There are plenty of lousy film comedies, but there are only two that I outright hate: “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Both were released in 2006 when Hollywood’s fury against George W. Bush had reached its peak, and both let the voters who re-elected him in 2004 have it with both barrels.
On its face you would think that Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” chose the exact same targets (rural Red Staters) to humiliate, but he didn’t. With his masterpiece (that has just been released as a special 40th anniversary edition Bluray), Brooks managed to craft a hilarious comedy with a social message, and do it without coming off as a cold, mean-spirited Hollywood snob.
With “Borat,” director Larry Charles and star Sacha Baron Cohen head out into Middle America to bait, manipulate, and selectively edit everyday, unsuspecting, powerless and decent people into acting in a way our Entertainment Overlords in Hollywood want to believe we act. Our protagonist is Borat, the “innocent victim” who is also baiting these “awful” Americans. The idea is to have us identify with Borat so we turn against ourselves.
The same is true with “Talladega Nights.” Anyone who thought they were in for a funny, good-natured satiric tour of NASCAR were intentionally sucker-punched by director Adam McKay and star Will Ferrell with a snobbish, 108-minute insult. Once again, the protagonist we are asked to identify with is used to insult us. Ferrell’s character is a stupid, ignorant, bigoted xenophobe who only redeems himself through the revelation that he enjoys physical intimacy with another man.
In “Blazing Saddles,” Brooks isn’t looking to humiliate or insult anyone. His target is bigotry, not people. This is obvious from the very first scene. Brooks makes it crystal clear that he thinks enough of his audience to have us identify with Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little), the smart, urbane, and wily black man besieged with more comedic racists and racism than any character in film history.
Moreover, the everyday Western townspeople portrayed as racists are also the film’s victims. The villain is the government: the wicked State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) and Governor William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks), a corrupt and vain buffoon. By the time Bart and the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) ride off into the sunset together (where a limousine awaits), the townspeople have grown out of their bigotry after working with the sheriff to save their town from Hedley.
“Blazing Saddles” isn’t just timeless because the politically incorrect comedy feels even more cutting edge today than it did 40 years ago, it is also because Brooks isn’t sneering at his audience; peering down from a place of superior sanctimony like the makers of “Borat” and “Talladega Nights.”
Brooks’ message and theme have something very important to say about bigotry. But the director’s humanity presents it in an inclusive way that brings us together to laugh at the stupidity and evil of racism, not at each other or even ourselves.
Above all, though, Brooks’ real genius was in co-writing and directing one of the funniest film comedies ever made.
Just a few months ago, I watched my DVD copy of “Blazing Saddles.” So the jokes don’t get too familiar, normally you want to give a comedy a few years before watching it again. For the purpose of this review, I couldn’t wait but that wasn’t a problem. Only the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello come close to delivering as many genuine belly laughs as the adventures of Sheriff Bart in the town of Rock Ridge.
The year is 1874 and somewhere in the Old West the government is exploiting blacks, Asians, and Irishmen for cheap labor as a way to get rich off the railroad. Quicksand requires the tracks be re-routed through the quaint frontier town of Rock Ridge. Attorney General Hedley Lamarr figures out that he can get rich by buying up Rock Ridge, but first he has to drive the townspeople out.
Lamarr convinces Governor Le Petomane to stop groping his secretary long enough to appoint a black man as sheriff of Rock Ridge (to guard against Lamarr’s own marauders led by the inimitable Slim Pickens). Lamarr assumes a black sheriff will convince the racist townspeople to flee. The plan quickly backfires when the citizens see firsthand how resourceful Bart is.
The plot is wonderfully simple, which gives Brooks a ton of room to focus on non-stop jokes, sight-gags, anachronisms, and the spoofing of Westerns, World War II films and musicals. And he does so with an astonishing success rate that nudges close to 100%. “Blazing Saddles” is also one of those comedies that yields new laughs with each viewing. Hidden jokes are everywhere.
“Blazing Saddles” is probably best known as “The Comedy That Could Never Be Made Today,” and that is undoubtedly true. Just look at what “SNL’s” Leslie Jones went through this very week after joking about slavery — and she’s black! There is no question Brooks would be crucified by America’s left-wing sensitivity fascists today. Whether its Indians, blacks, the Chinese, Mexicans, gays, Jews, Germans or the punching out of a horse, Brooks mines everything inappropriate for huge laughs.
The humor is unsparing while also being good natured. Richard Pryor co-wrote the script and part of his genius was razor sharp humor delivered without rancor. Pryor’s spirit is felt throughout.
Other than the ethnic humor, Brooks scores a number of magnificent comedic performances. Little, Wilder, Pickens and Korman are in top form. Brooks himself is very funny in two roles. Madeline Kahn, though, is the show-stopper as Lili Von Schtupp, the German saloon singer based on Marlene Dietrich in “Destry Rides Again” (1939). Kahn’s musical number “I’m Tired,” which was written by Brooks (listen closely to the lyrics), should have won her an Oscar.
If you already own a previously released “Blazing Saddles” Bluray, the 40th Anniversary Edition contains one extra feature (a new interview with Brooks) and ten snazzy movie postcards. Because I’m going from my 1997 fullscreen DVD to the this Bluray, I can’t speak to any improvement of picture or sound over the previous Bluray releases. For me, though, seeing “Blazing Saddles” for the first time in Technicolor Panavision was a revelation.
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. If the Left does end up amassing all the power they seek, you can count on Bureau of Land management SWAT teams being sent out to confiscate material like “Blazing Saddles.” So you might want to buy a back-up copy.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC