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Why Blazing Saddles is not just one of the funniest movies of all time, but still works as a film
Surprisingly, it's the dramatic aspect
I don’t mean to tackle the ongoing “Nobody could make Blazing Saddles today” debate, which is litigated by people on Twitter who are less comedy professionals and more comedy hobbyists and lifestyle comedians. Anyone can make anything if they get the funding – the thesis really is, “Blazing Saddles could never be a crossover blockbuster hit today,” and that may or may not be true. That’s not my concern.
What I mean is that Blazing Saddles comes close to not working as a movie, a ninety-minute narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, and a character the audience can root for. That’s because unlike the other Mel Brooks hit of the summer, Young Frankenstein, or the movies that came before it – The Producers and The Twelve Chairs – Blazing Saddles is structured as a series of blackout sketches that could have easily been at home on The Sid Caesar Show, Brooks’ first comedfy writing gig.
Which is not to diminish the film or the sketches that comprise it. Quite the opposite. If you can’t laugh at “Candygram for Mongo!” then I don’t want to know you.
I could sit here and list the film’s highlights – Madelin Kahn’s Marlene Dietrich-inspired musical number, the cowboy and the chorus boy walking out of the final fight together – but these are all jokes that could have been slotted into any of a dozen movies spoofing Westerns. The irony of comedy is that it needs a solid dramatic framework to hang the jokes on or else they just don’t work.
And for how silly Mel Brooks can be as a filmmaker, as a writer and producer he truly “gets” story [he “discovered” David Lynch and produced The Elephant Man and also produced David Cronenberg’s The Fly (Yes, other people discovered David Lynch, but Mel Brooks brought him to a wide audience.)]
And so the scant dramatic writing in Blazing Saddle was going to sell it, although part of the credit certainly goes to the great Gene Wilder, who had a talent for taking two-dimensional roles and imbuing them with depth and soul.
On paper, his Waco Kid, who doesn’t appear in the screenplay until page 44 and is written as a one-joke parody of the Western trope of the washed-up alcoholic gunslinger given a chance at redemption, has about as much depth as a Slip n’ Slide. And yet Wilder makes him a sensitive, three-dimensional character who feels like one of the leads.
Similarly, Cleavon Little plays the lead, Bart, with a sense of gravity that grounds the proceedings even when they threaten to spin completely out of control. And there’s one scene on which the whole movie hinges, about halfway through.
Bart, sentenced to hang for assaulting his white superior, Slim Pickens, in the film’s opening sequence, has been sent to the pissant town of Rock Ridge to become their new sheriff with the understanding that the rednecks who live there would kill him instead. The town stands where the new railroad needs to run, and the evil Hedley Lamarr wants to vacate Rock Ridge so he can steal the land and sell it at a huge profit.
In one of the funniest scenes in maybe motion picture history, Bart establishes himself as the new sheriff and escapes being shot by the entire town:
Later, he walks down the main street, thinking he has a handle on the job and is establishing himself. He says a hello to a sweet old lady who responds, “Up yours, n-----.”
What follows is a very complex piece of simple dramatic acting, in which Little conveys a world of emotion without saying a word. It’s a scene that resonated with social media after Trump was elected president by people who were, typically for a service like Twitter, well-meaning while also not understanding what they were sharing.
Bart is furious, humiliated, and betrayed. He understands that he has not been, possibly will not, be accepted as an equal or even as a human, and does not know how to react. Up until this point, he had been first among equals, and for the first time in the movie – in which he’s been treated abysmally – he feels the brunt of the way he’s been treated. All of which is conveyed wordlessly in a five second shot without which the film would just be a collection of first-class jokes.
Which is not to say that Blazing Saddles is perfectly constructed – it takes forever to get going, and clearly part of the structure is dictated by the sheer amount of bad jokes Brooks cut out (watch the TV edit some time, it runs about 20 minutes longer and some of those scenes feel like they run forever). But the movie is funny enough that you don’t care.
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