This is going to be a brief column, not because I don't love the subject, but because I am unwell. I have a cold AND my back is thrown out. It's been out since Thursday and I've had lots of shots and I'm writing this on some interesting pain killers. Let's get to it.
BLAZING SADDLES is one of the finest comedies ever made. Mel Brooks, the writer and director, is the king of spoofing genres (though the hat is arguably being passed to the team behind SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ). This is his Western, which manages to deal with the white hat/black hat figures, the old west prostitute, and punching horses. Its treatment of race relations (and perhaps of homophobia) is what makes this movie great.
In case you haven't seen it, a corrupt politician wants a town to be undefended. When they demand a sheriff, he sends them a black man, knowing that their prejudice will doom their safety. The black Sheriff, Bart, is befriended by a drunken, washed up quick shooter and together they defend and win over the town.
The movie liberally uses epithets like the "n" word. If you have a knee jerk reaction to the word, you might not want to watch it. As George Carlin reminds us, though, there are no bad words, there are only words used in bad context. The "n" word is used in this film because it is historically accurate. Racists in 1874 (the setting of the film) used the word. Racists in 1974 (when the film was first released (1)), also used the word. The film's position is quite clear—if you use the word, you're an asshole.
I'm finding it easier to think in bullet points, so let's switch to them as we think through some movie trivia.
James Earl Jones was originally considered for the role of Sheriff Bart. Mel Brooks actually wanted Richard Pryor, but the studio wouldn't go along with casting this contentious stand-up artist. Pryor was part of the writing team, however. The role ultimately went to Cleavon Little. Brooks thought he was both funny and endearing.
Funny and endearing is exactly how I think about Gene Wilder. Wilder and Brooks were friends and Brooks showed Wilder the script while it was being revised. Brooks wanted Wilder in one of the roles, but Wilder wanted the part of the Waco Kid. Brooks resisted, as Wilder was too young to play a weathered, alcoholic sharp
shooter. He hired Gig Young, who was apparently a method actor, as he showed up on the first day of shooting too drunk to perform. Brooks called Wilder, who was across the country. Wilder showed up the next day and did so well in the first shootings that they did not fall behind schedule. It is perhaps because of his friend's saving the day that Brooks agreed to do Wilder's idea for a film—YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
John Wayne was given the script to this film. He said he laughed all the way through it and that he would be first in line to see it, but knew that his fans weren't the "spoof" kind of people.
Madeleine Kahn was reluctant to show Mel Brooks her legs during her audition, but he wanted to make sure that her parody of Marlene Dietrich would include great gams. Kahn is amazing in this role and her song, "I'm Tired," is one of my favorite performances. See it here:
Hedy Lamarr has no sense of humor. One of the characters is named Hedley Lamarr. He works hard to make sure that people get his name right. One character tries to reassure him: "What the hell are you worried about? This is 1874. You'll be able to sue HER!" Hedy sued Brooks (though I cannot figure out how the use of her name was offensive) and Brooks settled out of court.
Frankie Laine sang the fabulous title song. I heard him interviewed on NPR's FRESH AIR some time ago. He said that it wasn't until he saw the film that he realized it was a comedy. He sang the song "straight." And that's why it works. You have to play your comedy straight—winking at the audience is a bad idea.
One of the many stereotypes the film plays with is that of the black buck—the stereotype of male African-American hyper-sexuality. In one instance, a character says to Bart, "They said you was hung." Bart replies, "And they was right" (2). Kahn's character falls for Bart after she is ordered to seduce him—the white woman can't get enough of that black man. The seduction scene
made many studio people uncomfortable, but the only part Brooks cut was this brief exchange in a darkened room: "It's true! It's true!" Bart: "That's my arm you're sucking."
The studio heads were also really concerned with a scene involving cowboys eating beans around a campfire. The resulting sound effects were apparently the first time an audience would "hear" a fart on the big screen. The controversial farting scene is here:
This is one of the few films that might rightly be called meta-film or postmodern. Not only does Brooks have his characters break the fourth wall by speaking to the camera, he exposes the artifice of film by pulling the cameras back from end scenes to show the studio, and the end of the film explores what it means to drive off into a fake sunset.
There are those who may see the exploration of racism as outdated. They would do well to watch Ted Koppel's new documentary, THE LAST LYNCHING, about the killing of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama in 1981 (3). Mobile is about an hour from where I grew up. I was six in 1981.
When I think about this film now, I think about a man named Obama, who's running for Sheriff of this great land. I think about people shouting the "n" word at McCain/Palin rallies. I think about people I've seen on the news who assure reporters that Obama won't win because there's going to be a "white out" at the polls.
But mostly I think about punching horses.
(1) The film was re-released in the summer of 1975 because the studio didn't have enough films going out.
(2) The wordplay here is important. The implication is about a hanging—to be noosed is to be hanged, not hung. The misuse of the word makes the answer all about Bart's penis.
(3) Certainly there have been lynchings since then. Remember James Byrd and Matthew Shepherd. Remember that white students hung nooses from a tree at a Louisiana High School in 2006.
Dr. Karma is a silly, nerdy know-it-all, but in a good way. She brings all her overeducation to discuss that which truly matters: comedy. As some famous guy once said: “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.” Or something like that.
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