I haven’t done individual reviews of such comedy classics as “National Lampoon’s Animal House” or “Caddyshack.” I have taken a more strategic look at such comedy greats as well as the more current comedy classics such as “The Hangover” (click here for my look at the franchise) or “We’re the Millers” (click here for my look at great comedies). So, today, I’m dipping a back into the mid-1970s to take a look at the completely wonderful and comically perfect “Blazing Saddles.” It has it all: its comedy ranges from verbal jokes to physical effort to even backgrounds (“Howard Johnson’s” has one flavor) that force you not to miss a second of the film. Mel Brooks makes a movie so good that the worst primary cast member got an Oscar nomination while the rest didn’t (Brooks deservedly got one for writing the lyrics to the title song)!
(1974; 93 minutes; rated R; directed by Mel Brooks and starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder and Slim Pickens)
HE RODE A BLAZING SADDLE … YES, HE DID!
(NOTE: I reorganized and expanded this review with additional opinion, some more trivia and the updating of links on April 7, 2018.)
It’s funny how everything plays out. When the film “Blazing Saddles” was screened for studio executives, the chief of Warner Bros. reportedly didn’t like the use of the n-word, the campfire flatulence scene and a former pro-football player punching a horse (he didn’t really hit it) and ordered them cut. However, director Mel Brooks had the final say, kept them in and the whole “Blazing Saddles” shebang is now considered a classic.
Just how wrong can someone be, Mr. Studio Executive? Well, I’m sure he didn’t worry, because there had been legions more of conservative, scared executives doing even more stupid things before, at his time and since. However, I like best what John Wayne, Mr. Conservative Cowboy himself, was reported to have said after seeing the script and Brooks asking him to be in it: “Naw, I can’t do a movie like that. But I’ll be first in line to see it!”
In any case, “Blazing Saddles” is just simply terrific comedy. It is a satire on race (featuring a bunch of n-words and other derogatory racial and cultural comments that would have the PC idiots wetting their pants today); it has a minor pot inference (remember, this was a mainstream film in 1974 and possession of marijuana was a felony crime then); it has a Jewish guy talking Yiddish as an Indian chief (see the PC clowns in seizures with wet pants); is credited with the first audible fart in a motion picture (the campfire fart-fest is now simply iconic); and has a bunch of gay Broadway-type dancers brawling with a passel of angry cowboys (don’t worry, the plot takes care of this leap of logic, but not so the heart attacks given the PC idiots with wet pants).
With those credentials and comedy filmmaker Brooks at the helm, it’s obvious today that “Blazing Saddles” couldn’t go wrong. It didn’t then because audiences loved it and it was the No. 1 film of 1974 at the U.S. box office.
In short, “Blazing Saddles” is a spoof of Westerns with the plot about greedy rich guys wanting to get land on the cheap and having to destroy a town to get it. The governor sends in a black sheriff to hack off the white settlers and, of course, hilarity ensues. The film ends with the production spilling over to other movies being filmed on the production company’s lot and the fight with the dancers is great and the commissary scene nearly unforgettable.
You really don’t have to know much else to enjoy this one, so I’ll just jump right to the actors, starting off with your headliners …
- Primetime Emmy winner Cleavon Little is the backbone of the film as “Sheriff Bart.” He does a superlative job of delivering his lines in a low-key, intelligent manner. He does only a touch of truly physical comedy but he’s the rock in a sea of strangeness and never misses a beat or drops a line when he should have been laughing his butt off. While Little is best known for “Blazing Saddles,” he was also wonderful in one of my favorites: The little-remembered original “Vanishing Point.” He won his Emmy for “Dear John” and I liked him in “Scavenger Hunt” and he did the deplorable sequel “Fletch Lives.” Sadly, Cleavon died in 1992 of colon cancer at the age of 53 and will be forever linked to “Blazing Saddles.”
- Two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Gene Wilder, who was in his heyday in the 1970s, does a nice turn as the boozed-up cowboy “Jim” – the “Waco Kid.” He is smooth, sly and almost somnambulant at times in the role but nearly equals Little’s cool and that isn’t sagebrush he’s smoking. Wilder was also in Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” that same year (it was his second nomination after “The Producers” in 1967) and with Richard Pryor in “Silver Streak” two years later – click here for my review. He was also in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and he died at 83 in 2016 of complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
The best supporting actor work is split between two veteran supporting cast players: The hilarious Harvey Korman and the underrated Slim Pickens. Here’s a look at them …
- Golden Globe winner Korman is technically better here as “Hedley Lamarr” than Pickens’ “Taggart” because of the variance of his character’s emotions. He daintily flits from one joke to the next and deals them out with aplomb. He’s creepy one minute and vile and vengeful the next. It’s a wonderful performance that’s delivered perfectly – and his effort is unnoticed among the knee-slapping comedy scenes. Korman is best remembered from his work on TV’s “The Carol Burnett Show.” He died from cardiac complications in 2008 at the age of 81.
- It is Pickens’ voice that makes his character here. As “Taggart,” he has that cowboy twang – on steroids. He could simply say any word in any language and his accent would make it funny. He’s simple and straightforward here and you begin laughing even before he begins speaking in a scene since you know whatever he says will be hilarious. Pickens was also in “ Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” as well as the original “The Getaway” with Steve McQueen – click here for my review – and was even on a couple of episodes of “The Love Boat” (click here for my look at the series). Pickens died at the relatively young age of 64 in 1983 of a brain tumor.
The only acting Oscar nomination for “Blazing Saddles” was for Madeline Kahn as “Lili Von Shtupp.” She’s good in the role, which has her doing a cabaret act and falling in love with Little, but she certainly didn’t deserve an Oscar nod – especially over Korman or Little. Kahn’s first Oscar nomination came the year before “Blazing Saddles” for “Paper Moon” and she is also a veteran of “Young Frankenstein.”
- Burton Gilliam plays “Lyle” and he’s just down-home funny delivering his racist lines with a big wide smile and western accent (see cast notes about why he initially was uncomfortable with the words). When he and Pickens are together on screen it is impossible not to laugh. Gilliam has also been in “The Jericho Mile” (click here for my review) and with Clint Eastwood in “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.” I also liked him in a small part in “Fletch” (click here for my review) playing a straight man to Chevy Chase and he was in “Back to the Future Part III.”
- Former NFL star Alex Karras has the memorable role of “Mongo” – an ape-like man who’s sent into town to kill the new black sheriff. They become friends after the notable horse-punching scene by Karras. He was also in TV’s “Webster” with his wife Susan Clark (they were together in “Porky’s” – click here for my review). Karras, who was in the TV mini-series “Centennial,” died of kidney failure in 2012 at the age of 77.
In “Blazing Saddles,” everyone in the town is named Johnson and here are a couple of the big Johnsons (Mel would enjoy the double entendre):
- Emmy-nominated David Huddleston plays “Olson Johnson” and delivers his best stolid, middle-class conservative best to his character. He’s calm, cool and collected – except when he sees “Mongo” or tells someone to “blow it out your …” You’ll probably recognize him from “The Big Lebowski” and he’s also been in “Smokey and the Bandit II” (I chose this one; his resume has it far down the list). He was nominated for a guest spot on “The Wonder Years” and he had a prolific career with 146 acting credits beginning in 1960 and the last in 2014. He died at 85 in 2016 of kidney and lung disease.
- Golden Globe winner (and four-time nominee) John Hillerman plays “Howard Johnson” and you know what kind of shop he owns (except it has only one flavor). Hillerman is at a droll, pontificating level here and underplays his character perfectly. He got his Globe and nominations from TV’s “Magnum P.I.” He was in “Chinatown,” but I especially liked him in his last role on “A Very Brady Sequel” and he was in one of Hollywood’s worst-ever films: “Up the Creek” (click here for my review). Hillerman had a majority of his career on television and died at 84 in 2017.
Finally, there’s Mel Brooks. He plays two characters: The brainless governor to the Native American who speaks Yiddish. He pulls it off easily and without rancor – it’s just so funny that only the most sensitive could be offended seeing a Jewish guy play the Native American part. Not only that, the governor character’s name is “Lepetomane,” which is taken from a Frenchman (Joseph Pujol, whose stage name was Le Pétomane) and is credited as a flatulist – a professional farter. Mel does obviously love a good fart joke!
My big, big thanks to Mel (as if he needs it today from me) for a classic motion picture and the laughs I’ve gotten from it virtually my entire adult life.
Finally, I will write that the title song is catchy and worthy of the Oscar nod for best song. It’s especially great that Brooks got the Oscar nomination for the lyrics of the song. “Blazing Saddles” was nominated for a third Oscar for film editing. The song lost out to “The Towering Inferno’s” “We May Never Love This Way Again.”
Fittingly, “Blazing Saddles” was the No. 1 film in the country in 1974 with $119.5 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki. It was certainly a windfall back then (and would be today) because its budget was only $2.6 million, also according to Wiki. The No. 2 film was “The Towering Inferno” with $116 million. It was a neat year for film and here the films from 1974 that I’ve reviewed:
- “Death Wish” (Bronson’s best) – click here for my review
- “Freebie and the Bean” (so-so cop flick) – click here for my review
- “Juggernaut” (very good suspense) – click here for my review
- “Man with the Golden Gun” (excellent 007) – click here for my review
- “The Odessa File” (tepid thriller) – click here for my review
- “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (great thriller)
– click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- You would probably believe “Blazing Saddles” to be a summer hit, but it was released Feb. 7, 1974, in the U.S. It took until 1976 for it to be released in Spain, Japan and Mexico! I wonder why … ?
- Korman was no Hollywood micro-man like the stature of so many comedians. He stood a shade over 6-foot-3 and towered over Brooks’ 5-foot-5 frame.
- A legal dust-up ensued because of the character “Hedley Lamarr.” Screen star Hedy Lamarr took exception to what she said was improper use of her name and sued Brooks. It was settled out of court and he reportedly enjoyed the attention.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “One day in the Warner Bros. studio commissary, Mel Brooks and the other writers were seated at a table opposite John Wayne (“the Duke”). The Duke turned and said he had heard about their Western, the one where people say stuff like ‘blow it out your ass.’ Mel handed the Duke a copy of the script and said, ‘Yes, and we’d like you to be in it.’ According to Brooks, the Duke turned down the offer the next day by saying, ‘Naw, I can’t do a movie like that, but I’ll be first in line to see it!’”
- Wilder was married four times in his life and most famously to fellow comedian Gilda Radner of “Saturday Night Live” fame. They were married five years until her death of ovarian cancer at 42 in 1989 and Wilder then married Karen Boyer in 1991 and they were married until his death.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com as to the n-word aspect: “While filming, Burton Gilliam was at first having a difficult time saying the word n****r, especially to Cleavon Little because he really liked him. Finally, after several cuts, Cleavon took him off to the side and told him it was okay because these weren’t his words. Cleavon jokingly added ‘if I thought you would say those words to me in any other situation we’d go to fist city but this all fun. Don’t worry about it.’”
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