What with the Technicolor and Panavision, it may look like you’re in a Western, but in actuality Blazing Saddles takes place in just another corner of Mel Brooks’ mad brain.
Ostensibly a parody of the genre, this also makes room for African-American railroad workers breaking into Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You;” a town-square hangman dressed in medieval executioner garb; and a gunslinger played by a comedian with notoriously errant aim, Gene Wilder. Also, don’t forget a literal breaking of the fourth wall at the end, where Westerns and Hollywood musicals and the moviegoing experience itself all collide in a grand, comic cacophony.
But back to Westerns. The story proper concerns corrupt political boss Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), who wants to make a land grab in the town of Rock Ridge. His plan is to grant a stay of execution to an imprisoned railroad worker named Bart (Cleavon Little) and appoint him as Rock Ridge’s sheriff. The thinking is that when the townsfolk see a black man with a badge, they’ll either kill him or flee in panic.
Decidedly politically incorrect by today’s standards, this setup was comic gold for Brooks and his fellow screenwriters (Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Alan Uger and Richard Pryor). “Are we black?” Wilder’s Waco Kid asks Bart after waking up from a bender in the Rock Ridge jail, where Bart has nonchalantly settled into his new position. And don’t forget Bart’s oft-quoted warning to the townsfolk as he pulls a prepared speech from his pocket: “Excuse me while I whip this out.”
Not all of the humor is racially tinged. Much of it is little more than the usual Brooksian absurdity, from the noose around the neck of the horse whose rider is about to be hung to Brooks’ cameo as a cross-eyed governor who has a hard time mastering paddle ball. He may not be able to see too well, but he’ll certainly hear if an underling fails to follow one of his nonsensical pronouncements with an enthusiastic “harrumph!”
About 30 percent of the movie’s humor comes from the material and 70 percent comes from the cast.
In fact, I’d say about 30 percent of the movie’s humor comes from the material and 70 percent comes from the cast. Brooks is a blast (he also has a cameo as a Yiddish-inflected Native-American chief), Wilder is comically laconic (not his usual speed) and Little makes Bart a delightful variation on Bugs Bunny (quite literally in a scene that employs the Looney Tunes theme). Yet they’re all upstaged by the mugging Korman. A conniving, sadistic villain who nonetheless panics when he’s in the bathtub and has lost his rubber frog, Korman’s Hedley Lamarr is also given to effervescent soliloquies elaborately describing his cognitive process: “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.” (It helps that he delivers these lines to a befuddled henchman played by Slim Pickens.)
Though she only has two main scenes, Madeline Kahn deserves her own paragraph here. She appears midway through the film as showgirl Lili Von Shtupp, hired by Lamarr to seduce Bart and trick him into leaving town (at this point he’s gained the people’s trust). Performing at the saloon, she sings “I’m Tired” (written by Brooks), which has the swing of a striptease but lyrics bemoaning the burden of being a sex object. Kahn delivers it with a hilarious combination of obligatory titillation and comic exhaustion, even nodding off at one point. It’s a tour de force and earned her a rare Oscar nomination for a comic performance. (Brooks certainly knew how to leer, yet he was also a comedienne’s best friend.)
So Blazing Saddles is funny, yet in another way it’s quite serious – especially if you place the movie in context with the blaxploitation genre, which by 1974 had recently peaked with the likes of Shaft, Super Fly and Black Caesar. These were outside-of-the-system films that, among other things, depicted African-American men as independent, powerful figures capable of undermining white authority. Why was Blazing Saddles – a major studio release – allowed to do the same thing? Perhaps because it was disguised as a comedy and a period piece (despite anachronistic jokes about Jesse Owens).
Therein lies the brilliance of Brooks’ decision to break the fourth wall in the finale, when a Rock Ridge melee breaks through studio walls, into a Busby Berkeley–style musical number and eventually onto the streets of 1974 Hollywood. What was historically silly suddenly became immediately subversive. In the blink of an eye, Blazing Saddles was no longer a parody of the faded Western genre. It was talking about the persistent racism of the present day.