When Blazing Saddles was released in 1974, Hollywood was in the waning years of its "white father" approach to racism. With such "progressive" films as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or In the Heat of the Night -- heck, anything starring Sidney Poitier -- Hollywood continually played it safe.
But not Mel Brooks, who six years earlier presented The Producers in all its "Springtime for Hitler" glory -- brazen and bombastic, schticky and over-the-top. Pure vaudeville was Brooks, who became, through a haze of cussing and fart jokes, a pioneer with Blazing Saddles.
"Blazing Saddles was for me truly ground-breaking," Brooks says in the documentary Back in the Saddle, one of the excellent features accompanying the recent DVD release by Warner Home Video. "It also broke wind, which is probably why it also broke ground."
No other previous film did what Blazing Saddles did: fire a shot at racism through that most unlikely barrel: a satire of the Hollywood Western. But it starts to make sense when you consider their guiding principle: "Play 1874 in 1974." The notion being that Hollywood can demythologize the West just as easily as it could mythologize it, so why not along the way take down racism that owes much of its birth to the Reconstruction era of the 1870s? It was like traveling back in time to right the wrong, but with comedy so broad and so far-reaching nobody was left unskewered.
"Everybody gets slammed," notes Harvey Korman, the Carol Burnett Show and Mel Brooks regular who played Hedly "Not Hedy" Lamarr. "(It was) the whole absurdity of what prejudice is about. Do we laugh at ourselves?"
So many Americans did, which is why Blazing Saddles checked in at No. 6 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 American comedies, beating out other Brooks comedies such as 1968's The Producers (No. 11) and Young Frankenstein, No. 13 (1974). Many of Brooks' films, for better or worse, ushered in a new era of scatological films; he also became one of the few white directors to make racism funny and accurate without necessarily loaded with guilt. (It's hard to feel guilty when you're coughing up a lung from laughing so hard.) He did it with a Swiss cheese of a plot and an episodic, sketch-driven narrative flow; the film is essentially a collection of set pieces loaded with some of the best sight gags and one-liners in cinema history.
Quick, think how many of these scenes you remember like it was yesterday: Mongo (Alex Karras) punching out the horse; the cowpokes farting after a dinner of beans and black coffee, with Slim Pickens nearly choking on the fumes; or the procession of every bad-boy group lining up for a crack at Sheriff Black Bart (Cleavon Little): banditos, Nazis, Klansmen.
And how many of these lines come immediately to mind:
"'Scuse me while I whip this out!"
"Baby, you're makin' a German spectacle of yourself."
"Oh, it's twoo, it's twoo!!!"
"Hey, where all the white women at?"
"Good evening, Sheriff; sorry about the 'Up yours, nigger.'"
It was the screenwriters' use of swearing that got them into the most amount of trouble -- the studio initially wanted every nasty word removed -- and within that, it was the use of the word "nigger" that caused the biggest ruckus of all. But the fact that comedian Richard Pryor (originally considered for Black Bart) was on the writing staff, and that Cleavon Little seemed so at ease with the word flying all around him (and often using it), took so much of the edge off everything. More importantly, the way the word was over-used made it possible to make it a parody unto itself. The word, by the end of the movie, became a joke.
But even some of the white cast members were uncomfortable. "I was having a lot of problems calling people what I was having to call them in the thing," remembers Burton Gilliam (Lyle), who spent his entire career playing smiling hicks. "Cleavon was great. When we were doing the scene out there in the desert, he said, 'If I thought you'd say those words to me in any other situation, we'd probably go to Fist City. But somebody wrote these words, and this is all fun. You say anything you want to say, and if you want to say it differently and even add stuff to it, go right ahead. Mel will go along with that.'"
The movie rides on the sight gags, the set pieces, the one-liners, and an amazing ensemble cast of Brooks regulars (Gene Wilder, Korman, Dom DeLuise, Liam Dunn, Madeline Kahn) and TV and Hollywood veteran character actors (Little, David Huddleston, John Hillerman, George Furth). But Kahn is the star of this show. Her Lili Von Schtupp is a dead-on impersonation of Marlene Dietrich's Frenchy from Destry Rides Again -- complete with Elmer Fudd-like butchering of "L's" and "R's" -- and earned her the movie's only acting Oscar nomination. (The film also copped Oscar nominations for film editing and the title song.) Combined, they all made Blazing Saddles a gas of a movie.