It is quite obvious that when Mel Brooks made Blazing Saddles back in 1974, he wasn’t expecting it to become such a cult classic. I’m pretty sure he was just having a good time with it. There is almost no craftsmanship whatsoever, the storyline — however simple — becomes muddled and eventually disappears altogether, the gags come hard and fast, most of the time not making any sense at all. But there is something that only Mel Brooks can do: He can create comedy out of a mess.
Blazing Saddles, for all its shortcomings, is audacious in its approach. By throwing in the kitchen sink, Brooks has removed us from the world of the Western and plopped us down into the world of crazy comedy. Yes, the story couldn’t have taken place in any other time period, and the Western backdrop does provide some southern comfort, but its characters and its humour are timeless. Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little), by all accounts, is every woman’s dream. He’s exotic, charming, funny, sweet, romantic, and smooth as hell. He just has the bad luck of being alive during a period of racial unrest (to put it mildly).
And then there are the gags. Some of them fall flat on me, mainly because I’m not a big fan of having characters break the fourth wall by delivering witty one liners to us — “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” — which is a common occurrence in Brooks’ films. Most of the gags, however, are funny, laugh out loud funny. In one of my favourite scenes, Bart’s deputy, Jim (Gene Wilder), wants to prove that he’s still as quick with his hands as he was before he got owned by a trigger-happy 6 year old. He stands up from his chess game with Bart, orders him to place his hands on either side of a King chess piece, and tells him to grab it before he can. Bart grabs it, only to find that his hands are empty. Jim then leisurely pulls out the piece from his gun holster — “Looking for this?”.
The implausibility of such a gag is what makes it funny. Of course, Wilder’s performance — which is heavily subdued in comparison to his other Brooks roles in The Producers and Young Frankenstein — adds to its impact. Maybe it’s his calm that makes him funnier.
The story involves Hedley Lamarr’s (Harvey Korman) grand scheme of building a railroad through the innocent little town of Rock Ridge, thus chasing its residents out. In what he considers to be a smart move, he appoints a Black worker, Bart, as Rock Ridge’s new sheriff, in an attempt to scare its people away. The plan almost works (the civilians of Rock Ridge treat him with hostility and disgust), but when Bart turns on his charm, the town falls for him. And then all hell breaks loose. Brooks lets go of the narrative reins and lets his film dance in circles around him, shooting off in every which way, not concerned about what it has to say or where it ends up. I guess there is some mastery in that.
Saddles is chock-a-block with implausible gags, and Brooks employs the great tactic of “shooting till you hit something”. From a bunch of cowboys burping and farting over a bean-filled campfire, to Madeline Kahn belting a monotonous ballad, there is hardly a beat to be missed, even when the movie doubles back on itself and explodes into the Hollywood backlot. This entire segment works on two levels: 1) If you’ve been so immersed in the Western world that Brooks has created up to this point, you will take great pleasure in being abruptly — and quite rudely — yanked out of it, and 2) If you haven’t been immersed in it, you’ll enjoy the ride that it takes you on. If there’s one thing Brooks has maintained throughout his career, it’s his boldness to give us the ridiculously impossible.
Best Moment | There are many. I’m not going to be bothered to list them all. Hitler saluting with both hands while standing on the kitchen counter during the Hollywood food fight is quite amusing.
Worst Moment | Nope.