From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Blazing Saddles is a Template:Fy satirical Western comedy film directed by Mel Brooks. Starring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder, it was written by Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Al Uger, and was based on Bergman's story and draft. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards, and is considered one of the great American comedies, coming in at number six on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs list.
Brooks appears in multiple supporting roles, including Governor Le Petomane and a Yiddish-speaking Indian Chief. Slim Pickens, Alex Karras, David Huddleston, and Brooks regulars Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, and Harvey Korman are also featured. Musician Count Basie has a cameo as himself.
In the American Old West of 1874, construction on a new railroad runs into quicksand. The route has to be changed, which will require it to go through Rock Ridge, a frontier town where everyone has the last name of "Johnson" (including a "Howard Johnson", a "Van Johnson" and an "Olson Johnson".) The conniving State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) – not to be confused, as he often is in the film, with actress Hedy Lamarr – wants to buy the land along the new railroad route cheaply by driving the townspeople out. He sends a gang of thugs, led by his flunky Taggart (Slim Pickens), to scare them away, prompting the townsfolk to demand that Governor William J. LePetomane (Mel Brooks) appoint a new sheriff. The Attorney General convinces the dim-witted Governor to select Bart (Cleavon Little), a black railroad worker who was about to be hanged, as the new sheriff. Because Bart is black, Lamarr believes that this will so offend the townspeople they will either abandon the town or lynch the new sheriff.
With his quick wits and the assistance of drunken gunslinger Jim (Gene Wilder), also known as "The Waco Kid" ("I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille"), Bart works to overcome the townsfolk's hostile reception. He defeats and befriends Mongo (Alex Karras), an immensely strong (but exceptionally dim-witted) henchman sent by Taggart, and beats German seductress-for-hire Lili von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn) at her own game, before inspiring the town to lure Lamarr's newly-recruited and incredibly diverse army of thugs (characterized by Lamarr as ideally consisting of "rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperadoes, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, half-wits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists" in addition to nearly every other kind of stock movie villain) into an ambush. (In the later scene where Lamarr conducts his hiring event, the candidates in line for consideration include stereotypical bikers, banditos, crusaders, Nazis and Klansmen).
The resulting fight between the townsfolk and Lamarr's army of thugs is such that it literally breaks the fourth wall; the fight spills out from the film lot in the Warner Bros. Studios into a neighboring musical set (being directed by Dom DeLuise), then the studio commissary where a pie fight ensues, and finally pouring out into the surrounding streets.
The film ends with Bart shooting Hedley Lamarr in the groin at the 'premiere' of Blazing Saddles outside Grauman's Chinese Theater, saving the town, joining Jim inside a theater to view the end of the movie, persuading people of all colors and creeds to live in harmony and, finally, riding (in a limousine) off into the sunset.
- Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart
- Gene Wilder as Jim, aka "The Waco Kid"
- Mel Brooks as Gov. William J. Le Petomane / Indian Chief
- Madeline Kahn as Lili Von Shtüpp, the Teutonic Titwillow
- Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr
- Slim Pickens as Taggart
- Dom DeLuise as Buddy Bizarre
- Liam Dunn as Reverend Johnson
- George Furth as Van Johnson
- Burton Gilliam as Lyle
- John Hillerman as Howard Johnson
- David Huddleston as Olson Johnson
- Alex Karras as Mongo
- Jack Starrett as Gabby Johnson
- Robyn Hilton as Miss Stein (the governor's secretary)
- Rodney Allen Rippy as Young Bart
- Charles McGregor as Charlie
- Anne Bancroft as Extra in Church Congregation (uncredited)
- Count Basie appears as himself in a cameo appearance, with his band.
- Mel Brooks also appears in a tiny cameo on Hedley Lamarr's line of toughs, wearing sunglasses and a bomber jacket, and dubbed the speaking voice for one of the German chorus boys backing Madeline Kahn's performance of "I'm Tired", speaking lines such as "Give her a break!", "Let her alone!" and, "Don't you know she's pooped?!"
Brooks repeatedly had conflicts with studio executives over the cast and content. They objected to both the highly provocative script and to the "irregular" activities of the writers (particularly Richard Pryor, who reportedly led all night writing jams where loud music and drugs played a prominent role in the creative process). Brooks wanted Richard Pryor to play the sheriff's role, but the studio objected. Warner executives expressed concern about Pryor's reliability because of his heavy drug use at the time and the belief that he was mentally unstable. Pryor was, however, hired as one of the film's screenwriters. In a similar vein, Gene Wilder was the second choice to play the character of the Waco Kid. He was quickly brought in to replace Gig Young after the first day of filming because Young was suffering from delirium tremens on the set due to his alcoholism.
After screening the movie, the head of Warner Brothers Pictures complained about the use of the word "nigger", the campfire scene and the punching of a horse, and told Brooks to remove all these elements from the film. As Brooks' contract gave him control of the final cut, the complaints were disregarded and all three elements were retained in the film with it holding the distinction of being the first film to display flatulence.
Brooks wanted the movie's title song to reflect the western genre, and advertised in the trade papers that he wanted a "Frankie Laine-type" sound. Several days later, singer Frankie Laine himself visited Brooks' office offering his services. Brooks had not told Laine that the movie was planned as a comedy, and says "'Frankie sang his heart out... and we didn't have the heart to tell him it was a spoof - we just said 'oh, great! He never heard the whip cracks; we put those in later. We got so lucky with his serious interpretation of the song."
In an interview included in the DVD release of Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks claimed that Hedy Lamarr threatened to sue, saying the film's running "Hedley Lamarr" joke infringed her right to publicity. This is lampooned when Hedley corrects Governor Le Petomane's pronunciation of his name, and Le Petomane replies with "What the hell are you worried about? This is 1874, you'll be able to sue her!". Brooks says they settled out of court for a small sum. A very similar gag, with a male character named "Peter Hedley Lamar, Jr." occurs in the 1941 Buster Keaton short "General Nuisance." In the same interview, Brooks related how he managed to convince John Wayne to read the script after meeting him in the Warner Brothers studio commissary. Wayne was impressed with the script, but politely declined a cameo appearance, fearing it was "too dirty" for his family image. He is also said to have told Brooks that he "would be first in line to see the film, though."
The overall plot (i.e. thwarting a ruthless scheming land-grabber), was a cliche of countless "Western" movies including "Destry Rides Again" and "Once Upon a Time in the West." The film, town, and many of the scenes, music, and themes in Blazing Saddles were parodies of the classic Gary Cooper film High Noon. The church scene in particular was imitated down to the costumes and 'murmuring' of the townsfolk. Brooks' The Ballad Of Rock Ridge uses motifs and melodies that echo "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'", performed by Tex Ritter.
Madeline Kahn's role, Lili Von Shtupp, is a parody of Marlene Dietrich's in the 1939 western film Destry Rides Again, while "I'm Tired" is a parody of Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)", a song written by Frederick Hollander for The Blue Angel (1930). 'Shtup' is a Yiddish vulgarism for sexual intercourse. (When broadcast on television, Lili's last name is usually changed to "Shhhhhh...", but is still written normally on the title card.)
The bead work on Brooks' Indian headdress in the movie poster says "Kosher for Passover" in Hebrew (kosher l'pesach) although jokingly misspelled; it actually reads "Posher for Kassover" (posher l'kesach). When Brooks is speaking 'Indian', he's actually speaking Yiddish.
Right before the "I'm Tired" scene, after Jim tells Bart about Lili Von Shtupp, the tune that is playing in the background is the theme from the fictional play Springtime For Hitler which appears in Mel Brooks' first film The Producers. Another reference to the previous film is when Governor Le Petomane echoes Max Bialystock's line "Hello Boys!" Another reference to Brooks' films is in the scene when Hedley is comforting Taggert when a horse and rider are being executed. The song Hedley hums to calm Taggart is the melody used later in Young Frankenstein to soothe the monster.
The name of Harvey Korman's character, Hedley Lamarr, is regularly mispronounced by others as Hedy Lamarr (in reference to the actress). In History of the World, Part I (a later Mel Brooks film), he plays Count De Monet (Mo-nay) another character whose name is often mispronounced as "Count Da Money".
One of the characters played by Mel Brooks, Gov. William J. Le Petomane, is named after Joseph Pujol, Le Pétomane, who was a turn of the century artiste in France. Pujol's stage performance consisted of controlled displays of flatulence. Extraordinary control of his abdominal muscles and rectal sphincter allowed him to draw air and water into his rectum and so create a wide range of sounds at will.
The scene involving the executioner outside the window is used in a larger fashion by the same actor in Brooks' later comedy, Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
While the film is widely considered a classic comedy today, critical reaction was mixed when the film was first released. Vincent Canby wrote:
- "Blazing Saddles has no dominant personality, and it looks as if it includes every gag thought up in every story conference. Whether good, bad, or mild, nothing was thrown out. Mr. [Woody] Allen's comedy, though very much a product of our Age of Analysis, recalls the wonder and discipline of people like Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. Mr. Brooks's sights are lower. His brashness is rare, but his use of anachronism and anarchy recalls not the great film comedies of the past, but the middling ones like the Hope-Crosby "Road" pictures. With his talent he should do much better than that."
Roger Ebert called the film a "crazed grabbag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken. Mostly, it succeeds. It's an audience picture; it doesn't have a lot of classy polish and its structure is a total mess. But of course! What does that matter while Alex Karras is knocking a horse cold with a right cross to the jaw?"
Blazing Saddles is widely credited with temporarily ending the Western genre of motion pictures due to its astute parodying of genre conventions.
Awards and honors
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1975 (Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Madeline Kahn, Best Film Editing, and Best Music, Original Song) and two BAFTA awards (Best Newcomer for Cleavon Little and Best Screenplay).
The film won the Writers Guild of America Award for "Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen" for writers Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Alan Uger.
In 2006, Blazing Saddles was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The American film critic Dave Kehr queried if the historical significance of Blazing Saddles lay in the fact that it was the first film from a major studio to have a fart joke.
A television pilot was produced for CBS based on Andrew Bergman's initial story, titled Black Bart, which was the original title of the film. It featured Louis Gossett Jr. as Bart and Steve Landesberg as the drunk sidekick. Mel Brooks had little if anything to do with the pilot, as writer Andrew Bergman is listed as the sole creator. The pilot did not sell but CBS aired it once on April 4, 1975. It was later included as a bonus feature on the Blazing Saddles 30th Anniversary DVD.
With the production of musical adaptations of The Producers and Young Frankenstein, rumors have spread about a possible adaptation to Blazing Saddles. Brooks joked about the concept in the final number in Young Frankenstein, in which the full company sings, "next year Blazing Saddles!" Tony Award-winning choreographer, Jerry Mitchell mentioned hearing of Brooks talking about the possibility in an interview with Broadway World. However, no one has confirmed whether a show is in the works.
After nearly 35 years, the first-ever official, studio-licensed release, in any format, of the full music soundtrack to Blazing Saddles finally came out from La-La Land Records on August 26, 2008. Remastered from original studio vault elements, this Limited Edition CD features the classic songs from the film as well as composer John Morris' score. Bonus tracks on the album include special instrumental versions of all the songs, and the disc features exclusive liner notes featuring comments from Mel Brooks and John Morris. It has been released as a "limited edition" of 3,000 units.