Blazing Saddles (1974)
The iconoclastic, not-politically-correct Blazing Saddles (1974) is one of Mel Brooks' funniest, most successful and most popular films. It is an unsubtle spoof or parody of all the cliches from the time-honored genre of westerns, similar to the comic attitude of numerous Marx Brothers films. Brooks' third feature film tagline blurb advertised: "Blazing Saddles...or never give a saga an even break!" Notice in the film's poster, the gold coin is inscribed: "HI, I'M MEL. TRUST ME."
The crude, racist and sexist film with toilet humor and foul language includes the main elements of any western - a dance-hall girl, a gunslinger, a sheriff, a town full of pure folk, and more, but it twists them around. So they become a black sheriff, a racist town, a sex-obsessed Governor, and so forth. In addition, there are other anachronistic elements - Hedley Lamarr (a misnaming of actress Hedy Lamarr), hints of the seductive character Frenchy (played by Marlene Dietrich) in Destry Rides Again (1939), a medieval executioner, a Cole Porter song, redneck bigotry of all flavors, and a 'film-within-a-film' concept, exemplified by Lamarr exclaiming: "Drive me off this picture."
Director Mel Brooks makes three cameos in the film: as the sleazy governor, as a Yiddish-speaking, Jewish-Sioux Indian chief, and as a WWI aviator in the badman lineup. Brooks also wrote the songs and lyrics for three songs in the film: "I'm Tired," "The French Mistake," and "The Ballad of Rock Ridge." Gene Wilder's future wife Gilda Radner appears as a townswoman in the church scene, and Count Basie (as Himself) appears as the band-leader in the desert. [The entire outdoor set was from the film Westworld (1973).]
This was Brooks' second major film - his debut film was The Producers (1968). Gig Young was originally cast in the role as The Waco Kid, and Dan Dailey was once considered. The role of the sheriff was originally designed for Richard Pryor (one of the film's screenwriters), but he was considered too controversial at the time. The offensive, deliberately in-bad-taste film that made fun of racism was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Film Editing, Best Song (music by John Morris with lyrics by Mel Brooks), and Best Supporting Actress (Madeline Kahn) - without any wins. Its most memorable scene, now considered tame when compared to Dumb and Dumber (1994), was the bean-eating scene around the campfire.The Story
The absurd, tactless film opens, under the credits, with the Oscar-nominated title song Blazing Saddles (accompanied by cracking whips) sung by Frankie Laine, parodying and satirizing his own classic western tune - "Mule Train":
He rode a blazing saddle
He wore a shining star
His job to offer battle
To bad men near and far
He conquered fear and he conquered hate
He turned our night into day
He made his blazing saddle
A torch to light the way
When outlaws rule the West
And fear fills the land
A cry went up for a man with guts
To take the West in hand
They needed a man who was brave and true
With justice for all as his aim
Then out of the sun rode a man with a gun
And Bart was his name, yes Bart was his name
The film opens in the West of 1874 [100 years before the film was made] with the memorable scene of a black and coolie rail gang laying down track in the heat. They are ordered to sing a Negro spiritual by Lyle (Burton Gilliam), the white chain gang overseer:
Now come on boys, where's your spirit? I don't hear no singin'. When you were slaves, you sang like birds. Go on. How 'bout "a good ole nigger work song?
The workers, led by Bart (Cleavon Little), respond with their own original rendition (a capella) of Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You," starting out with the words: "I get no kick from champagne..." To show the black laborers how to really sing a spiritual or campfire song, Lyle sings a portion of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and then all the whites perform their own "minstrel show" version of "Camptown Races." The members of the ethnic chain gang hide and stifle their laughter. The whites are interrupted by Taggart (veteran Western film actor Slim Pickens) who rides up on horseback with his six-shooter blasting: "What in the wide, wide world of sports is a-goin' on here?" He labels the bosses "a bunch of Kansas City faggots."
A cowtown named Rock Ridge lies directly in the proposed pathway of the railroad track. Corrupt Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) - his door is labeled "Assistant to Governor - State Procurer," has hatched a crooked political scheme (a land snatch) and plot to clear the town of people, buy and take over the land (where the lucrative railroad will be built), and resell it to the railroad:
Yes, when that railroad goes through Rock Ridge, that land will be worth millions and I want it. I want that land so badly I can taste it.
Taggart enthusiastically suggests an Old Testament solution to run everybody out of Rock Ridge: "We'll kill the first born male child in every household." Lamarr doesn't approve: "Too Jewish." Outdoors, the executioner is booked solid with gallows victims, and the noise of one execution sends a frightened Taggart into Lamarr's arms. He is comforted: "That's all right, shhh, it's all right, Taggart. Just a man and a horse being hung out there."
The all-white, racist western town of Rock Ridge is a peaceful town "where people lived in harmony, they never had no kind of trouble, there was no hint of misery." One of main street's storefronts is Howard Johnson's (John Hillerman) Ice Cream Parlor - advertising only 1 Flavor [presumably vanilla]. And the fact that the townsfolk are all named Johnson further emphasizes Rock Ridge's homogeneity. Bucolic cattle roam through the town's saloon. Taggart carries through on his second plan to scare the townsfolk into leaving town by riding through with a group of men (with six-shooters blazing).
The townspeople are in the local church singing from their hymnals: "Now it's a time of great decision. Are we to stay or up and quit? There's no avoiding this conclusion, our town is turning into shit." [The anachronism of the pure white townsfolk using a four-letter word in their church hymn song is typical of Brooks' humor.] The racist, pious minister Reverend Johnson (Liam Dunn) laments the troubles of the town - "sheriff murdered, crops burned, stores looted, people stampeded, and cattle raped." He plans to desert the town, but is persuaded to stay by "frontier gibberish" from an old bearded prospector type named Gabby Johnson (Claude Ennis Starrett, Jr.): "Hell, I was born here and I was raised here, and dad-gummit, I'm gonna die here..." The worshippers are exhorted to remain and courageously fight it out by Olson Johnson (David Huddleston):
What are we made of? Our fathers came across the prairie, fought Indians, fought drought, fought locusts, fought Dix - remember when Richard Dix came in here and tried to take over this town? Well, we didn't give up then, and by gum, we're not gonna give up now.
Most of the townsfolk in the stereotypical cowpoke town, all with the last name of Johnson, vow to stay, but they decide they must first wire and petition the governor to send the town a sheriff - because every sheriff appointed by the townspeople has been murdered. The minister prepares to read from the book "of Matthew, Mark, Luke...and DUCK!" when a bundle of dynamite is thrown through the church window and explodes.
In the office of the governor is near-sighted and sex-obsessed Governor William J. LePetomane (director Mel Brooks himself), with a large GOV in white letters on his back. [The governor is named after the stage name of a French performer (Joseph Pujol) known as the 'fart expert.'] The ineffectual governor is persuaded by sneaky Lamarr to sign a bill to "snatch 200,000 acres of Indian territory which we have deemed unsafe for their use at this time. They're such children." The Indians would be given paddle-toys in exchange for the land. As Le Petomane signs the bill, he turns to his red bikini-clad buxom secretary Miss Stein (Robyn Hilton), and speaks directly into the cleavage between her two bulging breasts:
Hello boys. Have a good night's rest? I missed you.
The governor is also instructed to sign a second bill to "convert the state hospital for the insane into the William J. Le Petomane Memorial Gambling Casino for the Insane." Le Petomane must be corrected for the pronunciation of Lamarr's name:
Lamarr: It's not Hedy, it's Hedley. Hedley Lamarr.
Le Petomane: What the hell are ya worried about? This is 1874. You'll be able to sue her.
An urgent telegram, which arrived from the town of Rock Ridge the previous Friday, is read by the governor's secretary: "Sheriff murdered, church meeting bombed. Reign of terror must cease. Send new sheriff immediately." Le Petomane is incensed: "We've gotta protect our phoney-baloney jobs, gentlemen, we must do something about this immediately!" Lamarr assures everyone that a suitable sheriff will be found to restore the peace in Rock Ridge.
The Attorney General ponders turning the idea of a law-and-order sheriff into his own advantage, to panic the citizens so that they will cheaply sell out their land to him. Or he figures that the sheriff will be lynched by the townspeople:
Maybe I could turn this thing into my advantage if I could find a sheriff who so offends the citizens of Rock Ridge that his very appearance would drive them out of town. (To the audience) But where would I find such a man? (gesturing) Why am I asking you?
Hip black convict Black Bart, who is about to be hanged for being a troublemaker and for assaulting Taggart with a shovel, is considered as sheriff of Rock Ridge and enlisted by Lamarr as part of his plan to seize the valuable land. After the governor is persuaded that appointing the first black sheriff would increase his Presidential prospects, he approves the appointment for the first black sheriff in Rock Ridge's history. After taking care of affairs of state, the governor unzips his pants and resumes his lustful tete-a-tete with his half-naked, dance-hall secretary behind the curtain: "Affairs of state must take precedent over, uh, the affairs of state."
Brassy band music introduces the new sheriff - as the camera pans upward over the chest of a man with a sheriff's badge pinned on it, Bart is revealed wearing chic suede and leather. Mounted magnificently on his palomino, he is carrying Gucci saddlebags, ready to take the job of sheriff. As he rides on his horse and approaches Rock Ridge, the music swells - he passes by the Count Basie band on the dusty plains (Count Basie has an uncredited cameo as he plays "April in Paris" on a white piano with his jazz band).
In the welcoming scene for the new sheriff, Howard Johnson - as chairman of the welcoming committee - practices his speech (with an awful pun) before looking up and seeing the arrival of the sheriff:
It is my privilege to extend the laurel and hearty handshake to our new... (pause as he looks up) nigger.
The black sheriff startles the people of Rock Ridge with a sexual double-entendre as he takes out his speech to accept his position:
Excuse me while I whip this out.
When the townspeople soon realize that he's a "ni-," they threaten to shoot him. To divert the mob, hold them at bay and escape, Bart holds a gun to his own neck, shouting:
Hold it. The next man makes a move, the nigger gets it...Drop it! For I swear, I'll blow this nigger's head all over this town. Oh Lordy-lord, he's desperate. Do what he say. Do what he say.
When he successfully holds the lynch mob at bay and is allowed safe passage out of harm's way, he marvels at his accomplishment and congratulates himself for bluffing them: "Oh baby, you are so talented, and they are so dumb."
The Rock Ridge Town Council meets (composed of thirty individuals with the last name of Johnson), and listens to the schoolmarm Harriett Van Johnson (Carol Arthur) as she reads a telegram she composed to the governor to express the town's 'extreme displeasure' about the new sheriff.
We, the white, god-fearing citizens of Rock Ridge wish to express our extreme displeasure with your choice of sheriff. Please remove him immediately. The fact that you have sent him here just goes to prove that you are the leading asshole in the state.
In the sheriff's office adjoining a jailhouse, the "drunk in number two" awakens - Jim, the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder): "Well, my name is Jim, but most people call me - Jim." The former gunslinger, the only prisoner in the jail who is being held until he sobers up, is "very puzzled" that there is a black sheriff in town. He likes to "play chess, screw," and at one time, he was a notorious fast-draw expert, but now has become a washed-up alcoholic cowboy:
Bart: (disbelieving) The Waco Kid. He had the fastest hand in the West.
The Waco Kid: In the world.
Bart: Well, if you're the Kid, then show me something.
The Waco Kid: Well, maybe a couple of years ago, I could have shown you something, but today, look at that. (He holds up his right hand - and it is steady without shaking)
Bart: Steady as a rock.
The Waco Kid: Yeah, but I shoot with this hand. (His left hand shakes wildly)
In an underplayed interlude, the Waco Kid reminisces about his 'ancient history' and how he turned to drinking: "Oh, well, it got so that every pissin' prairie punk who thought he could shoot a gun would ride into town to try out the Waco Kid. I must have killed more men than Cecil B. De Mille. It got pretty gritty. I started to hear the word 'draw' in my sleep. Then one day, I was just walkin' down the street, and I heard a voice behind me say, 'Reach for it, mister!' I spun around and there I was face to face with a six year-old kid. Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away. The little bastard shot me in the ass so I limped to the nearest saloon, crawled inside a whiskey bottle, and I've been there ever since."
The Waco Kid: What's a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?
Bart: If you really must pry..
The Waco Kid: Oh, I must, I must.
Bart: Well, back in '56, my folks and I were part of this long wagon train movin' West. Well, not exactly part of it. You might say we was bringin' up the rear when suddenly, from out of the West came the entire Sioux nation. And let me tell you baby, they was open for business. (The white wagon train groups together in a circle.) Naturally, the white folks didn't let us travel in their circle, so we made our own. (Sight-gag: the sole black wagon rides around in circles)
The Sioux Indian chief, a Yiddish-speaking warrior (Mel Brooks), confronts the scared black family on their wagon, but then lets them pass unharmed, rationalizing: "They darker than us." Bart returns to his tale in the sheriff's office: "And the rest is history." But he has put his audience of one drunken cowboy to sleep.
The camera tracks right across a barbed wire fence, resting on a sign which reads: "Administrative Personnel Only, Knock on Barbed Wire Before Entering." In the film's most notorious, vulgar and well-remembered scene, gassed-up, wind-breaking cowboys from Taggart's crew sit around the night's campfire eating beans - burping and farting incessantly - bathroom humor at its finest. Taggart is pleased that the dreaded Mongo (ex-football player Alex Karras) [the character was based on Hoss, actor Dan Blocker's character from the popular TV western series Bonanza] - his simple-minded brutish henchman, is proposed as the one to kill the new black sheriff. As Lamarr's henchman, he gleefully asks the hairless Downs syndrome-afflicted idiot: "How'd you like to mutilate that new sheriff?"
In the meantime, the Waco Kid has become the sheriff's sole ally after sobering up, and is now known as "Deputy Spade." The Kid suggests that the townspeople cannot be won over: "I don't want you goin' out there this mornin'. You can't win these people over no matter what you do. They're just not gonna accept you." Out on the street, Black Bart is greeted by an old townswoman: "Up yours, nigger." The Waco Kid comforts and reassures the racially-slurred sheriff after his efforts to be accepted have failed:
What did you expect? 'Welcome, sonny?' 'Make yourself at home.' 'Marry my daughter.' You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the New West. You know - morons.
A loud rumbling noise announces the unleashing of the dreaded Mongo in the town, riding a white, sharp-horned, brahma bull or ox (with a red YES on his left flank, and a red NO on his right flank). [Note: This obscure reference is to the "LOVE" and "HATE" tattoos on the fingers on the left and right hand of the Preacher (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter (1955).] A man in a serape sees Mongo entering the town and exclaims:
Mongo...Santa Maria. [An in joke: Mongo Santa Maria is one of the greatest Cuban bongo players that ever lived.]
The townspeople clear a path for the brute. Mongo is scolded, by a man on horseback, for illegally 'parking' his animal on the wrong hitching post. Mongo knocks out the man's horse with a single, bare-fisted punch and then storms into the saloon - breaking off the two swinging doors with his entry. The entire town needs to be saved from Mongo's wrath, and with a quick about-face, a representative from the town asks for the black sheriff's assistance. Rather than shoot the beast, the Waco Kid warns Bart to not pack a gun: "No, no, don't do that. Don't do that. If you shoot him, you'll just make him mad." Bart dresses up as a Western Union delivery man with a candygram, presents the package to the gargantuan monster, and leaves the scene (to the tune of a Looney Tunes cartoon playing 'That's All Folks'). When Mongo opens up the box and crudely blurts out: "Mongo like candy," the box turns out to be a bomb, and he is subdued with the blast.