Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn
Director: Mel Brooks
Mood: There’s really only one mood for a Mel Brooks movie and that’s being in the mood for a Mel Brooks movie.
A comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.
One of the questions I get asked most about this website is why I haven’t reviewed Blazing Saddles.
The people asking are three or four friends and family members, and they have asked once. But let’s pretend that I have a MASSIVE fanbase that is dying to know, what up with the lack of Mel Brooks all up in my website?
I f*cking love Mel Brooks, okay. I can quote pretty much all of Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. I had SEEN Blazing Saddles… just not since starting this website. But I should never have left his iconic (and I’m using that word correctly unlike 95% of the internet) Western farce off my site for this long. It is mishegas, and I am a schmuck.
Blazing Saddles starts out in the Old West of 1874 and somehow winds up in 1974 Hollywood – but that’s Mel Brooks for ya.
Bart (Cleavon Little) is in a railroad chain gang of Black men, being treated like crap by white rednecks but making those rednecks look like damn fools. Bart whacks one of the rednecks over the head with a shovel, and winds up in the hangman’s queue.
But not for long. The town of Rock Ridge is in the way of the railroad. Greedy attorney general Hedley (not Hedy) Lamarr plots to force the residents to abandon their town, by sending in a gang of thugs to trash the place. The town suddenly finds itself in need of a sheriff. Lamarr thinks sending in a Black sheriff will be the perfect way to drive those lily-white, God-fearing people out for good.
The rest of the movie is a zany, preposterous series of events in which Bart manages to stay alive among the super racist white people, makes an unlikely friend in a drunken jailbird (Gene Wilder), and gets seduced by a German songstress (Madeline Kahn).
The thing about Blazing Saddles is yeah, it’s funny. It’s really f*cking funny. And it’s a brilliant movie, and a masterclass in subversive comedy.
But it’s bigger than that. It shames racism by parodying one of the most inherently racist movie genres (sorry Westerns, but not sorry), in a way that makes you laugh at how ridiculous it is to be racist.
I think Gene Wilder said it best: “They’ve smashed racism in the face, but they’re doing it while you laugh.”
- Fun Fact: Blazing Saddles was the last US movie to be released in February (most blockbusters come out over the summer or December) and become that year’s #1 at the box office – until Black Panther in 2018.
Cleavon Little was a talented stage actor, having earned a Tony prior to landing the role of Bart. And you can feel it in every moment he’s on the screen. He’s in command, acting with every fibre of his being, and every movement or facial expression is a choice.
Little’s sharp, deadpan humour is flawless from start to finish. He’s winking at the audience even when he’s not literally winking at the audience (and there are plenty of fourth-wall breaks here). The scene in which he holds himself hostage is comedy gold. And even when he’s rocking a snazzy, head-to-toe mustard getup on a matching Palomino, he evokes a coolness that makes everyone else seem Looney Tunes.
Except, of course, his new pal Jim, who most people call Jim (Wilder). Little and Wilder became fast friends on set, and you can feel it in their easy chemistry.
Wilder could have brought that wild-eyed, manic energy he always had right below the surface, but his Jim is a calm, gentle presence. He plays the world’s fastest draw with such a soft voice and physical restraint that it lets Little’s character shine – but your eye still goes to Wilder, because even when silent he’s doing SOMETHING worth watching.
My other favourite performance, aside from Little, is Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr. This is a whole other level of overacting that had me in stitches from his first scene. He makes a joke about a best supporting actor award, and it’s so on-point because the movie couldn’t be what it is without him.
Korman delivers this blustering, self-inflated character that never misses a beat in his comic timing. He’s not the classic Western villain, but he’s exactly the right fit for Blazing Saddles. Watch this clip and tell me I’m wrong.
After watching Madeline Kahn as Lily von Schtupp, you can tell why she became a favourite of Brooks’ (appearing in several more of his movies after this). She’s that rare combination of gorgeous and happy to get messy and ridiculous for a gag.
And then there’s Alex Karras as the horse-punching, bull-riding, loveable lout Mongo. A former NFL player and pro wrestler before he turned to acting, Karras always radiated this sweetness that made even his more subtle characters (think Victor Victoria) stand out.
It wouldn’t be a Brooks flick without countless quotable lines and pop culture references that give you little jolts of glee when you catch them. I won’t even try to list the references in Blazing Saddles; you can easily lose hours reading through the IMDb trivia for this movie.
But you know I love a bullet list. So here are my fave tidbits from the making-of details:
- Blazing Saddles almost didn’t get released; when it was screened for Warner Bros. execs, nobody laughed. Luckily they then screened it for real people, and everyone laughed so hard that it got the green light.
- Mel Brooks was given a list of ‘offensive’ parts to take out, but because he had creative license he left everything in except a single line spoken by Bart to Lily during their sexy-times scene (Lily: “It’s twue! It’s twue!” Bart: “You’re sucking on my arm.”
- Hedy Lamarr sued Brooks over the character name Hedley Lamarr, which Brooks thought was flattering and is also f*cking hilarious because there’s a lawsuit reference in the movie that was a joke until she made it come true.
- Brooks advertised for a ‘Frankie Lane’ type to record the opening song – the voice of the memorable Western themes on 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Rawhide, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Lane himself showed up, and Brooks didn’t tell him it was a comedy, thinking he wouldn’t deliver a serious AF Western song. Lane was supposedly still stoked on the movie when it came out.
- The original actor set to play Jim showed up to his first day on set, filming the upside-down jail scene, and was either drunk or suffering withdrawals so he vomited and passed out. Wilder was flown in to take over.
- Richard Pryor was intended to play Bart, but he was too controversial at the time for Brooks to secure backers and get the movie made. Instead, he is one of the writers.
- The world premiere for Blazing Saddles was at a California drive-in theatre, and the guests rode up on horses.
- And, this one is my F*CKING FAVOURITE: The character Governor LePetomane (played hilariously by Brooks) was named after a French performer whose stage name literally translates to “Fartomaniac”. The guy used his abs to do tricks like blow out candles from two feet away and perform popular tunes – with farts.
Blazing Saddles was literally blazing trails, unaware that it would become so heavily referenced and influential across multiple movie genres. It makes fun of Westerns, while still being an enjoyable Western that gives nods to other famous Westerns. It makes fun of Hollywood, yet its inspiration can be felt in countless comedies since.
There’s just so much to enjoy here. The more times you watch it, the more little tidbits you discover. So stop listening to me do a half-assed job of describing its awesomeness and go watch all of its full-assed glory.