that I spoke to you?"
"I'm fast becoming an underground success," Bart says. "Maybe in 25 years you'll be able to shake their hands in broad daylight," says Jim.
You would think Richard Pryor wrote a lot of the Black jokes in this movie, but Brooks says that Pryor was fascinated with the character of Mongo, creating him, his dialogue and his scenes with Bart. If this holds true, then Pryor wrote my favorite line in this movie. The duo question Mongo about why Hedley Lamarr would be interested in a podunk town like Rock Ridge. Mongo has a newfound respect for Sheriff Bart--"Sheriff Bart only man whip Mongo, Mongo impressed!"--and he wants to be on Bart's team. "Dunno," says Mongo, "got to do with where choo-choo go." When Bart asks why Hedley would care, Mongo doesn't know. Then, as earnestly as he can, former football player Karras milks his closeup and delivers my favorite line:
Continuing to follow the Western cliches, Brooks and company next introduce the Dietrich clone Lily von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn, another who died too young--she's fantastic in her Oscar nominated role here), the latest of Lamarr's attempts to bring down the sheriff of Rock Ridge. von Shtupp is hot, has great legs, and sings a song about how much sex she's had. So much, in fact, that according to her hilarious song, "I'm Tired," "everything below the waist is KAPUT!" She manages to un-kaput below the waist to seduce Bart. The scene plays like a "once you go Black, you never go back," endorsement, but there's something missing from it. After the famous "it's twue, it's twue" comment, the script originally had Bart say "I hate to disappoint you ma'am, but you're sucking on my arm." Warners put their foot down, saying the line was way too dirty. Unfortunately, it remained cut. One line that didn't get cut, and that I didn't get until recently, is my title.
With both Mongo and Lily on Sheriff Bart's side, Hedley Lamarr has to take matters in his own hands. He recruits a bunch of the most notorious criminals in the West to invade Rock Ridge and make it feel like a coop of chickens caught in a fleet of tractors' nuts. Jim and Bart go out to the recruitment station. Jim uses yet another stereotype ("hey, where are the White women at?") to con a pair of Klansmen into following them behind a rock. After the Klan is klobbered, Jim and Bart get recruited by Hedley and company. There's just one problem. One of the Klansmen reveals their dark brown hands.
"I told you to wash between weekly cross burnin's," says Jim as he rubs Bart's hands. "See, it's coming off."
Our heroes get away, and they hatch a plan using the bruvas and the Chinese from the railroad to help the Rock Ridge crew save their town in exchange for some land to farm. Racial togetherness in 1874 wasn't as possible as it was in 1974, but it's a message Blazing Saddles gives the audience in its own way. "We'll give some land to the niggers and the chinks," says one of the Johnsons, "but we DON'T WANT THE IRISH!" (Aside: this is one of the only explicit verbal White jokes in the film. I wonder if Pryor wrote this line.) When everyone complains, Johnson says "aw, horseshit! Everybody."
By the film's climax, Blazing Saddles certainly runs out of ideas. Not ideas in general, just ideas for spoofing Westerns. So, Brooks executes a ridiculous, daring gag wherein the film suddenly spirals so far out of control that it bursts its seams. I don't know how he manages to pull it off, but he does, and it elevates the film to an even higher status of insane comedy. As the citizens of Rock Ridge fight for their right to homestead, Brooks' camera pulls back to reveal that we're on a movie set. He then leaves the movie altogether, taking us to a gay musical. And by gay, I don't mean happy. It's all singing, all dancing, all Chelsea. The production number is called "The French Mistake," and someday, someone will explain to me exactly what the French Mistake is.
Blazing Saddles overflows into this other movie, out into the studio commissary and eventually to Mann's Chinese Theater. Hedley Lamarr breaks into the real world and tells a taxi cab driver to "drive me off this picture." But like Bart, he's trapped in the Saddles universe and subjected to the genre convention of a showdown between hero and villain. I won't tell you who wins, but someone gets shot in the schnitzengruben.
My favorite shot in the movie is a throwaway Gene Wilder one where, after returning to the movie proper after being in the audience at Mann's, he appears holding a bucket of movie theater popcorn in 1874. It's the perfect symbol of how Blazing Saddles uses its setting and timeframe to make comments on the time it was released. We're in 1874, but a lot of the same stupid shit we're laughing about onscreen is actually still happening in 1974 AND 2008. When Hedley complains to Governor LePetomane about being called Hedy Lamarr, the Gov says "this is 1874. You can sue HER." In a case of life imitating art, Hedy Lamarr sued Brooks and Warners. According to the DVD doc, Brooks convinced Warners to pay her.
The character of Bart is important to note in Black History Mumf because of how he handles things in the White-dominated world he inhabits. My uncle used to say, when he came home from the office, that he was "taking off my face for the White man." I didn't know what that meant as a teenager, but after spending 21 years in the workforce, I've learned the hard way what it means. Bart sometimes used the beliefs of less enlightened people to his advantage in order to get things done. I've learned that sometimes you have to do this, to play along while behind the scenes formulating your attack. I don't mean sacrifice your principles or shuck and jive, I mean just don't let on just how smart and with it you really are, until the moment it serves you best to reveal it. It sounds crazy, but it has to be done sometimes. I've learned this not just from my own experiences but from the numerous women, related to me and not, Black and not, who have told me about their own experiences with this. It's nice to use people's ignorance against them, and it's what makes the offensive material in Blazing Saddles go down so easily and so hilariously.
A few interesting notes about Saddles:
This was supposed to be Pryor's first collaboration with Gene Wilder, but Warners wouldn't insure him. Pryor remained a writer on the script and shared the WGA award with his four other co-writers, Brooks, Bergman, Norman Steinberg and Alan Uger. Cleavon Little gives a great performance and is perfectly cast. Nobody would have believed that Richard Pryor wouldn't have scared Rock Ridge's people half to death when he showed up.
Columbia Pictures passed on this. They objected to the farting scene, which marked the first time people farted in a mainstream movie. Columbia also passed on MASH four years earlier, because, according to Peter Biskind's book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the management said "people don't say fuck in Columbia Pictures." Three years later, Columbia would release one of the most profane movies ever made, The Last Detail.
Mel Brooks received an Oscar nomination for the title song, which is absurdly sung dead seriously by Frankie Laine. "He doesn't realize it's a joke," one exec told Brooks. "That's why it's perfectly sung," Brooks told him.
Your homework assignment:
Excuse me while I whip this out.
Extra credit: What band leader is in the picture above?
Note: this incorporates and massively expands material I wrote back in 1998 in my Blazing Saddles review. Wait a second--it's mine, so I can do what I want with it! Why the hell am I telling you this?