Racial bigotry. Age discrimination. Cruelty to animals. Sexual exploitation. Crude personal habits. Foul language. Homophobia. Religious intolerance. Limitless greed.
Yes, what’s not to like about Mel Brooks’ controversial cinematic achievement, Blazing Saddles, which was released 40 years ago last month? OK, spare me the hate mail. Let me explain.
Blazing Saddles never could be made today, flooded as it is from the opening scene to the closing credits with enough political incorrectness to fill the fictional town of Rock Ridge. That’s the thing about Mel Brooks. You don’t think he’s going to go there, and then he does.
But Mr. Brooks was not glorifying America’s shortcomings. He was vilifying them, skewering them with his own bizarre sense of humor to show us at our worst.
Several hundred folks gathered downtown recently at the Valentine Theatre to view a special showing of the classic film. People from a variety of backgrounds came together to laugh, and what’s wrong with that? Judging from their awareness of what was coming next, most of them had seen the movie several times.
It never gets old. I’ve watched Blazing Saddles probably two dozen times, and I see something new to laugh at every time.
Counting the screening at the Valentine, I’ve only seen the movie twice in a theater. The first time was during the summer of its release four decades ago.
One day, I had finished my chores for The Blade and decided to head out to a late afternoon matinee of Blazing Saddles. I believe it was at the old Cinema One complex on Secor Road.
Exactly one ticket was sold for that showing. Mine. Imagine watching a movie that funny by yourself. My laughter echoed off the walls, and I wondered to myself whether they would have fired up the projector if I hadn’t shown up.
I knew I was watching a comedic genius at work, a master at pushing the limits. Mr. Brooks would be the guy at a party who could tell an off-color joke so well he’d have everybody in stitches. I’d be the guy who’d tell the same joke and the room would fall silent, embarrassed.
So stunningly executed was Mr. Brooks’ ridicule of what ailed us, not only in 1874 but also a century later, I realized I had a new favorite movie, cast in the same mold as another irreverent Brooks film, The Producers.
Not even his Young Frankenstein, released several months after Blazing Saddles and brilliant in its own way, could quite measure up for me.
Over the years, my son and I have watched Blazing Saddles so many times on DVD that we pretty much have the dialog memorized. Our conversations are often punctuated with lines from the movie:
“Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
“Head ’em off at the pass? I hate that cliche.”
“Can’t you see that’s the last act of a desperate man?” “We don’t care if it’s the first act of Henry V, we’re leaving!”
Or how about: “Badges! We don’t need no stinking badges!” – a nod to John Huston’s 1948 Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
My son calls his fantasy baseball team the Transient Nodes, a reference to a stream-of-consciousness quote by the film’s resident bad guy, Hedy Lamarr (excuse me —that’s Hedley): “My mind is aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.”
I know African-Americans who laughed at Blazing Saddles as much as whites. In fact, Richard Pryor, emerging at the time as perhaps America’s most famous black comedian, was one of the screenwriters.
I wonder how the film’s chemistry would have changed had Mr. Pryor landed the role of Black Bart. It was a role he helped shape, but the studio’s reluctance to cast the unpredictable comic meant Cleavon Little got the part.
President Obama once confided to Mr. Brooks that he saw the movie at age 13 and enjoyed it, joking that he may have used a fake ID to sneak in under the ratings restriction.
I watched the screening at the Valentine in the company of our editorial cartoonist, Kirk Walters, his son Jack, and Blade columnist Keith Burris. What a treat to share the experience with friends who laughed as hard as I did.
There had been vague reports at the Valentine that demonstrators might show up to picket. None did. We’ll call that progress.
We’ve come a long way as a more-tolerant society, but we still have much to do. Maybe the take-no-prisoners insight of Blazing Saddles 40 years ago can still be, as the movie’s self-mocking theme song says, a “torch to light the way.”
I’d love to meet Mel Brooks, and extend to him a laurel and hardy handshake.
Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org