“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
There is a strong case to be made that the western is the most versatile and quintessentially American of all film genres. Certainly it is one of the most mythic. Born out of 19th century dime novels and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, with deeper roots in the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper and the even earlier captivity narratives of the colonial era, western films have continually been reinvented and repurposed to address American social, cultural, and political issues since the early 20th century. Though occasionally out of fashion, the western has proven to be a genre capable of almost continual renaissance from Stagecoach (1939), to The Wild Bunch (1969), to Unforgiven (1992), to Deadwood (2004 – 2006) and Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013). Along the way, the genre has been used to address everything from McCarthyism to Vietnam to racism. It is this last category that brings me to this week’s Ten Percent, a western that managed to expose the ridiculousness of racism and the ignorance that lies behind it, by making absolutely hilarious fun of its every single aspect: Blazing Saddles (1974).
Directed by Mel Brooks, and written by Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Alan Unger, and Richard Pryor, Blazing Saddles tells the tale of Bart (Cleavon Little), an African-American railroad worker who is reprieved from being hanged only to find himself appointed sheriff of the little town of Rock Ridge as part of a nefarious scheme by Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) to drive the townspeople out so he can run the railroad across the land currently occupied by the town. Along the way, Bart teams up with Jim (Gene Wilder) the dissipated, alcoholic gunfighter once known as the Waco Kid, and manages to rally the townspeople and the railroad workers to work together to save the town.
It’s pretty much every western cliché ever invented mixed together into one brilliant film. Brooks & Co. confront racism early and often, and don’t shy away from using the N-word and other racial and ethnic slurs. Ingeniously though, the people who using such terms are always markedly less intelligent and sophisticated than the people they are referring to:
Which clip brings me to one of the strongest elements of Blazing Saddles: the casting. I can’t remember another film that included such an array of comedic talent and that used that talent to its fullest extent. As Taggart, Slim Pickens brings both the legitimacy of a veteran western actor and incredible comic timing to the film. His scenes with Harvey Korman are a divine mix of physical comedy, sexual innuendo, and off-kilter eloquence that should in and of themselves be enshrined in the Hall of Comedic Genius. In fact, almost every scene in Blazing Saddles featuring Korman is comedy perfected. He doesn’t chew the scenery so much as devour it. Gene Wilder delivers as Bart’s world-weary wingman who manages to break things down to their hilarious essence, yet the real show stopper and scene stealer is the incomparable Madeline Kahn as the “Teutonic Titwillow” Lili von Shtupp:
Kahn would earn an Oscar nomination for her work in Blazing Saddles, an incredibly rare occurrence for an actor in a comedy, and one that was well deserved. Her performance is simply a classic of American film. And all of this talent, from the acting to the writing to the directing, is harnessed to the single purpose of sending up racism as the vulgar barbarity it actually is. Neither before nor since has a film so viciously and successfully met and conquered hate with laughter, nor so well used the absurd to reveal the absurdity of prejudice.
Blazing Saddles also broke new ground in comedic filmmaking by pushing things to their limits and beyond. For the first time in a major motion picture, the inevitable consequences of a diet of beans and black coffee were exposed in what remains one of the funniest fart jokes in American cinematic history: “More beans, Mr. Taggart?” The other side of racial stereotyping was played up in a wonderfully suggestive scene between Bart and Lili in the darkness of her room: “It’s twue! It’s twue!!!!” And Hedley Lamarr puts together an army that includes “ass-kickers, shit-kickers, and METHODISTS!!!!” Seriously, what’s not to love? All of this, plus Blazing Saddles manages to cut through all of the hand-wringing, white paper-writing, national angst, and willful blindness to provide the finest explanation for racism ever created:
I know this edition has been a bit clip-heavy, but there’s just too much good in this film for me to try and capture in a thousand words or so. Made in 1974, Blazing Saddles remains fresh and relevant, and still contains the most incredibly dedicated, balls out shattering of the fourth walls (yes, walls) that I have ever seen. Part of the films eternal freshness is that we still haven’t dealt with race in America in some very fundamental ways, and part of it lies in the fact that Blazing Saddles simply could not be made or even remade today. The film took too many risks – with language, with content, even with its range of humor – for any modern studio to be willing to make it. And let’s face it, Harvey Korman, Cleavon Little, Slim Pickens, and Madeline Kahn are all gone – and they were each irreplaceable. While they were here, though, they made us this beautiful, funny film, and earned their place in the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.