In the past few years, many american citizens have argued that the public is placing more and more importance in being politically correct- avoiding off color jokes about race, religion, political beliefs and so on. This was particularly prevalent in the most recent election cycle. However, there are still productions today which revel in toeing and crossing the line, including South Park and The Book of Mormon. While these two works and many others have spawned major success, nothing has been or probably ever will be as rule-breaking as Mel Brook’s classic Western satire Blazing Saddles. The 1974 classic, which is considered by some to be one of the best comedies ever made, follows the story of Bart (Cleavon Little), a black railroad worker, who is made the sheriff of the small, western town of Rock Ridge by the corrupt politician Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). Lamarr, a Steve Bannon-esque political aide to an inept empty suited Governor (Mel Brooks), has his own plan to destroy Rock Ridge in order to expand the railroad. What better way to drive out a bunch of racist white people than to give them a black sheriff? Bart learns of this scheme however, and with help from a drunk, quick-handed cowboy known as the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), the duo use their combined wit to take out Lamarr and his cronies, including the menacing yet surprisingly existential Mongo (Alex Karras) and the seductive yet sexually exhausted Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Khan).
The film’s most obvious strength is it’s hilarious yet in-your-face race comedy. For instance, in one of the earliest scenes of the film, when Bart is working on the railroad alongside his black friends, they’re stopped by their racist, yet incredibly stupid white workers who want to hear one of their “n****r songs,” such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” When the group instead breaks out into an altered acapella rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” the white bosses reach for low stereotype, responding with a rendition of “The Camptown Ladies,” dancing around and hollering like a bunch of “Kansas City faggots,” as described by Hedley’s right hand man Taggart (Slim Pickens).
This is only the first of multiple instances of race humor injected in the film. Near the end of the second act, Bart and the Waco Kid attempt to sabotage Hedley’s scheming when he sends out an open invitation to all forms of villains to attack Rock Ridge, including Biker gangs, gringos, bandits, and at the very end of the line a pair of klansmen. In an effort to use their robes as disguise, the two heroes lure the white- robed klansmen behind a bush, with Bart pretending to be a captured black man. This leads to one of the funniest yet most problematic lines in the whole film. Bart shouts “where the white women at?” to get the attention of the klansmen.
It is this line, along with other instances, such as Mel Brooks portraying a yiddish-speaking native american chieftain, that makes a modern adaptation of this story near impossible. However, it is interesting to note that Blazing Saddles gives a positive reflection of African Americans, with Sheriff Bart not only being the movie’s protagonist, but the most intelligent person among a town of idiotic white people. It should also be noted that the people brought in to save the town are the black railroad workers who for most of the film were regarded as just “n****rs.”
It is beyond true that Blazing Saddles could not be made today in any shape or form due to its blatant, over the top racism. But in 1974, it worked incredibly well to prove a point. This film came at a time where black actors had very little power in Hollywood, so by having a character such as Bart as a lead was already a positive representation. More importantly however, this racist humor could only be made by someone like Brooks. Brooks made the racism hyperbolic and in-your-face to the point it was impossible to not see how racist it was. Furthermore, the racism extends to not only black people, but to whites, jews, Native Americans, hispanics, and countless others-nobody was left out from the racism. The humor is so racist and over the top that none of the racism can be interpreted as being serious or with the intent to discriminate. Mel’s humor works because it’s completely exaggerated and over the top in every sense
Even with it’s deep social satire, Blazing Saddles also has elements of farce. There is quite a bit of sex humor, primarily revolving around Madeline Khan’s Lili Von Shtupp, a seductive singer at a the local Rock Ridge saloon, who in an ironic twist doesn’t sing about her own desire or lust, but about how she’s fed up with it. In her ode to prostitution “I’m Tired,” Khan sings about how she’s tired of the constant sex and depravity, saying in her own words that “everything below the waist is kaput!” Her rep is further established when Lamarr uses Lili to try and seduce the newly inducted Sheriff. After the show however, there’s a scene involving the seductress and Bart which takes a crack at stereotypes of black men and sex. In the scene, Lili is attempting to seduce the sheriff to throw Bart off guard at Hedley’s request. Once the two of them are alone, the lights go out, and Lili makes comments on how its “twue what they say about black men.” In a “size matters” irony, Lili ends up as the “seductee”- being swooned by Bart’s own sexual talents. It is interesting to note however that in the only deleted joke from the film, Bart replies to Lili’s comments by saying that she’s actually sucking on his arm. Out of all the race jokes and crude humor in the film, it was this one joke that was too obscene even for Brooks and his writing team.
Aesthetically, the film shares similarities with many comedies of the time, with a shot composition composed primarily of wide or medium-length shots, almost like a sitcom. However, Blazing Saddles does take heavy inspiration from classic westerns in its orange and blue based color scheme, extreme wide shots of Utah’s Monument Valley and a western-inspired soundtrack. To create an effective western homage, Brooks made the film as much like a standard western as possible. The opening ballad of the film is sung by Frankie Laine, who thought the theme was for a dramatic Western, It was only after the fact that he learned it was in fact for a comedy. Legendary western star John Wayne was even asked to star in the movie by Brooks. He declined the offer, but did say he’d be the first in line to see the film. The story structure follows the standard for most Hollywood Westerns, with a protagonist or multiple saving a town from an imminent threat whether it be a corrupt mining company, native americans, or some other threat. Although it follows a pretty standard structure, Blazing Saddles stands out with bursts of anachronistic parody. Some of these anachronistic moments include a gag in which Bart has a fake toll booth constructed in order to slow down the impending gang of bandits from destroying Rock Ridge and the appearance of the Count Baise Orchestra playing “April in Paris” as Bart rides through the countryside. Furthermore, the film’s entire climax is a giant fourth-wall gag. In the final moments of the movie, the fight between the people of Rock Ridge and the invading bandits breaks out of the western setting and onto the Warner Brothers lot, spreading to the set for a lavish male dance number called “The French Mistake,” the Warner Brothers Commissary, and eventually the Chinese Theater, where Bart and the Waco kid track down a fleeing Hedley Lamarr and then sit down to watch the end of their own movie. It is a fantastic, slapstick heavy example of fourth wall comedy, in which the characters in a piece interact with or at least know the existence of the audience.
Overall, Blazing Saddles is a masterwork of adult comedy that will likely never be matched by any other parody film, despite attempts made by some creators like Seth MacFarlane with his western spoof A Million Ways to Die in the West. For some viewers, the race and sex humor is often too crude for many, but in reality, Blazing Saddles is one that uses its humor and slapstick to make a deeper point about race roles in film and TV. It is still considered to be one of the funniest and most highly praised pieces of satire in film today, being nominated for three Oscars including best supporting actress. It also won the WGA award for best comedy written for the screen in 1975, and it was placed in the National Film Registry in 2006 despite its crude race humor. It is true that Blazing Saddles could never be made today. It premiered at a time when minority voices carried little weight in Hollywood, and the film is a shock to 21st Century sensibilities. However, as a “time capsule” piece, It’s an important acknowledgement that issues of race were part of the American conscience before now.