[box cover]

Blazing Saddles: 30th Anniversary Special Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens

Written by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger
Story by Andrew Bergman

Directed by Mel Brooks

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

"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.

After its release in 1974, Mel Brooks' R-rated, lowbrow night at the horse opera 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. It was regarded 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.

Instead, 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 are 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 humor is the palliative that lets Brooks mock prejudices and, with gloves off, prejudiced people. Not that Brooks sought to make a "message film," oh hell no. After all, we still get the famous campfire 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.

Although the film's plot is at best a secondary concern, it twists the nipples of every Wild West genre staple in the book. Clevon Little stars as Bart, a black railroad-worker who is used by villainous Hedley — "not Hedy" — Lamarr (Harvey Korman) and the buffoonish state governor (Brooks, who also appears as a Yiddish Indian Chief) in a dastardly land-snatch scheme. The bad guys, abetted by Slim Pickens as an oafish henchman and, at first, Madeline Kahn's Teutonic femme fatale Lili Von Shtupp, appoint Bart the new sheriff of bandit-besieged Rock Ridge. Their purpose is to so offend the little frontier town's "white, God-fearing" folk (all named Johnson) that they'll 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 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 this writer 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. This intelligent, good-looking, elegant, well-spoken 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." (Obviously "dittoheads" was still a ways off, though Slim Pickens' character comes close to starting that trend in an early scene.)

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, 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 this disc, 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. Like Altman's war comedy, 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, with a case to be made for South Park, Chappelle's Show, and other newer arrivals. For three 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."

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 fanboyish 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 broadsides pointed at institutional redneckery are projected against the most conservative of movie genres, there's nothing mean-spirited here. Blazing Saddles is playfully disarming at every turn, downright joyful even. You can search through the movie with calipers, a magnifying glass, and a Geiger counter and still not find an angry, whiny, or uptight moment. Here is cinema's most affable, most happy-to-meet-you movie to include an apple-cheeked old granny barking "Up yours, nigger!" from under her bonnet. 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, "What if I'd not had final cut?"

Now, thirty years on, we 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. And don't start with calling Blazing Saddles "politically incorrect," a lazy-ass term redefined and misused so often that it's bled dry of any useful meaning. 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.

*          *          *

This Special Edition DVD

Warner Home Video puts Blazing Saddles back on the shelves with a 30th Anniversary Special Edition that's well worth a "shitload of dimes," or at least its sticker price, to replace the inferior DVD that's been out since 1997. The image and audio are upgraded, and the extras add some good, albeit not spectacular, items. The only thing to complain about is the "Scene-Specific Commentary" touted on the box. More on that shortly.

This new release finally gives us a great-looking print — clean and sharp and vivid — transferred with improved definition and in its 2.35:1 (anamorphic) ratio. Occasionally a little spottiness is a reminder that we have print from 1974 here, but overall we get a first-rate restoration that delivers the goods.

The sound arrives in a good DD 5.1 remix that's stronger and fuller than the old 1.0 monaural version. Most of the sound action is spread well across the front. Fidelity is fine, with moments that open up the big musical scoring, such as the title theme and Count Basie's "April in Paris" cameo, being especially well served. Don't expect a show-offy Wow! factor with the surround effects, though the rear speakers earn their keep by pulling music and some sound effects into the rest of the room without being intrusive about it.

Never before have I felt compelled to give a shout-out to a foreign language soundtrack. This DVD provides DD 1.0 Spanish and French language audio translations, and the French track is so fun that it's practically an "extra" all by itself. Not only is the entire opening theme song fully, and with feeling, translated by a Frankie Laine sound-alike; not only do the French voice talents sound like they're enjoying this particular assignment; and not only do they have enough bodies in the recording studio to fill out the background "rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb" voices; all that plus the French "Lili Von Shtupp" voice talent does a magnifique impression of Madeline Kahn doing Marlene Dietrich. Tres bon.

Commentary track — First things first. Ignore what the box tells you. A "Scene-Specific Commentary" isn't here. Instead, we get Brooks' standalone audio reminiscence from the previous DVD edition. Recorded in 1997, it's about 52 minutes long and runs so independently of the movie that it works better with the picture turned off altogether. Given all that, it's perfectly fine. Brooks is chatty and relaxed and full of praise for his cast and staff, with fond memories of the production process from his earliest introduction to Bergman's script to the finished movie's first screening. But full-length and screen-specific, or even new, it's not.

Among the worthwhile anecdotes, we hear about the controversy involved with hiring Richard Pryor. We get the background behind filling out the cast, including Brooks auditioning Madeline Kahn and her legs. We hear that Gig Young was originally cast as the Waco Kid until, on the first day of shooting, his real-life alcoholism and a case of the D.T.'s caused him to be carried off the set in an ambulance, permanently. Gene Wilder, who'd been clamoring for the part, flew to Hollywood from New York the next morning and took over the role. Wilder "glued everything together," says Brooks of his new life-saver and friend. Earlier, in the studio commissary, Brooks had asked John Wayne to consider the part. Wayne took the script home, then met with Brooks the following day to turn down the part because the script was "too dirty," but added that he'd be first in line when the movie opened.

We get the scoop on Hedy Lamarr proving that art imitates life by actually suing Brooks for "almost using her name" in the film. And Brooks recounts the studio execs' hesitancy about giving his first major film a wide release out of fear that general audiences wouldn't "get it." It took an unauthorized impromptu showing for studio secretaries and friends before the Warners big-shots realized that they had a hit on their hands.

Back in the Saddle (28:19) — The new stuff starts with this nostalgic featurette with members of the cast and production team reminiscing about their experiences making the film. It's unpretentious and comes with good talking-head comments from Brooks, Bergman, producer Michael Hertzberg, and actors Harvey Korman, Gene Wilder (looking more like Harpo Marx than ever), and Burton Gilliam. Madeline Kahn and the beans scene are recalled with affection.

Intimate Portrait: Madeline Kahn (3:41) — This short piece from Lifetime Television eulogizes the actress, who died in 1999 (and, man, do we miss her). Brooks, Dom DeLuise, and Lily Tomlin are on hand with warm tributes.

TV Pilot: Black Bart (24:24) — Here's an odd bit of ephemera, the 1975 pilot episode for a failed network TV series based on Blazing Saddles. Lou Gossett Jr. and Steve Landesburg star in an otherwise dreadful attempt to milk a cash cow dry without knowing where the teats are. It's interesting as an artifact or as a specimen bottle from a time when a would-be sitcom could say "nigger" on primetime TV. Yet I defy you to sit through its unwatchable entirety, or to find another laugh-track employed with more painful obviousness.

Additional Scenes (9:40) — If you've seen the bowdlerized "edited for TV" version of Blazing Saddles, then you've seen these floor sweepings comprised of outtakes and scenes that had their audio redubbed or reshot. The beans-and-farts scenes loses something in translation. For the record, Brooks states that "I can't watch the TV version," which had been recut without his input to take out "anything that might be offensive to a four-year-old."

The original theatrical trailer brings up the rear.

—Mark Bourne

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