Monday, September 15, 2008

Blazing Saddles (1974)

1974 was a busy year for writer/director Mel Brooks. He turned out not only Blazing Saddles, but also Young Frankenstein,1 arguably two of his greatest works. The movie stars Cleavon Little as a Black railroad worker who is sent to the gallows, but through the machinations of the antagonist, played brilliant by Harvey Korman, is placed as sheriff of the small inbred2 town of Rockridge, NV. With Gene Wilder at his side, he fights against the forces of intolerance and unfettered capitalism.

In a lot of ways, Blazing Saddles inhabits a world of meta. Brooks frequently breaks the fourth wall with the characters speaking directly to the audience. Additionally the characters are aware of the broader world outside of their film. Governor Lepetomane assures Hedley Lamarr that he'll be able to sue Hedy Lemarr for stealing his name because it's the 1800s. The movie also draws further attention to itself when the sheriff rides to Rockridge and passes the Count Bassie Orchestra who is playing the soundtrack we are hearing. This draws to a climax near the end when the action breaks free of the back lot and ransacks the studio bursting in on other films. The hero and antagonist even escape to the premier of the film. Even the final shots break the wall of film as the Little and Wilder dismount from their horses and get in the back of a car to be driven off into the sunset.

Blazing Saddles also expands its meta nature beyond simply breaking the fourth wall. It also draws on meta-comedy about racism and racial jokes. By and large the white people of the town of Rockridge and the railroad company are racist dullards. By contrast, most of the Black characters are highly intelligent and competent and use the racist assumptions of white people against them. The three white people who seem least phased by racism are Korman, Wilder, and Madeline Kahn's German singing sensation Lili von Shtupp.3 Importantly, Korman hopes to use the racism of others to achieve his own means and to distract them from his own nefarious plans. Fortunately in the end, the townsfolk learn their lesson about racial intolerance and realize that all people are worthwhile. Even the Irish.

While the film operates on many different levels, and I choose to interpret it as a film about racism, and not itself a racist film, one could easily argue the reverse. The film does draw on racial stereotypes throughout. It also heavily uses racially insensitive terms--notably the N-word.4 When we look at this movie we have to ask ourselves if the average audience would see it challenging the racial prejudices they hold, or if they have them reinforced. Unfortunately, I'd have to admit that while I may see this movie as a comedy about racism that turns it on its head, I can also see a large number of people watching it and simply laughing at the stereotypes of a group and walking away with the same views they always held. As a result it may feed into continued racial intolerance in our culture. That said, the movie was also written in part by Richard Pryor, so I think my interpretation is more in line with their intent.

While I've talked about the headier elements of this movie, its not to say it's necessarily a smart comedy. While one can focus on the meta-elements and the racial overtones, it's also a movie filled with bodily humor jokes and puns. From cowboys sitting around a fire eating beans and farting to bandits being turned back by a toll booth in the middle of nowhere, the movie delivers laughs that work on an immature level. This is the kind of comedy I enjoy. I can both laugh at its inanity but spend quite a bit of time discussing its larger social contexts and debating its merits.

Taggart: Lepetomane Through-Way? Now what'll that asshole think of next? Does anybody gotta dime? Somebody's gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes!

Notes:
1. I will be reviewing Young Frankenstein at a later date, along with The Producers (1968), Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Spaceballs.
2. I can only assume the town is inbred as almost every resident's last name is Johnson.
3. Kahn's characters name is one of many that is a joke in and of itself as "shtupp" is Yiddish slang for sex, and Kahn's character is a sexually loose woman.
4. Whenever I watch this film on TV, it appears that Standards and Practices hasn't decided whether this is acceptable or not. Sometimes it's bleeped, sometimes it isn't.

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