by Daniel Golden
Cut, no. 3, 1974, pp. 3-4
Despite my own incorrigible taste for self-satire and parody in cinema and other art forms, I found myself bored and even irritated by much of BLAZING SADDLES, Mel Brooks third feature and his potshot at the Western genre film. It’s hard to imagine Brooks as anything but a New York City Jewish intellectual. There are moments in this film when it becomes a private little universe of “in” jokes, Yiddishisms, and other ethnic allusions. All of Brooks’ films remind me of Woody Allen’s features and of BYE, BYE, BRAVERMAN, Sidney Lumet’s fine comedy that was so imbued with its New York City milieu that it bombed everywhere west of the Hudson.
BLAZING SADDLES is a deliberate travesty of a genre that has done a pretty fair job of self-parody in recent years. The Western’s chief attribute, its pious morality of violence, has been ironically undercut, deliberately by Sam Peckinpah and inadvertently by the producers of the gory Clint Eastwood-Spaghetti Western cycle. Most significantly, though, the sweeping exposure of the TV Western has made it practically impossible to take seriously the formulaic visions of pure and unsullied heroes, sniveling villains, and a society seemingly untroubled by moral equivocation and ambivalence. Moreover, the assiduous patterning of the Western plot to the 54 minute video hour has yielded up an audience that can predict incipient conflict and ultimate resolution by the appearance of expensive guest stars and the imminence of commercial cutaways. Early on, television even perpetrated its own mild self-mockery in the successful Maverick series, with Jim Garner as the handsome, charming, but insistently cowardly comic protagonist. I think that TV’s pervasive influence has probably made it impossible to produce a straight Western. It has made the genre a dead horse, one that Mel Brooks, with all his gifts of wit and bad taste, cannot flog to life.
BLAZING SADDLES falls apart as a movie. Its generic mockery of the Western in stereotypes of plot and character is undercut by an unfocused and indulgent hodgepodge of goofs and gags. In pacing and crosscutting, it most closely resembles a 90-minute version of a TV comedy skit. This is no accidental resemblance, since Brooks was instrumental in perfecting the TV take-off skit while writing for one of the earliest and funniest of comedy hours, the Show of Shows. But Brooks has shown better visual craftsmanship in his two earlier features, THE PRODUCERS and THE TWELVE CHAIRS. In BLAZING SADDLES the camera does a lot of over-panning and wide-angle elevated work in an attempt to mimic the big sky, big screen Western technique. But when Brooks moves in close for facial gesture and slapstick buffoonery, there are momentary pauses and visual stutters that work against the effect of one-liners and the accretion of quick sight gags.
The key problem, and the flaw that keeps BLAZING SADDLES from being consistently and insanely funny, is conceptual rather than visual. The film doggedly adheres to its own plot line, as if the audience ever expected the bad guys to win and the mythical town of Rock Ridge to be usurped by the familiar coalition of railroad robber barons and corrupt state officials. Thus, despite its joyful scatology and sexual innuendo, and some particularly fine offbeat acting, the film breaks down as we are forced to endure the mechanical clanking out of this ludicrous plot. Cleavon Little excels in the role of Sheriff Bart, a modern black hipster caught in a time warp. His saddle bags are by Gucci and his outfits are double-knit. Gene Wilder, who was so perfect as the foil for manic Zero Mostel in THE PRODUCERS, is once again endearing. This time he’s the Waco Kid, a sodden former gunslinger who goes on the wagon to help Bart defeat the forces of evil. Together they manage to save the town from the clutches of fey Hedley LaMarr, played to the arched eyebrow by Harvey Korman, himself no stranger to the TV comedy sketch. The acting is strong down through the entire cast. It includes a gem of a performance by Madeline Kahn, who camps it up as Marlene-ish Lili Von Shtupp, torch singer in the town saloon. Complete with pout, lisp, and Merry Widow, the Teutonic Titwillow sings one of Brooks’ original compositions. Among the other numbers composed for the film, Brooks makes an obvious bow to the theme from HIGH NOON in his song “Rock Ridge,” and he even resuscitates Frankie Laine in all his twanginess to sing the title number.
Although Brooks allows his audience to anticipate a happy ending (here the victors ride off into the clichéd sunset in a Caddy Fleetwood), it takes too long to get us there. What we get along the way is funny enough, but arrhythmic and disjointed. Brooks digs up a plethora of old sight gags and blackout humor which, along with the low level obscenity, undercut the very plot they ostensibly comprise. There are some memorable scenes throughout, but the inexorable movement of the plot makes for an awkward and contrived pace.
I suggested that Brooks’ TV background is noble and fecund comedic heritage. But like Woody Allen, he seems too easily seduced by the set piece, the cheap and easy laugh. Some of these cheap laughs are genuinely funny, as in one early scene in BLAZING SADDLES when Little and his fellow black railroad workers are ordered to sing an oldtime spiritual. They confer and break into a bop-rumba version of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” complete with doowaahs and Mills Brothers’ ballbearing harmonies. This is the first of many cheap comic incongruities in the film, but in its moment of surprise it is effective and undermines the expectations of the audience. Scarcely two minutes into BLAZING SADDLES, we are reminded that the joke is on us as well as on the genre.
Brooks builds a pattern of reverse anachronisms to jar audience and character alike into a recognition of the film’s “reality.” In BLAZING SADDLES, this mode is so outrageous that it practically obliterates the distinction between the images of a mythic West and Brooks’ fraudulent, irreverent distortion. Instead of offering satire as wry tribute, Brooks would assert that the Western is an exhausted artifact of our cinematic culture, worthy only of put-on and put-down. Thus, as Hedley LaMarr, Korman moves through the film in exasperation, correcting all who would confuse him with Heddy. In trying to convince the Rock Ridge townsfolk to stand and fight, Sheriff Bart argues: “You'd do it for Randolph Scott.” At that point all the people rise, doff their hats and bonnets, and chant reverentially to the true Western hero. The net effect of these and numerous other instances of comic reversal is to destroy an already shaky and undermined target, the myth of the Western. Inevitably, Slim Pickens, who does a good job of playing himself, suggests to Korman that they “head ‘em off at the pass.” The genre film has been devoured by its own banalities. All LaMarr can do is grimace, hold limp wrist to forehead and moan, “God, I hate that cliche!”
Mel Brooks does not shoot down the Western with sublimated affection for the genre. He is no Bogdanovich paying subtle and gentle tribute to styles and directors gone by (as in PAPER MOON and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW). Nor is his vision akin to Truffaut’s Gallic mockery of self and cinema in DAY FOR NIGHT. Brooks mocks not only the Western but the entire realm of Hollywood moviemaking. The last five minutes of BLAZING SADDLES spills off the Western set. As the camera dollies out, we watch the street brawl interrupt a Berkleyesque dance number, replete with fountains, long staircases, and Dom DeLuise as a swishy director. The fight then moves to the Warner commissary for the required pie fight. Finally it’s off the studio lot entirely, ending up at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where the feature is, of course, BLAZING SADDLES. Here, amid the hokum and tinsel of the Hollywood scene, Bart guns down Hedley LaMarr, who has paused to marvel at Douglas Fairbanks’ tiny footprints. All that is left is for Gene Wilder to observe, “Wow, you shot the bad guy.” The movie within a movie chases its own tale over the horizon. But BLAZING SADDLES is just too sloppy and self-indulgent, despite its burlesque of its own fictive world. If the satire of the Western genre is botched, it is because Brooks sticks to a plot that can only dull the malicious blade of irony and mockery. There are lots of laughs, even for non-New, Yorkers, but there’s too much shtick.