The Surreal, Singular Relevance of Blazing Saddles in 2016

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The Surreal, Singular Relevance of Blazing Saddles in 2016

How else would you expect a man like Mel Brooks to response to thunderous applause than with a wisecrack? When Brooks, the King of Smut himself, 90 years young and many times more vital than many wannabe auteurs in their 20s, walked on stage at the Wang Theatre in Boston last Saturday after a screening of Blazing Saddles for an audience Q&A session, the crowd leapt to its feet and broke into a deafening chorus of hooting, hollering and cheering to outmatch their noisy accompaniments to the film itself. Mel’s reply came in the form of a gentle plea: Save the clapping for the end, and only if he’s done a good job.

And everyone did just that, sitting quietly with their hands folded politely in their laps, holding onto their adulation until it was time to bid the great comedian adieu.

Okay, that’s not what happened. For the next hour, all in attendance laughed uproariously at Mel’s jokes, his personal and professional anecdotes, and his sharp answers to their questions. Propriety went out the window, assuming it was ever in attendance in the first place. There’s no place for manners and respectability in a room echoing with the sound of cowboy farts and bawdy punchlines, plus the repeated interruption of cackles and guffaws. We came for bad taste. We got it, peppered with occasional magic and bits of wisdom spun as only Mel can spin them. Who says sophomoric humor doesn’t have value in civilized society? Even a movie built around a philosophy of egalitarian offense can teach viewers a thing or two about overcoming prejudice.

The first battles over political correctness in American culture were being fought back in the early 1970s, and Blazing Saddles went through the ringer just to make it into theaters. Warner Bros. nearly flushed it, in fact: It took the insistence of studio president John Calley to secure a release within the big markets, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, plus the praise of one Roger Ebert to influence its distribution beyond those regions. Their combined (but not coordinated) efforts made the film into WB’s biggest box-office hit that summer, which is either a testament to the timelessness of toilet humor and ribaldry, proof of Calley’s power and Ebert’s clout, or perhaps both. (Or maybe people just needed to laugh in 1974, and if you need to laugh, then Blazing Saddles has you covered.)

It’s sobering to think that even 42 years ago, Blazing Saddles struggled uphill through censorship. Producer Kevin Salter, who joined Mel after the screening to moderate his uninterruptible gift of gab, posed and succinctly answered the day’s looming question: Could Blazing Saddles be made in 2016? No, but then again, it couldn’t be made in 1974, either. It’s possible that the censors (represented by the late Ted Ashley, WB’s chairman from 1969 to 1980, in Mel’s telling of the movie’s history) would be less of an obstacle in 2016 than the critics themselves. Critics get agita when Quentin Tarantino peppers scripts with racist epithets, and Blazing Saddles revolves around white people saying that word, plus other words that belittle and dehumanize entire ethnicities and cultures: African-Americans, the Sioux Nation, the Chinese, the Irish, Germans and, yes, even Jews.

Grant that this is the year critics mostly embraced Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s Sausage Party. (Grant also that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are critical darlings despite their utter disregard for standards of decorum in everything they do.) Maybe critics aren’t actually all that politically correct. And maybe it ultimately doesn’t matter. Just as there’s no heir to the throne of Ebert in 2016, there’s no heir to the throne of Mel Brooks, either. Come to that, there’s no Gene Wilder, no Richard Pryor, no Cleavon Little, no Madeline Kahn, no Harvey Korman, no Slim Pickens. So maybe it is true that Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today, but that’s not necessarily because of the culture: It’s a matter of talent rather than social mores.

Mel’s account of how the film came together sounded an awful lot like an “Avengers assemble” montage. First they got Norman Steinberg, the lawyer who hated being a lawyer, and Alan Uger, the dentist who hated being a dentist, to help write the script. Then, they called Richard Pryor to act as their consulate and representative and also to star as Sheriff Bart. Then they had to find someone else to play Bart, because WB saw Pryor’s drug arrests as an insurance liability, and so they wound up deciding on Little at the end of a 60-person casting call. Pryor apparently remarked that while he could be mistaken for Cuban, with his lighter skin tone and his mustache, Little couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than black, and that he’d “scare the shit” out of the good people of Rock Ridge, making him the best choice for the part. (Incidentally, this lends Bart’s parting line to Lili Von Shtupp—”Baby, please! I am not from Havana!”—the added depth of an inside joke.)

From there, the production picked up Wilder after courting John Wayne and failing. (Blazing Saddles was too filthy a film for him, but, as the story famously goes, he promised to be the first in line to buy a ticket for it.) And as Mel rattled off names, so came the dawning realization that he’s outlived most of the film’s cast. Over the last 40 years, we’ve lost Little, Pryor, Kahn, Korman, Pickens, Dom DeLuise, Alex Karras and Liam Dunn, while David Huddleston and, of course, Wilder left us just this year. (Nearly every single mention of Wilder’s name drew gracious ovation from the audience.) The more Mel talked, the more that the occasion came to resemble a memorial to his late friends and peers, suffusing his unending barrage of quips and jests with a layer of surprising, heartfelt gravity. (Those layers reveal themselves in the film, too. Watching Bart reunite with Charlie and his former fellow railroad workers puts a lump in your throat just to give us a reprieve from our amusement.)

We all laughed more than we mourned, and that’s to be expected. Mel didn’t shed tears. Rather, he expressed love and appreciation, tokens of remembrance for the people who helped make his movie a masterpiece, each doled out in between questions about his preferred undergarments. (“Boxers or briefs?” Salter asked while reading off queries at random from Mel’s gathered fans. “Depends,” came Mel’s rascally rejoinder.) And besides, how can anyone be downbeat after watching Blazing Saddles? The whole theater reverberated with the audience’s delirious, post-screening giggles, the kind felt only after watching a movie of the highest comic potency, the kind that suggests you’re in an altered state of mind. Blazing Saddles is a stronger joint than the one Bart rolls for Jim during the “wake and bake” scene. Even if you’ve seen it a hundred times, the euphoric qualities of the film’s humor will never lose their power.

Maybe it’s the comedy we need in 2016, too. Everybody could stand to take a load off with a half an hour’s worth of gags in the range between “absurd” and “surreal,” and that’s true even in the best of times. But this is one of America’s uglier times. The nation is caught in the presidential election cycle’s hype machine, whose effects are dizzying even in years when a portion of the electorate isn’t dead set on voting for a reality TV star and con artist. Watching Blazing Saddles in the context of 2016 is a trip: William J. Lepetomane, a handsy, salacious man so unfit for his government post that he has the word “GOV” spelled out on the back of his blazer to assert his title, reads as a perfect, oddly prescient Trump surrogate, if not because he’s a perv than because he knows jack shit about the job.

Trump, and Trump’s politics (such as they are), can be sniffed out in any number of TV shows and movies of 2016, from Game of Thrones to Scandal, Green Room to Nuts!. (He is popularly found playing the villain of the piece in Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven remake, but Bartholomew Bogue is really just a boring and hambone analog for Hedley Lamarr, the crooked state attorney general who antagonizes the good folk of Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles. Watching Peter Sarsgaard in Seven will just make you pine for Korman.) But there’s value, and encouragement, in discovering his presence in a film that’s just a hair over four decades old.

Blazing Saddles reminds us that the phenomenon of Trumpian politics isn’t new, and that people like Trump have always existed. (To say nothing of his supporters. Forget about Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment: The Waco Kid has a much more acute critique of the alt-right base up his sleeves. “These are people of the land,” he tells Bart after a bruising encounter with one of Rock Ridge’s elders. “The common clay of the new West. You know … morons.”) Hell, go straight past 1974 to 1941, and you’ll find Citizen Kane, the film Trump has designated as his favorite, which may be the best explanation for his mythos that any of us is liable to get. Blazing Saddles isn’t the first film to capture the intangible, characterizing essence of the world’s Trumps, and it won’t be the last, either. But it may well be the best.

And that’s entirely because it invites us to see men like him as blustering fools and mock them accordingly. So laugh we do. Blazing Saddles is one of a kind, a film that can’t be duplicated (and one that no one should dare try to duplicate). But it’s abiding and ageless, as unfailingly relevant as it is hysterical. The same can be said of Mel, too—he sure doesn’t look like he’s lived long enough to be in spitting distance of a century, and he can make you laugh at the same Borscht Belt puns and one-liners no matter how many times you’ve heard them told and retold again and again. It doesn’t matter that he wouldn’t be able to get Blazing Saddles funded today, though that probably wouldn’t stop him from trying anyway. Piss on you: He’s Mel Brooks.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.

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