Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Blazing Saddles (1974) — Excuse me while I whip this out

"Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, but it expressed a courage that is little seen in this day and age." — Olson Johnson (David Huddleson)

Chalk up Blazing Saddles as only a lampoon of Hollywood westerns and you miss the point by a Texas mile.

I've been thinking about Mel Brooks' R-rated, lowbrow night at the horse opera from 1974 more than usual lately. What brought it to mind this week, for instance, is poor Rand Paul, who can't keep his foot out of his mouth long enough to express how shocked, shocked he is to realize that most folks consider the 1964 Civil Rights Act a good thing. Hey, a full century of post-Civil War self-regulation just did wonders for that Constitutional "common good" stuff.

Not a big surprise, really, in these days of such unhappy but necessary reminders, in which the Tea Party, Fox News "rodeo clowns," the Texas Board of Education, the state of Arizona, and other representative factions of post-2008 American reactionary "movement conservatism" peel back their Archie McPhee rubber masks to reveal the modern face of old-fashioned racism and proud know-nothingism. (Although, granted, as conservative Andrew Sullivan and others smarter than I point out, there's little that's honestly conservative about epistemic closure or the counterfactual paranoia and misdirected, artificially ginned-up spasms of the right's reactionary kitsch. We're going through a phase where "honestly conservative" is pretty much an oxymoron like "Christian militia" or the American Family Association.)

As a satirical flag waving in the racial and social winds of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Blazing Saddles' casual vulgarity, racial epithets, and pants-dropping silliness were spread like the very best butter over the more serious business of iconoclastically upturning expectations and tropes, especially some shibboleths found not just in old-fashioned cowboy movies. Its broad humor was the palliative that let Brooks mock prejudices and, with gloves off, prejudiced people.

Meanwhile, in '74 I was way too young to see the movie, if it played in my small Arkansas community at all, but I was old enough to hear the warnings of the other kids to not ride my bike through the two or three streets collectively known as "nigger town." (My break from organized religion began in the same community five years later, when the pastor of the Presbyterian church my parents carted me to joined with other local religious leaders to form the "Ministerial Alliance" for the purpose of successfully banning, sight unseen, Monty Python's Life of Brian from the local multiplex.)

It seems to me that we could use a new Blazing Saddles right about now. By that I mean a pop hit movie that laughs at institutional redneckery, one that loudly — yet without easy condescension or mean-spiritedness — honks the fat red Bozo nose of the Palin-Beck era.

As much as I love the movie, I find scant pleasure in seeing within it a newly revived currency. Under the heading of "The more things change...", Blazing Saddles from 1974 maps easily enough onto the American scene 2010:

There's Harvey Korman's cynical, silver-tongued politico who exploits the unchallenged racism of the common folks for personal gain. (Think Sarah Palin since 2008, and any number of contenders between the 2010 midterms and 2012, possibly just in time for both a cinematic and electoral When Worlds Collide.)

His chief flunky is Slim Pickens' oafish henchman who starts the Limbaughian "ditto!" trend a bit early.

Together they maneuver under the authority of Mel Brooks' ineffectual governor who's more interested in diddly preoccupations and getting his name in the history books than in legitimate affairs of state. (I'd say Palin again, but I hate repeating myself. Besides, it appears that Governor Le Petomane will actually choose to fulfill his term in office.)

And of course these three stooges work against the natural smarts and charisma of Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little), the well-spoken, urbane newcomer whose ride into town is greeted with cocked shotguns and an "Up yours, nigger" barked by an apple-cheeked granny. (Do I really need to spell this one out?)

    Carrying this wobbly drinking game further, let's go ahead and say that Blazing Saddles' famous campfire beans-and-farts scene works as a metaphor for Congress in session. Meanwhile, Mongo (Alex Karras) is — sure, why not? — the whole hulking Tea Party movement. ("Mongo merely pawn in game of life.")

    Yeah, easy partisan shots all. I know it. Still, if the cowboy boot fits....

    Blazing Saddles became a surprise box-office hit and the all-time highest-grossing western until 1990's Dances With Wolves. But comedy, like porn and Picassos, is a fundamentally subjective experience, so critical reaction to this anything-goes mishmash of rapid-fire gags, Mad magazine naughtiness, outrageous anachronisms, and disjointed styles was predictably mixed. Critics regarded it as either a rude jumble of sophomoric Borscht Belt shtick stretched to the point of ripping its seams over the film's mod hipster frame, or else a liberating splash of rules-breaking social satire that beat the tar out of Hollywood formulas while simultaneously overturning everyday conventions of racial bigotry, sex, and things you were or were not "supposed" to see or hear on a screen. It was either unashamedly sophomoric or cleverly subversive.

    The brilliance of Mel Brooks, back in his heyday at least, was that Blazing Saddles embodied both and all of these things. If his gleefully raunchy farce were about only its "bad taste" or the number of times the word "nigger" gets deployed, then it would be just another forgettable splat on the ever-growing mountain of in-your-face shock comedies.

    (Oh, and just to establish terms here: Let's not start with calling Blazing Saddles "politically incorrect," a lazy-ass label redefined and misused so often that it's been bled dry of any useful meaning.)

    Not that Brooks sought to make a "message film." After all, we still get the beans-and-farts scene, which is about nothing more than being the first beans-and-farts scene in cinema history. Still, it's fair to say that Blazing Saddles broke ground as well as wind.

    In these times when sanctimony and sound-bite puritanism are treated as virtues, we need a Blazing Saddles, a wry, bold, good-hearted taboo-buster that deflates bigots (and their fear that others would monger), while simultaneously suggesting we unclench our sphincters and get over ourselves.

    Although the film's plot is at best a secondary concern, it twists the nipples of every Wild West genre staple in the book. Cleavon Little's Bart is a railroad-worker used by villainous Hedley — "not Hedy" — Lamarr (Harvey Korman) and the governor (Brooks, who also appears as a Yiddish Indian Chief) in a dastardly land-snatch scheme. The bad guys are abetted by Slim Pickens and, at first, Madeline Kahn's Teutonic femme fatale from the Elmer Fudd School of Elocution, Lili Von Shtupp. Lamarr talks "The Gov" into appointing black Bart the new sheriff of bandit-besieged Rock Ridge. Their aim is to so offend the little frontier town's "white, God-fearing" folk (all named Johnson — Howard, Van, etc.) that the rightful owners will abandon the territory to the new railroad Lamarr plans to build through it.

    For a while the plan works, with Bart confronted with every manner of bigotry from words to gun barrels. Bart, though, has more smarts than everyone else in town put together. Teaming with a washed-up, boozed-up gunslinger, the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), he sets out to prove himself, save the town, and defeat those who would "stamp out runaway decency in the West."

    Everyone onscreen is in fine form. The cast steps into their roles with a sense of fun that keeps Blazing Saddles brisk and sharp. Little and Wilder in particular spark up terrific chemistry. Highlights are plenty, with some (such as the farting scene) having achieved legendary status. Madeline Kahn's note-perfect parody of Marlene Dietrich earned her a second consecutive Academy Award nomination.

    In its final fifteen minutes, the narrative (such as it is) comes totally unglued from even its own reality, becoming so anarchic and "meta" that Blazing Saddles could be the American cousin of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which debuted the following year.

    Besides the flatulence and coarse language, Blazing Saddles lights the fuses of other cherry bombs and tosses them into our laps with "faggot" jokes, Jewish jokes, and jokes built on certain black male stereotypes ("It's twue, it's twue!"). We get gags at the expense of religious piety, Kahn's uproarious cabaret number about her well-worn nether region ("the dirtiest song I ever wrote," reports Brooks), casual weed-toking by the good guys, and a hundred verbal or visual in-jokes that run the gamut from witty and gut-busting to just plain dumb.

    Like a cheese assortment platter, not every item has aged well. Some yucks are now well past their sell-by date ("Yes, the Dr. Gillespie killings"). And with changing times come changing sensibilities and sensitivities. There are two big jokes derived from the act of rape that will always make me squirm.

    What keeps the potentially offensive from being genuinely offensive is something that may not be obvious at first viewing: Cleavon Little's Bart is never played as a victim. He is can-do Americana at its fullest expression, and ends up inspiring those who at first would victimize him.

    This intelligent, good-looking, elegant black man knows exactly how to play off the idiocy of the asinine white crackers that surround him.

    "These are people of the land," consoles the Waco Kid, summarizing Bart's antagonists with perfect deadpan, "The common clay of the new West. You know," — here's where nobody times a pause better than Wilder — "morons."

    Even so, there's enough affection on the screen for just about everyone. In the audio commentary on this DVD, Brooks says that the citizens of Rock Ridge aren't villains, just "good people who didn't know any better." Because Bart is smarter and hipper (and, let's say it, kinder), by the end he defeats the bad guys and wins over the locals, who embrace their prairie town's conversion to a melting-pot ideal, assembled before an American flag with no hint of irony or jingoism whatsoever.

    In 1972, Brooks was a Catskills comic-turned-writer-turned-director whose only two films, The Producers and The Twelve Chairs, had not generated promising commercial success. He was out of work in New York when a Warner Brothers executive approached him about directing a western-comedy titled Tex X (after Malcolm, get it?) by a first-time screenwriter in his twenties, Andrew Bergman. Warner Brothers had bought Bergman's screenplay and hired Alan Arkin to direct, with James Earl Jones as the black sheriff, but the project died in development hell. Brooks liked its potential and, atypically for a studio project, asked to work with its original writer to develop the script into a full-on western spoof.

    Young Bergman was thrilled to work with the veteran showman who had brought The Producers into the world. Together they added other writers to the table, recreating the kind of group experience Brooks remembered from his years working with Sid Caesar on TV's Your Show of Shows.

    Brooks wanted a "really good black writer," and hired young nightclub comic Richard Pryor, who was also Brooks' first choice to play the role of Bart. On the film's current DVD and Blu-ray discs, Brooks calls Pryor "the most God-blessed with talent guy I ever saw in my life, and I knew the camera would love him." However, even though Brooks "went on bended knee" begging every studio exec to cast Pryor in the lead, the studio would not risk casting an untried talent reputed to be unreliable and a drug user. Fortunately, Broadway actor Little auditioned for the part, and the pieces fell into place quickly after that.

    Brooks and his writing team drew inspiration from old westerns with the same cheeky self-confidence with which they suckled milk from Brooks' younger upstart 1970s colleagues. They loaded their pockets with fist-sized handfuls of John Ford oaters, 1939's Destry Rides Again, and The Magnificent Seven, smooshing them together with the anti-authoritarian zing of the best Marx Brothers comedies. Some of Blazing Saddles' sequences could have been conceived after an all-night viewing marathon in Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes vault.

    Brooks scrambled it together with the smart-ass irreverence of other New Hollywood films that flipped a middle-finger attitude. So it's fitting that the American Film Institute's list of 100 best American comedies places Blazing Saddles at #6 between the Marx Brothers' 1933 Duck Soup and Robert Altman's 1970 M*A*S*H.

    Comparisons with Brooks' second great 1974 comedy, Young Frankenstein, are inevitable, but they're a mug's game. The two films are superficially similar — colorful sendups of popular film genres — yet they display such differing purpose, style, and execution that it's remarkable that they came from the same director in the same year. The gentler Young Frankenstein is easily the more impressive piece of movie-making, as polished and focused as the Hubble Telescope lens. Plus, Young Frankenstein benefited from the fan-love for its subject that Gene Wilder brought to his own initiating concept and then to his screenplay.

    All the same, for my money, sprocket for sprocket, it's Blazing Saddles that's more belly-laugh funny, even after repeated viewings, from its opening theme (Frankie Laine singing a straight-faced spin on his own Mule Train theme) to its closing shot of our heroes riding off (in a chauffeured Cadillac) into the sunset.

    After this splendid pair, something went, as they say in the movies, horribly wrong. Silent Movie ('76) still sports some of the old touch, but it's dismaying to see the man behind The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein churning out such a flabby whoopy-cushion as Spaceballs (1987). History of the World, Part 1 ('81), a hodgepodge of loosely connected blackout sketches, has some funny bits, but it strains at the stool like fat Elvis in his final moments. Robin Hood: Men In Tights ('93) is as memorable as an after-dinner mint. The less said about Dracula: Dead and Loving It ('95), the better.

    A fundamental ingredient that Brooks' latterday genre parodies lack is a sense of purpose beyond their hit-or-miss humor. Blazing Saddles faced down contemporary racist attitudes, ending with its foot triumphantly planted on racism's chest. Young Frankenstein is more of a tribute to its subject than a lampoon, with respectful affection taking the place of social satire.

    After that, Brooks' parodies are only parodies, nothing more, offering little that you can take away afterward. They seem too easy, too throwaway when compared to his pinnacle achievements from 1974, which respected their audiences too much to be just facile crowd-pleasers.

    Blazing Saddles laughs at racists, not with them, recalling Brooks' objective in The Producers to "dance on Hitler's grave." While its broadside cannons are mounted to the hull of the most conservative of movie genres, there's nothing overtly partisan or mean-spirited here. It's brash and brazen, yes, but it's not abrasive. Blazing Saddles is playfully disarming at every turn, downright joyful even. You can search through the movie with a magnifying glass, a speculum, and a Geiger counter and still not find an angry, whiny, or uptight moment. Anyone actually offended by Blazing Saddles is someone in dire need of a hearty offending.

    Nonetheless, during production Brooks worried that Blazing Saddles might be too offensive for its own good. He asked a studio executive about the farting scene, a risky moment that had never been done in a movie. The exec told him, "Mel, if you're going to go up to the bell, ring it." After the premiere, the head of Warner Brothers told Brooks to take out the word "nigger," the farting scene, the moment when Alex Karras appears to punch a horse, and the sex between Lili Von Shtupp and Bart. But Brooks ignored him and the film became a hit nationwide. "Can you imagine," Brooks asks us in the commentary track, "What if I'd not had final cut?"

    Now, thirty-six years on, I have trouble imagining any A-list studio, including Warner Brothers, having the gumption and guts to let Brooks, or anyone else, ring some of those bells today. But heaven knows they should.  

    On the other hand, in 1974 we didn't have South Park, Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert, and it's hard to argue that we aren't a better, smarter, certainly a more amused culture now because of them. So maybe it's worked out okay.

    Blazing Saddles hosed down moviegoers with such audacity that it became a permission slip for other comics and filmmakers who came afterward, from the brothers Zucker and Farrelly to Saturday Night Live, South Park and others. For nearly four decades its popularity has remained sturdy, manifesting an enviable staying power and a fan following that may have earned Blazing Saddles the prize for Most Quotable Movie Ever. As Brooks puts it, "It's still paying for my beans."

    Music: Ringo Starr, "Never Without You"
    Near at hand: Connie Willis' Blackout