Blazing Saddles, the 1974 film starring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder, is one of the best comedies ever made in the history of cinema.
“You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know…morons.” – Jim the Waco Kid.
Mel Brooks movies are among the films that I watch when battling depression. While I almost opted to watch The Producers, I ended up watching this one instead. Both solid choices, of course! You can’t go wrong with Spaceballs either. If you’ve seen the news about transgender rights being under attack this week or Disney not making a strong statement in support of LGBTQ rights, you know exactly why I turned to a film like this one. It basically guarantees that I’ll be laughing. G-d only knows how important laughter is. Gag after gag after gag! I cannot even begin to dive into each and every one of them. There’s a running gag involving actress Hedy Lamarr suing Hedley Lamarr. It also serves as a reminder not to eat baked beans. But if you’ve seen the camp scene, you already know this.
We all know that this is a film that no studio would greenlight today for the obvious reasons. I mean, you could try to make it but not with the same language. However, it is an anti-racist satire and one of the funniest movies of all-time. I was thinking on Tuesday that one might be able to make a version of the film where a newly appointed transgender sheriff arrives to town to find that that city is full of transphobic bigots. We’ve got to do something that sends a strong message to Republican politicians! There’s endless possibilities here but there needs to be care in the language. But I digress.
Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman, “risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor!”) orders the railroad to go through Rock Ridge because of quicksand. He does what ever he can, including sending Taggart (Slim Pickens), to drive the town to abandonment. When Taggart’s gang kills the town’s sheriff, they request a new one. Lemarr has the idea to send a Black railroad worker, Bart (Cleavon Little), knowing it will scare the town away. He isn’t wrong. Bart’s reception in town is not welcoming and he fakes a hostage situation that they’re so dumb that they fall for it.
Bart befriends Jim the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) and comes up with a genius idea to take Mongo (Alex Karras) into custody. With Mongo off the table, Lemarr sends Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn) but she falls in love with Bart. After Mongo informs Bart and Jim of Lemarr’s plan, they take off for the railroad where Bart’s friend Charlie (Charles McGregor) confirms the inevitable. What does Lemarr do? He recruits everyone! Bart does the impossible: he gets the white townspeople to team up with the Black, Chinese, and Irish railroad workers. Together, they build a fake town. The Gov. William J. Le Petomane Thruway gets constructed and of course, our villains do not have the change! The chaos ensues from there, breaking the fourth wall by spilling over onto the WB lot and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
In a perfect world, co-writer Richard Pryor would have been playing Sheriff Bart. Unfortunately, drug arrests and such meant that there would be no insurance nor would studios approve financing with him as the star. Thus, Cleavon Little would portray the sheriff and the rest is history. He is fantastic for a newcomer! Little and Brooks veteran Wilder make an amazing team together. It’s hard to believe that Brooks initially wanted John Wayne playing the Waco Kid. I’m sorry but I just cannot see Wayne in this role. I know he’s a Western veteran but when you watch this film many times over the years, Gene Wilder’s performance gets etched in your mind.
The songs are absolutely awesome. I especially love how Frankie Laine ends up offering his services after Brooks requests a “Frankie Laine-type.” You could not have anyone else pulling off the title song in the same way. I have not yet watched The Towering Inferno so I cannot make a judgement on why this song didn’t win the Oscar over that one.
Full creative control for Mel Brooks means fighting with the studio over no shortage of scenes and such. The frequent use of a word that I will not name is the source of the biggest fight by far. I realize that both Pryor and Little were supportive of its use. It’s also understandable why Brooks would want to stay true to the 1874 time period that Blazing Saddles is set. However, the usage is of a certain word in the film just too much. Brooks also plays a number of characters including a Yiddish-speaking Native American chief in Redface nonetheless. This was wrong in 1974 and you absolutely could not do this today!
Blazing Saddles, flaws and all, is one of the best Mel Brooks films ever made.
DIRECTOR: Mel Brooks
SCREENWRITERS: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger
CAST: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, David Huddleston, Liam Dunn, Alex Karras, John Hilleman, George Furth, Claude Ennis Starrett Jr., Mel Brooks, Harvey Korman, and Madeline Kahn
Warner Bros. released Blazing Saddles on February 7, 1974. Grade: 5/5
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.