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.