Blazing Saddles

Taggart: [shouting] We’ll head them off at the pass!
Hedley Lamarr: Head them off at the pass? I hate that cliché! [shoots Taggart’s foot]

Blazing Saddles, 1974

I introduced Lore to Mel Brooks with Blazing Saddles just as my cousins introduced me to him when I was a kid (I think they started me off with History of the World, Part I). Back in those days, I didn’t care for the madcap ending of Blazing Saddles— where the big fight scene spills over into the neighboring sets and then onto the streets of Hollywood; the heroes go into a movie theater to see how it ends and watch themselves drive off into the sunset. I now appreciate the commentary about the declining relevance of the Western genre. It probably also says something about Hollywood filmmaking that I don’t quite get.

For all that satire Blazing Saddles is pretty low-brow. My mother hates the movie simply because of the scene where the bad guys are sitting around the campfire eating beans and farting. I agree that part is neither funny nor original, yet it is also something that didn’t quite make it into John Wayne Westerns. Speaking of which, I always wondered where Governor Le Petomane’s name came from, and thanks to Google I now know. According to a Wikipedia entry so bizarre I almost don’t believe it, Le Petomane (French for “The Fartomaniac”) was the stage name of a 19th century performer whose shtick was farting.

Blazing Saddles is also incredibly dated. I’m too young to really get the Marlena Dietrich and Hedy (“It’s Hedley!”) Lamar jokes. In fact, I didn’t realize Madeline Kahn’s song and dance scene was almost an exact parody of Dietrich’s performance of “Falling in Love Again” in the 1930 Blue Angel. Which makes me wonder if Mel Brooks’ humor wasn’t already a little dated in 1974 when Blazing Saddles was released.

Blazing Saddles still has the handprints of the 1970s all over it, with its unsubtly incompetent and corrupt government officials (Mel Brooks’ cross-eyed governor first appears with his head buried in a redhead’s cleavage). There’s also a swipe at capital punishment, a hot-button 1970s political issue, with a busy medieval hunchback operating the gallows. While Blazing Saddles served as a parody of racism, it still has its own 1970s brand of racism (of the blaxploitation variety): Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart smokes pot, high-fives, is well-endowed, and generally outwits ignorant crackers at every turn.

As you see, I can find a lot of faults with Blazing Saddles. I like that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I love Gene Wilder and his deadpan delivery of lines like “Little bastard shot me in the ass.” There’s another scene where Wilder’s Waco Kid is consoling Sheriff Bart, who feels unwelcome in Rock Ridge. They are both looking into or just past the camera. Wilder has his arm around Little and tells him, “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.” Little can barely contain his laughter, and neither can I.

Falling Down

“Falling Down” immediately got my attention with the opening scene: a hot day, traffic stopped dead in its tracks, contemptible people all around. This all heaped on top of what we later find out to be a disappointing and troubled personal life. Who wouldn’t go nuts? Well, Robert Duvall’s character for one.

Anybody can find something heroic in D-FENS’s (Michael Douglas’s character) lashing out at the decaying mores of post-Cold War Los Angeles. When I first saw it in 1993 I was taken aback by his taking a baseball bat to a Korean man’s wares of overpriced snacks, but I liked the part (the theater audience applauded, as I recall) where he punched out the rude driver. There’s an opportunity here for self-reflection: while at times he may happen to be your favorite flavor of obnoxious creep, he’s just one more in a movie populated by them.

I remember this movie was controversial for its ethnic stereotyping. That was part of the movie’s point, though. It wouldn’t have made sense if Los Angeles was only inhabited sensible white people. How would living in 1950s version of Los Angeles fill an old-fashioned white guy with rage? I thought “Falling Down” was more about the end of an era. The Cold War had ended and the time when white male technocrats sat at the social apex was long gone.

I always liked Michael Douglas. It’s inevitable that I too will become a middle-aged white man, so I might as well do it with the twisted flair of some of his characters.