Thursday, 16 July 2015
BLAZING SADDLES (1974)
For a writer/director to have one great comedy to his name is an achievement. In the case of Mel Brooks, he had three - and all were made in the period that this blog spans, proving my point once again how many talents did arguably their finest work in these years. His Oscar-winning THE PRODUCERS (1968), followed by BLAZING SADDLES and then YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN both released in the same year (1974). (There was also the less notable but lovingly-made THE TWELVE CHAIRS in between).
Like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Brooks co-wrote BLAZING SADDLES largely with Richard Pryor as an affectionate homage to a favourite genre - the Wild West movie. Also, both movies shares the same huge energy and gleeful vulgarity, but this is like being insulted by Don Rickles - rather than be offended, you treasure it. The other shared quality is knowing when to play it straight. It features a convincingly sincere romantic song of cowboy life co-written by Brooks and sung by western movie theme stalwart Frankie Laine, but with no spoofery. For every rifle-burst of laughs in the film, there are moments of good-natured warmth and honest sentiment.
How much do I love this film? Let me count the ways:
The cast is crammed full of memorable comedy gem characterisations. Gene Wilder's sozzled Waco Kid is every has-been drunk yearning for redemption that you've ever seen yet with a winning gentility and humanity as warm as the desert sun. Harvey Korman excels as Hedley ('That's Hedley') Lamarr, a suave sophisticate villain hampered by the sublime Slim Pickens and Burton Gilliam as his redneck henchmen. Madeleine Kahn is unforgettably funny as the Dietrich-esque German chanteuse Lily Von Schtupp with outrageous speech impediment to boot. Alex Karras channels a charming village idiot as Mongo. David Huddleston is marvellous as the blunt, crass Olson Johnson. In amongst the other townsfolk are an anachronistic, lisping medieval executioner, Jack Starret is the hilariously incoherent backwoodsman Gabby Johnson spouting 'Authentic frontier gibberish'. An old lady racist is comedically beaten up and John Hillerman plays another incongruously educated local, Howard Johnson, to match his urbane hotel manager in WHAT'S UP DOC? 'Nietsche said out of chaos comes order', he loftily expounds during a town meeting before being heckled down by philistines. Liam Dunn also provides a wonderfully irascible preacher, similar to the terrifically rude judge he played in WHAT'S UP DOC as well.
One of the most striking hired guns in the film though is Cleavon Little as the 'dazzling urbanite' Sheriff Bart . Little was a broadway theatre talent who here tackles the type of role that could have seriously misfired in the wrong hands. He exudes effortless confidence and charisma on screen that blows away any suggestion of tokenism. Bart is nobody's fool and ensures the real victims of racism are its exponents, 'Baby, you're so talented..and they're so DUMB' he remarks to us in wonderment.
This brings me to another area of BLAZING SADDLES that I adore, which is the joy it takes in carefully constructing its period setting and then continually subverting it. For example, a number of characters like Bart 'break the fourth wall' by speaking directly to the audience. The afore-mentioned old lady, whilst being deliberately delicately duffed-up in the street, appeals to our sympathies: 'Have you ever seen such cruelty?'. Hedley works through the soliloquy that results in the black sheriff being foisted on Rock Ridge. As his scheming stalls, he suddenly notices we are watching him: 'And why am I asking you?'
The other madcap way that the film breaks its own reality, and this has never been done with such thrilling mayhem on screen since, is by literally breaking out into the 'real world' of the Warner Brothers studio lot in the climax. Some critics complained that Brooks showed he couldn't think of a real ending, but this is unfair. The inventive gag-rate keeps on firing live rounds of laughs as the cowboys burst in on a Busby Berkeley-style dance number choreographed by the acidly camp Dom Deluise. The commissary has a World War Two film cast eating in it, featuring a Hitler lookalike telling a friend 'Dey lose me after da bunker scene') and a pie-fight ensues. Naturally!
The sheer wealth of jokes and bizarre non-sequiturs follow each other so fast in this comedy that you happily accept the wonderful weird illogical details. Was there really a tribe of native American Yiddish Indians? How does Count Basie and his band appear in the desert? And why do none of Hedley's henchmen think to circumvent the small toll booth that suddenly appears before them out there? (Instead, Pickens' Taggart accepts defeat, moaning: 'Somebody's gonna hafta go back and get a shitload o' dimes')
I've seen BLAZING SADDLES more than almost any other film and I discover more in it every time I see it. Fellow fans, did you know by the way which character Richard Pryor exclusively wrote all the dialogue for? No, not Bart - too obvious. He scripted everything said by Mongo. Pryor found this lovable dimwit so endearing that he gifted him a childlike soul and quotable corkers like the rueful: 'Mongo pawn in game of life'.
The 'feel-good' generosity in the writing and playing coupled with the hundreds of in-jokes, surreal moments and pratfalls, expertly judged in tone by Brooks makes this film a constant pleasure decades after its release. It's a hilarious parody both for the smart people and '...You know, morons'.