Reeling it in: Revisiting ‘Blazing Saddles’ for the first time

“Blazing Saddles”

Warner Bros.

1 hour, 33 minutes

 

“Blazing Saddles,” Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic subversive western comedy, is one of those movies that, when people talk about it, I inevitably nod in agreement at how funny it is, how clever, how groundbreaking.

“When was the last time you saw it?” they ask. “Hmmm … it’s been a long time,” I say. So, this weekend, in honor of the passing of Gene Wilder, I decided to revisit the film.

And guess what? It turns out the reason I can’t remember when the last time I saw “Blazing Saddles” is because I’ve never actually seen it. The movie has become so ingrained in the language of cinema that I just assumed I’d seen it at some point. I know the references, could rattle off the names of the main cast, and am versed in the ways the movie tweaked the establishment, but all without actually having watched it.

Not surprisingly, I found it funny, clever, and the definition of groundbreaking.

I should say at the outset that, while I appreciate Mel Brooks, he’s not my favorite. “Young Frankenstein” is a masterpiece, but most of the rest of the director’s films are somewhat spotty. “Spaceballs” was funny when I was a kid, but is pretty hit and miss.

“Blazing Saddles,” however, holds up very well. Cleavon Little plays a black man in the west sometime in the 1870s. Working on the railroad, Little plays Bart, an urbane, educated man who is treated, at best, as a curiosity, and worst as a terror by the cruel taskmasters working for the corrupt Attorney General, as well as by the regular upstanding local white folk.

Things get even stranger for Bart when he’s pulled abruptly off the gallows, where he was due to hang for smacking Slim Pickens with a shovel, and offered the position of Sheriff. This does not sit well with the citizens of Rock Ridge, who, as true representatives of their time, are as bigoted as they come. Bart’s one friend is Jim, better known as The Waco Kid, played by Gene Wilder. Jim is being held in the drunk tank when Bart takes over, and continues to hang around as deputy for the rest of the film.

The townsfolk have bigger fish to fry than a black sheriff and a drunk deputy, however. The aforementioned Attorney General, Hedley Lamarr, has plans to run the railroad tracks right through the town of Rock Ridge, which will inevitably cause property values to skyrocket. In order to get the land for himself cheap, Lamarr hires a gang of cutthroats to try and scare off the homeowners. It’s up to Bart and Jim to try and head off disaster or, barring that, at least keep the melee contained to the Warner Bros.’ backlot.

Part of the reason I could feel like I knew all about “Blazing Saddles” without actually having seen it, is that the basic plot is the least important part of the film. The movie is wall-to-wall jokes, many of them very funny, but that’s not really it, either.

“Blazing Saddles” is an incredibly brave, and very scathing indictment of race relations, but not of the 1870s, but rather of the 1970s in America, and specifically in Hollywood. The idea that a black man, at least one who wasn’t Sidney Poitier, could play the lead in a mainstream picture was laughable, and especially in a western. Brooks, through a mixture of clever writing, Looney Tunes-esque set pieces, and a pitch perfect performance from Little, manages to skewer the industry quite effectively.

And not just Hollywood. I can imagine it was quite a shock to mainstream audiences to hear the nice little old lady use the “N” word, not just once, but repeatedly. It was as if he was pointing the camera directly at the audience and saying, “This is you. This is how you sound.” That’s pretty amazing.

I picked this movie because I wanted to do something to honor Gene Wilder, and while I do enjoy his performance in the film, this is really Cleavon Little’s show. Little really never made it big in show business, spending the rest of his career appearing in one TV show after another. The closest thing to another big film he would appear in was “Fletch Lives,” and I wouldn’t call that movie exactly earth shaking.

He is great in “Blazing Saddles” however. He really reminds me of Bugs Bunny, smarter than everyone else, sort of above the fray but still stirring it. The fact that he never again reached this kind of height is sad, but at least we have this.

Gene Wilder, on the other hand, has almost no character at all. That’s not necessarily a dig on the actor — it’s just that he seems so relaxed that he doesn’t seem to be a part of the story. Wilder’s Waco Kid is completely unflappable, never really driving or even affecting the action, but merely commenting on it for Bart’s benefit. You could almost believe Wilder was hanging around the set so Brooks just put a hat and gun on him and said, “OK, now you’re in the picture.” I loved having him there, but it’s an odd performance to nail down.

When it’s all said and done, “Blazing Saddles,” though very funny, was maybe not the laugh riot I thought it would be. I mean, I laughed harder at “Popstar,” a cute movie with no social relevance whatsoever.

But busting a gut is maybe not the reason to watch “Blazing Saddles.” Rather, watch it for an entertaining romp that highlights some of the best subversive satire of the 70s, a time known for subversive satire. The movie is genuinely funny, but more than that, it’s genuinely fascinating.

Grade: A

“Blazing Saddles” is rated R for lewd humor, pervasive language, and minor violence.

 

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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