The Essentials- #62
I have had a Western kick as of late. A few weeks ago, I took a peek at “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” and I liked some of it, but I wish it had been better. Tonight, I am watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” I love how the two films are oddly connected to each other. I love the world Tarantino creates on the screen, and like all of his films, he wrote incredible language in the film. I bring up both films because they have been compared to Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” and I am not sure I agree with that. I think all three films approach a Western comedy in equally unique ways, but other than that, the films can’t be compared to each other. Plus, I don’t think anything can compare to the genius Mel Brooks created with his film.
Much like Quentin Tarantino, it is quite clear when you sit down to watch “Blazing Saddles” that Brooks really absorbed the Western genre as he went through life. I am sure he watched everything with The Duke and everything with Franco Nero and everything with Clint Eastwood. The way he handles the movie and the way he chooses his jokes are astounding. Sure, he goes for the easy laugh every once in awhile, but if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be Mel Brooks. The easy slapstick stuff works just as well as the subtle, rich jokes. It also seems that Brooks had a really good understanding of the history and culture of the Old West, which made the film even funnier and better than it could have been.
But that only scratches the surface of what Mel Brooks accomplished with Mel Brooks. “Blazing Saddles” is a comedic Western, first and foremost. But it is also so much more than that. Brooks made an ode to the world of film with “Blazing Saddles.” I would even go as far to say that he parodies the world of film with this one movie. You see glimpses of that parody all throughout the film. But it really shows itself within the last ten minutes of the film. “Blazing Saddles” wild ending is so bananas that had the film been made today, I don’t think the ending would have kept. I am glad this film was made in the 1970’s, when directors of all genres were tearing down the industry and creating a whole new world of film, turning new possibilities into reality. I am equally glad that Brooks made this movie and made it as slick as he did here.
The film’s premise is quite silly, after a railroad route is destroyed by quicksand, it changes course and hopes to continue construction through a town called Rock Ridge. Rock Ridge is town where everybody’s last name is “Johnson” (giggle, giggle) and they are proud people who are wary of this new railroad. State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), wants the land in Rock Ridge and he sends a group of thugs to scare the people of Rock Ridge, prompting the townsfolk to ask Governor William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks) to appoint a new sheriff. Lamarr persuades the Governor to select Bart (Cleavon Little) as the new sheriff, Bart is an African-American railroad worker who is on his way to be lynched. Lamarr feels that the presence of an African-American sheriff will anger the town and created disarray which will give Lamarr the advantage to take over Rock Ridge. Bart enlists the help of the Waco Kid (the incredible Gene Wilder) to ease the tension of his presence, and together, they undo Lamarr’s plot.
I only know Cleavon Little from “Blazing Saddles.” I do not know him from anything else, and besides “Blazing Saddles” he seemed to have fallen off the Earth. I am sure that is not the case, but I think he made a big statement with his work in “Blazing Saddles.” I am amazed he did not become the next big thing in the 1970’s, because his work in this movie should have primed him for that. He had a commanding presence in the film and he came off as if he was born to be a star. Which further saddens me that we barely saw him the rest of the decade. Gene Wilder does what he does best in this movie, and Wilder proves once again why he was one of the best comedic talents of his generation. Gene Wilder is another actor who is genuinely missed in the comedy world today, and his material with Mel Brooks is among his best. I also like the dim-witted work by Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr.
Then there is Madeline Kahn, who plays Lili von Shtupp aka “the Teutonic Titwillow.” She is a dancer at a nice bar who comes across Bart. Mel Brooks collaborated with Madeline Kahn on several occasions, and their work together was screen gold. Her musical numbers are absolutely hilarious and she displays great chemistry with Little. Between her work here and in “Young Frankenstein” …man, I can’t decide which performance I like better.
I think “Blazing Saddles” is uncanny and unique in a way that any other comedic Western has ever been. So far, within this budding genre, I find it still be the king.