Gosh, it’s been a while since I watered the horses, put my spurs on and rode off into a My year of Westerns review. A la the “Waco Kid,” I will blame this sabbatical on my leading a thoroughly dissolute life. Because one should seek to emulate Gene Wilder on every available occasion. That’s just good common sense.
So yeah, wow, Blazing Saddles, right? The only problem here is where to begin. Let’s take a stroll back in time, shall we? That’s not a question. ::glowers menacingly, grabs your wrist, drags you along::
The year is 1991. I am 12 years old. Operation Desert Storm is a thing. Every Friday over the summer I walk to the Knights of Columbus building for their weekly ‘coins, comics, and cards’ show where hundreds of merchants set up booths to hawk new and used collectibles. I rarely buy anything other than a .25 cent bag of Swedish fish but the consortium sets an appropriately nerdy table for what’s to come. Afterward I head over to my best friend’s house for a sleepover. There we will get coked up on candy and, well, coca-cola, and watch movies late into the night. There are only 2 that were a sure thing to be played every week. Major League (1989) (“Hats for bats, keep bats warm”) and Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987) (“Keep firing, assholes!”). A low-ball estimate for the amount of times I’ve seen those movies would 50.
Entire days of my life, folks. Days.
Spaceballs was my introduction to Brooks humor. As a kid I loved the slapstick bits, the man who was also a dog (“I’m a Mog, half man, half dog. I’m my own best friend!”). The sexual innuendos flew over my head like so many errant starship lasers. Yet even way back then I loved the way the movie misbehaved and broke the fourth wall. The scene where Dark Helmet and Colonel Sandurz are watching Spaceballs at the same exact moment we are had me in stitches every time. It wouldn’t be until many years later that I’d come to understand how fundamentally postmodern moments like this are, that infinitely recursive shot of us watching Moranis become us watching Moranis become us, and on and on forever. Ludicrous speed, indeed.
To a lesser extent, but still hilariously amusing to a 15 year-old me, Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) enriched my Brooksian comedic vocabulary. Men in Tights was 19 years ago (how’s that for making you feel nice and old) but more importantly it was 19 years after Brooks’ masterpiece Blazing Saddles. To be heartlessly critical, Men in Tights, and to some extent, Spaceballs, are merely recycled versions of Blazing Saddles; the same warmed over jokes appear in the latter films, retrofit to the appropriate genre, the same warmed over actors reprising bit character parts. I won’t go so far as to disparage those later movies, but if the casting leads on Men in Tights hadn’t been pitch perfect (in particular Elwes and Chapelle) the movie could have very easily been pretty damn dire.
This is all a very long way of introducing a movie that is basically peerless.
There are no viable excuses for it taking me 38 years to finally watch it. Well, other than the 5 years that it existed before I was alive. But other than those, no excuse!
The western is a deified film genre. Westerns may no longer be fashionable, and not all of the films have aged well, but there are plenty that turn up regularly on Best Films of All Time lists. As such, it is enormously ripe for parody. Particularly a genre that is so infamous for glancing the other way when the topic of race is brought up. Posse (1993) has its own way of talking about race and the western (somewhat akin to how Tarentino weaves a bit of wish fulfillment into the story of Jewish soldiers during WWII in Inglorious Basterds) but the humor there, and there’s plenty of it, is a self-conscious, knowing sort, nowhere near the broad strokes painted in Blazing Saddles.
I mean for pity’s sake the title itself is a fart joke. You don’t get more populist than that.
My wife, who didn’t stay up to watch this one with me, knows enough about the movie from her father to ask, “what did you think of ‘The Scene’?” Because I’m no longer 12 year’s old I had trouble inferring what she and her father meant by this question. L looked at me with curiosity then added, “You know, the camp-fire scene.” Then it hit me. She was talking about the fart scene, because Blazing Saddles is a movie that has become famous for a scene where the only dialogue is a sequence of explosive flatulence. It’s comedy equivalent of the extended homicide investigation scene from The Wire where Bunk and Jimmy solve a crime by communicating with each other by solely using the word ‘Fuck.’ It’s that kind of legendary.
The other moment of the film that is most often addressed is the finale which doesn’t so much as break the fourth wall as much as reconstruct it, tear it down and burn the remains to an ashy pulp. Some of the more cartoon-logic bits in Blazing Saddles can leave you rolling your eyes if you’re not a fan of Chuck Jones style visual comedy, the construction of a toll in the middle of a dusty hard-pan that a bunch of thugs feel inexplicably compelled to pass through comes to mind. Also, the reconstruction of an entire town’s main street facades is sure to fool a rampaging mob into sparing the real version. The genius of this bait and switch is that Brooks is only setting the table. He runs this gag and then immediately one-ups himself by having his climactic battle scene spill out of the fictional setting, into the studios where it is being filmed, over into the commissary, down the road and of course, back into an actual theater where the film itself is being shown. The cherry on top is our heroes heading off into the sunset, not on a pair of tireless steeds but in a executive limo.
As refreshing as it’s satirical analysis of race in the western genre is, Blazing Saddles has some horrible moments of gay-panic and homophobic one-liners. These are only slightly mediated by the utter buffoonishness of any and all heterosexual relationships the film has to offer, but still. All in all, the film is fast-paced romp and a welcome dash of humor in a genre as grim as they come.
Next Up: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)