Combustible Celluloid
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With: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, Slim Pickens, Harvey Korman
Written by: Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Richard Pryor, Alan Unger
Directed by: Mel Brooks
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 93
Date: 02/07/1974

Blazing Saddles (1974)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Campfire Stories

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Mel Brooks's 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles gets away with murder -- more so than any of today's flatulence-obsessed comedies do. As liberal as we think we are in 2004, we still have just as many taboo subjects now as there were then, sex and race chief among them.

Brooks throws them both out the window.

When Brooks himself first appears on screen in Blazing Saddles, as governor during the Wild West, he's sitting next to a voluptuous "secretary" wearing a skimpy outfit. Brooks talks directly to her breasts, lays his head on them, and flat-out enjoys them. In addition, characters liberally use the dreaded "n" word to describe the African American characters.

While the film is still shocking 30 years later, it's perhaps less funny than it once was. As his career progressed, Brooks's humor grew broader and he developed a penchant for explaining his jokes while telling them and repeating punchlines again and again.

Some jokes have simply aged badly. The once-hilarious campfire fart scene has now been done in just about every American comedy made in the past five years (including the current White Chicks). True, Blazing Saddles did it first, but is it still funny?

But other scenes, such as the one in which the black sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) gets out of a tight spot by kidnapping himself, are still spot-on.

When the a railroad wishes to run their new line through the town of Rock Ridge, the locals decide to fight it. They request a new sheriff and receive a former railroad worker -- an African American -- Bart (Little), whom the governor (Brooks) sees as "expendable." But, due to his ingenuity and friendship with former sharpshooter Jim (Gene Wilder) and a band of Bart's fellow railroad workers, the townspeople triumph. The climactic battle gets so big that it sprawls off the Western set and into several other Hollywood sound stages, including a gay musical directed by Dom Deluise.

Slim Pickens and Madelene Kahn provide a good many of the laughs with their roles. Pickens plays a go-between, the boss of the railroad workers who reports to the Attorney General (Harvey Korman). With his innate comic timing and wondrous Western drawl, he makes almost any line sound good. One of my favorites occurs just after the good guys attempt to slow down him and his men by putting up a toll booth: "somebody's gotta go back and get a s---load of dimes!"

Kahn plays Lili Von Shtupp, the typical "Shanghai Lily"-type saloon performer, based on Marlene Dietrich and performed with a bizarre German accent enhanced with a speech impediment. Even though the character is supposed to be indifferent ("I'm tired," she sings of her many lovers) she adds a certain amount of warmth to the role. And, as in Young Frankenstein, her hard shell is finally melted by a male character with large equipment.

Brooks's directorial style faded a bit on Blazing Saddles. In Young Frankenstein, released the same year, he concentrated on a certain atmosphere that referenced James Whale's old monster movies. Blazing Saddles doesn't have any knowledge of Westerns and doesn't much care. It's more involved in the making of jokes, as many as possible, and hang the story.

Nevertheless, I laughed and laughed while viewing this again. Maybe part of it was nostalgia, but part of it came from a refreshing feeling of being shocked once more.

The film was a giant hit in 1974 (much bigger than Young Frankenstein). It received three Oscar nominations, for Madeline Kahn as Best Supporting Actress, Best Song (for the title song), and -- oddly -- Best Editing.

Co-writer Andrew Bergman went on to become a director himself, with The Freshman, Honeymoon in Vegas, It Could Happen to You and Striptease. The great Richard Pryor is also a co-writer; Brooks apparently wanted him to play Bart, but the studio believed it was too much of a risk.

The Blazing Saddles 30th Anniversary DVD comes with a misguided TV pilot for a show called "Black Bart," starring Lou Gossett, as well as a commentary track by Brooks, an appreciation of Kahn (who died in 1999), a trailer, a making-of documentary, and "additional scenes." The film comes mastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, plus optional French and Spanish language tracks and optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.

In 2014, Warner released a new 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition. I've never seen it look so good; the sets and locations spring more sharply to life now. This release includes most of the extras from the previous DVD. New extras include an interesting new 30-minute featurette, "Blaze of Glory," with a new Brooks interview, and 10 "art cards" included in the packaging.

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