Thursday, June 30, 2016

Funny Business in the Old West

This is my entry in the Mel Brooks Blogathon sponsored by Cinematic Frontier.

Blazing Saddles  is an hilarious comedy featuring Richard Pryor as a black sheriff and John Wayne as his sidekick, a drunken former gunfighter....

Wait a minute!  What? Who?

OK, I caught you off guard.  But originally that was to be the lineup.  Except the studio execs balked at letting Pryor have the role, and John Wayne, though Brooks wanted him for the part, turned it down.

Written by Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (un-credited) and Brooks, this is a romp and a half through the stereotypical tropes of cinematic westerns, turning them all on their ears.  The main theme of the movie was to use the western as a form to satire racism in general.  Hence the use of the  "N-word" in many places in the movie. (note: It is not my intention with this entry to intentionally try to offend you.  In the context of discussing certain aspects of the movie I will used the less offensive "N-word".  But if I am quoting directly from the movie, which I will do on occasion, I will use the word as it is presented in the movie.  That was the whole point of the movie, after all, to show how ridiculous racism and the racists  were.)

It is beyond a doubt, in my opinion, that this movie could not have been made in the present day.

From the interview with Brooks on my DVD I learned several fascinating  facts.  Brooks took on this project because he needed the money, though his habit had been to do his own ideas.  The project was initially the idea of Andrew Bergman who was incorporated into the writing team for the script.  The movie had several working titles.  The original was Tex-X, but it was also going to be called Black Bart (the sheriff's name in the movie was Bart), and The Purple Sage (a rather highbrow title referring to the wise man embodied by the sheriff, but also a sort of homage to a classic Zane Grey western novel, "The Riders of the Purple Sage").  Eventually the title that was used came to Brooks in a moment of inspiration in the shower.  (And isn't that where we all get our inspiration?  Maybe inspiration is in the water...)

Brooks has been quoted as saying he wanted an older man, preferably a real alcoholic actor, to play the part of "the Waco Kid".  He approached John Wayne, but Wayne claimed it was too dirty for his image.  He is quoted by Brooks as saying "but I'll be the first in line to see it!"  Gig Young, who was an alcoholic in real life, was hired, but disaster struck during the first day of filming, as it turned out he was in the advanced stages of the disease.   Gene Wilder, who had been helping write the script and really wanted the role, volunteered to step in.  Cleavon Little was hired to play the sheriff, and various other roles were filled by stock Brooks cohorts (Harvey Korman, Madeleine Kahn) and some character actors like Slim Pickens.

Hedy Lamarr famously sued the production because she thought the name of the villain, Hedley Lamarr, was too close to her own name and smehow was an infringement on her personal property rights to her name.  A running joke throughout the film is people mistakenly calling Hedley "Hedy" and him having to correct them.

Another interesting tidbit:  This was only Burton Gilliam's (Lyle) second movie.  He expressed some reservations about having to say the "N-word", but the most interesting thing about him that I found was he was embarrassed to be in the farting scene.  He told Brooks he'd never be able to show his face back at work (he was still working as a fireman at the time).  Brooks told him if he did that scene he'd be so famous he'd never have to go back to his old job.

An interesting note:  several of the actors had worked together previously on Paper Moon, (the aforementioned Kahn, as well as Burton Gilliam and John Hillerman).  The movie was released despite several objections by the brass (the frequent use of the "n-word", the farting scene, the punching out of a horse).  Fortunately Brooks stood his ground and we have the funny classic we have today. 

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Note:  In order to keep this blog somewhat family-friendly, I have decided to put any lines with offensive words as captions to the pictures.  If you wish to avoid any epithets you can read the blog and bypass the captions.  

Opening with a rousing song (lyrics by Mel Brooks and sung by Frankie Laine) the camera zooms in on a crew of African-Americans and Chinese-Americans working on a railroad.  Up comes a group of cowboys led by Lyle (Burton Gilliam).  Lyle taunts the workers, asking them why they aren't singing.

"How 'bout a good ol' nigger work song?"

Bart and the gang try out their harmonies on the Cole Porter song "I Get a Kick Out of You".  Lyle and company respond with a rendition of "Camptown Ladies".  While they are doing this,

"dancing around like a bunch of Kansas City faggots""

Mr. Taggart (Slim Pickens) rides up and tells them to get back to work.  He instructs Lyle to send a couple of workers to look up the way for quicksand.  Bart (Cleavon Little) and Charlie (Charles MacGregor) are the chosen suckers who do encounter quicksand.  When Lyle and Taggart show up, they rescue the handcart but ignore the two workers who are stuck.  Bart and Charlie escape and Bart conks Taggart in the head with a shovel.


The scene shifts to the offices of Hedy (that's HEDLEY!) Lamarr (Harvey Korman), assistant to the governor, William Lepetomaine (Mel Brooks).  Taggart informs Lamarr of the quicksand and that the train will have to go thjrough Rock Ridge.  The diabolical assistant governor makes plans to drive the rightful citizens from the town and buy up all the land.  To do so he sends rowdies to rough up the town.

Rock Ridge is peopled by good citizens, like Gabby Johnson, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Howard Johnson, Van Johnson, Harriet Johnson etc.  (I think its just a coincidence...)  They all gather to decide to wire the governor to send them a new sheriff.  Lamarr gets wind of it and decides to send Bart (who had been arrested after coshing Taggart.

Proudly(?)  welcoming "our new nigger".

The citizens are enthused about the arrival of the new governor, that is until the sheriff arrives and they find out he is black.  Bart escapes to the jail to hole up, and finds Jim (Gene Wilder), the town drunk.  When Taggart and Lyle decide on their own to get rid of the sheriff, they get Mongo (Alex Karras), a barely coherent imbecile, but a behemoth of a man.  Mongo terrorizes the town until Bart outwits him and arrests him.

"Mongo only pawn in game of life"

Meanwhile Lamarr still has his own plans to outwit the sheriff and hires Lilli von Shtupp (Madeliene Kahn) a German siren with an abominable lisp to seduce him.  This backfires as she falls for him instead of the other way around.

The "Teutonic twat" in the flesh

At last, Lamarr gets his dander up.  He hires a plethora of villains, including

"rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperadoes,  mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists!"

When Bart and Jim get wind of this they convince the townspeople to pitch in with the blacks and the Chinese workers to deceive the marauders.  The spectacle at the end has to be seen to be believed.  Brooks pull out all stops to finish the movie in a way no one had ever dared to try to finish a Western before.

At the end, even the racist town becomes friends with the new black populace.  It's refreshing to see that only the unrepentant suffer their just due by the end.    Brooks managed to film a social satire that some people get and some people don't.  The movie is still criticized even to this day for what some people see as an over abundance of the use of the N-word, but it is an educational point to observe that most of those critics are white.  Black people at the time, and even today mostly approve of what Brooks was trying to do.  It is up to you to decide whether he was successful in his own small part .

Hope you enjoyed the foray, kiddies.  Time to ride off into the sunset.  Drive safely.



  1. John Wayne! Wow, that would have been something. Unbelievably, I've never seen this film, but it's on my list. It's actually only been in the past few years that I've come to appreciate the Western genre more, so I'm finally feeling like I might appreciate the humor of this film better. :)

    I have to admit that the prospect of so many N-words is a little daunting, but I respect what he was trying to do and appreciate that!

    1. If you compare it to something like "Straight Outta Compton" the use of the epithet is almost negligible. Running the entire movie in my head right now, I think it only appears 7 or 8 times. Thanks for tuning in, though.

  2. Hi Quiggy, hope you had a nice 4th of July!
    Blazing Saddles is indeed Brooks's most controversial film, and probably the funniest too. Boldly irreverent, it revels in its ability to make the viewer uncomfortably aware of racism...and I agree with you,it really could not have been made today. (I was rather offended by Quentin Tarantino's recent Django Unchained...what did you think?)

    But I am a huge fan of Mel Brooks's goofy humor. One of my favorite jokes in this one is the Howard Johnson's ice cream sign - "1 Flavor"

    Richard Pryor would have been awesome, though Cleavon Little is excellent in his role...Gene and Richard had unbelievable chemistry in one of my favorites, Silver Streak...

    1. Chris-
      Haven't seen Django yet. I need to go on a weekend retreat with Tarantino. Haven't seen anything since Death Proof.
      Thanks for the good words. I think Blazing Saddles is the best, but I also like Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, and pretty much all of hem except Life Stinks, which i thought was pretty stupid.


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