Mel Brooks, undoubtedly one of the most influential comedic voices of his generation and of all time, has left behind an incredible legacy over his near century long life and even at the ripe old age of 97 (as of writing) he’s still capable of making us all laugh. Under the mentorship of Sid Caesar, Mel found his way through Hollywood as a successful joke writer before eventually deciding to expand into film. His debut, The Producers (1968) was a smash hit, and earned the multi-talented comedian his one and only Oscar for Original Screenplay. What particularly made The Producers stand out was that it bravely tackled a taboo subject, namely the horrific legacy of Adolf Hitler in a post-WWII world. After the horrors of the Holocaust came to light at the end of the war, many people believed that it was in bad taste to make any jokes about the atrocities committed during the war, including any mention of Hitler himself. Mel Brooks felt differently, seeing ridicule as the best answer against evil in the world. He believed that by mocking Hitler and the Nazi regime through his comedy, he was robbing them of their power to inspire others that want to emulate them. Mel knew very well that Fascism and xenophobia didn’t go away with the defeat of the Nazi regime during the war, and that the specter of Hitler still haunted humanity for many years afterwards. That’s why his ability to mercilessly mock the imagery of Hitler and the Third Reich in The Producers was such a profound breath of fresh air when it premiered. But Mel would continue to look to other targets for ridicule in many of his future films, including a place that rang a little too close to home in Hollywood.
The year 1974 was the zenith of Mel Brooks’ career as a filmmaker. In that year, he released not one but two comedy masterpieces, both of which remain just as potent and hilarious as they were when they first released. In the Fall of 1974, Mel produced and directed the classic horror spoof Young Frankenstein (1974), which was a farcical delight that at the same time was also reverential to the movies it was spoofing. While most of the movie still holds up as a comedy, it’s also clear that Mel’s working in more of his comedy comfort zone with Frankenstein. The other film, released in the early part of 1974, was a much more risky project for Mel, and one that fifty years later remains the most controversial film of his career. But surprisingly enough, Blazing Saddles (1974) didn’t start out as a Mel Brooks project, but was instead the brainchild of writer Andrew Bergman. Bergman’s premise of a sleepy Western town that’s forced to change once they receive a new sheriff who’s Black instantly appealed to Mel Brooks, who saw the comedy potential in the material. He worked with Bergman to flesh out the comedy even more, insisting to Bergman to write without being “polite.” And touching up the comedy even further, Mel enlisted the help of one of the hottest stand up comedians of that time, the legendary Richard Pryor, who was also instrumental in shaping the racial commentary of the film. But even with all of the comedy legends working together on this movie, the film was certainly going to be a hard sell. Because of the no holds barred nature of the racial comedy, with shall we say very liberal use of a certain racial slur, the script was certainly going to face some roadblocks on the way to getting made. Eventually it found a home at Warner Brothers, and Mel was granted access to one of the most legendary Western movie backlots in Hollywood to bring to life his silly little film. In the shadow of Western sets that the likes of John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Randolph Scott all shot their movies on, Mel Brooks would stage iconic comedic moments like a horse getting punched out by football star Alex Karras, the stunned silent arrival of Sheriff Bart to town, and the climatic brawl that spans the entire studio lot.
What makes the comedy so special in Blazing Saddles is the complete and full sincerity of the cast. Each and every performer fully embodies the absurdist reality of this farcical spin that Mel Brooks has put on the Western genre. The most instrumental casting of course is that of Sheriff Bart himself. Though there was speculation that Richard Pryor himself would step into the role having contributed to the screenplay, Mel was insistent on getting an actor without a comedy background to play the part, as Bart needed to be a grounded character compared to the caricatures of the rest of the cast. He found his Sheriff Bart in Broadway actor Cleavon Little, who perfectly slipped into the role. The crucial part of the character of Sheriff Bart is his confidence; he has to be the smartest person in amongst of whole slew of buffoons, and Cleavon plays that aspect to perfection. His escape from a tense situation at his arrival is brilliantly realized as he uses the townspeople’s blind bigotry against them, leading to a satisfactory punchline where he says to himself, “Baby, you are so talented, and they are so… dumb.” It’s a great summation of his character and Little’s subtle performance aids in making Sheriff Bart work as the heart of the movie. He’s also perfectly matched with Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid. Wilder, who previously work with Mel on The Producers, was not the original choice for the part, as veteran actor Gig Young had originally been cast. However, Young’s drinking problem made him a liability on set, so Mel had to make the choice to let him go and re-cast the part. It took a while for Mel to find the right actor to play the Waco Kid; he even attempted to enlist John Wayne himself at one point, who graciously declined due to the more objectionable aspects of the script. Gene Wilder was reluctant to take the part, think that the part was too restricting for him as a performer, as he referred more bombastic comedy roles. Eventually Wilder relented on the condition that Mel chose Gene’s script as his next project and that’s what led to the making of Young Frankenstein. Despite Wilder’s misgivings, he was perfect for the part and some of the movie’s biggest laughs come directly from him. Rounding out the cast, there are tons of comedy legends including Harvey Korman as the villainous Hedley Lamarr, Madeline Kahn as the vivacious Lilly Von Shtupp (who received an Oscar nomination for her role), Slim Pickens as the dim witted cowboy Taggart, and Mel Brooks himself playing the distracted Governor LePetomane.
Initially, Warner Brothers executives were hesitant in releasing the movie, as the subject matter and unvarnished language made this a very taboo project. Upon the first screening, the executives were stunned silent by the uncomfortably frank way that Mel Brooks addressed racial issues within the film. It was thought that the movie would either get shelved or dumped quietly into theaters in order to bury it as the studio had little faith in it’s success. In the time in which this movie was made, racial tensions in America were still fairly raw. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s had been a tough fought battle for equality and it eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which broke down the Jim Crow segregationist policies of the South. But even a decade later, racial tensions endured, especially as they were inflamed again by political opportunists like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. There were certainly more opportunities growing for black voices in entertainment at the time, as subgenres like Blaxploitation began to emerge, but Hollywood itself was slow to progress with the times. What was particularly pointed in the subtext of Mel’s film was how the Western genre was itself complicit in creating this myth about America’s past; specifically putting an almost exclusively white face on it. There were numerous stories of the old west that centered around African American cowboys and lawmen, but none of them were being told. Sure, Mel Brook’s was approaching this subject in a humorous way, but the critique of Hollywood’s lack of diversity was certainly there as well. Warner Brothers knew very well that this was going to be a controversial movie no matter what. What ultimately led to the film making it to theaters was an internal screening with Warner Brothers staff, much of whom were better representative of what the typical movie going audience would be like, and they were hooting and hollering with laughter the whole way through. Thus, Mel Brooks got his film out into theaters and of course it would go on to become an instant classic.
Looking back on the movie as it now approaches it’s 50 year mark, it is remarkable how well the film holds up. A lot of the comedy, particularly the more slapstick gags still feel timeless. A group of cowboys eating beans and blowing gas around a campfire definitely feels evergreen, especially with the hilariously over the top sound effects used. But, the time that has passed with regard to the racial subjects in the movie put the movie in a different light today than it did then. Race relations are somewhat different today than they were 50 years ago, though there is still a lot about the movie that feels sadly relevant as well. Black representation on film has improved over time, both in front and behind the camera. There are still some lagging factors when it comes to equality though. Just because milestones like electing the first Black president have happened in the recent years doesn’t mean that racial tensions are gone forever. Some would say that they are getting fired up again. This is one aspect where Blazing Saddles is especially relevant to this day. In the film, Hedley Lamarr appoints Bart the sheriff of Rock Ridge knowing full well that the bigoted townspeople would rather abandon the town rather than accept him as their new protector, and that will help him gain control of the land for his own aspirations. A disingenuous politician stirring up racial tensions for his own gain feels all too familiar in today’s political climate. There certainly are aspects of Mel Brook’s comedy that have not aged as well either. Mel certainly is an equal opportunity offender in his many comedies, but there are times when some of the racial jokes fall into the point of gratuitousness. Also if there was something that I think he would rethink in the film, it would be the depiction of the musical performers in the “French Mistake” number as reductive gay stereotypes. It’s all still in good fun, and it’s clear that Mel’s intent is to poke holes in the absurdity of racial bigotry and not to indulge in the ugliness of it. However, over time, some people have lost that context when it comes to celebrating the comedy of Blazing Saddles over the years.
One of the things that has been said a lot about Blazing Saddles is that it’s a movie that could never be made today. There’s a lot of truth to that, as the making of the movie was very much a response to the racial politics of the time in which it was made. But, for some, they use Blazing Saddles as an example of how Hollywood has lost it’s way. There are many critics online who point to this film to say that movies have gotten too “politically correct” or Hollywood has gotten too “woke.” It’s interesting that they would single out Blazing Saddles of all movies as being the film that represents a time in Hollywood that wasn’t “woke” as it’s a movie that honestly is one of the most socially conscious films ever made by a major studio. It was “woke” before that ever became a term. Mel Brooks is and has always been an outspoken defender of civil rights movements in America. Even in his late 90’s, he still speaks his mind on these issues. One of the last social media posts made by his late friend and fellow comedy legend Carl Reiner before his death in 2020 was pictures of Carl and Mel at the latter’s then 94th birthday party, with both of them proudly wearing shirts that said “Black Lives Matter.” Being called “woke” would be a compliment to Mel and not an insult. But, for some reason, the anti-woke crowd wants to claim Blazing Saddles as a movie that speaks for them. You have to wonder, what is it exactly about the movie that they like? It certainly can’t be the criticism of naked racism, as Mel Brooks is clearly making fun of the complicit nature of white bigotry that pervades the Western genre. I shudder to think that the only reason some people like this movie is because of it’s un-censored use of a certain word.
Here’s the thing about the way the movie uses racial slurs in the film. Never in the whole movie is a racial slur meant to be a punchline for laughter. Sure there are situations in which the n-word is skirted around in a hilarious way, like the old prospector character Gabby Johnson getting drowned out by a church bell right as he says the word or when Governor LePetomane asks Hedly Lamarr, “What are you nuts? Can’t you see that that man is a Ni?” But when the actual word is spoken, it’s not taken as a joke, but is instead intend to be a shocking jolt. It also is important to note that the word is said by some of the dumbest and most ignorant characters in the movie. They are the subjects of ridicule in the movie first and foremost, and that’s the intent of the story Mel is trying to tell. Stories of the American West have long glamorized the image of white Americans taming the old west, while whitewashing all of the racial injustices that happened along the way. Primarily it was the slaughtering of Native American tribes that got left out of the myths of the Old West, as indigenous people were reduced to savage obstacles in the way of progress, but also at the same time settlers of other races, including Blacks and Asians, were also left out of the Western myths too. Blazing Saddles breaks down that myth by making it clear to the people of Rock Ridge that bigotry is their own worst enemy and that using a slur is just a sign of their own stupidity and blindness. If there are people out there who find the n-word usage to be the one funny thing from this movie, and that it’s the thing that they lament as not being able to be done today, well, they are telling a lot about themselves then; and also making Mel Brooks’ point for him. As the Waco Kid succinctly says in the movie, “These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”
That’s why it’s a good thing that a movie like Blazing Saddles couldn’t and shouldn’t be made today. Blazing Saddles is a comedy that needed to exist in it’s own specific time; a time where naked bigorty needed to be called out and that Hollywood had to be confronted over it’s own shameful history in perpetuating the stereotypes that fan the flames of racism. It’s a movie that should stand on it’s own and speak across generations. The reason why a movie like it shouldn’t be made today is because I don’t think anyone would be able to offer the same thing that Mel Brook’s added that made the difference; a feeling of hope. Today, comedies are far more cynical and geared toward the irreverent, because the belief is that positivity is a gateway to sappiness. What is important in Blazing Saddles is that in defiance of all the bigotry he faces, Sheriff Bart fulfills his duty as a protector of his town and ends up saving the day in the end. Even more than that, he does so by using his intelligence to win the day, not just outsmarting his enemies but also winning them over to his side. The movie is hopeful about overcoming prejudice, even though it’s still aware about the long arduous road that is, with Sheriff Bart at one point saying, “Someday, they’ll even address me in broad daylight” when talking about the townsfolk he just saved. There are many people who have tried to emulate what Mel Brooks has done with movies like Blazing Saddles, but few capture the same amount of wit and intelligence that his movies contain. There is a very nuanced and pointed commentary about race in America amidst all of the fart sounds and sex jokes. That’s what makes Blazing Saddles such a special comedy; it truly hits so many levels when it comes to comedy, with a sharp satirical edge and a fair amount of broad slapstick for good measure. And it never fails to make us laugh, even after 50 years.