Welcome to Commentary Commentary, one of our longest-running columns. Every week, we sit down with a new film and explore what we can learn from the filmmaker commentary track on its home video release. This one is about Mel Brooks’ 1974 film Blazing Saddles.
Coming off a successful career in television and two smaller pictures (The Producers in 1968 and The Twelve Chairs in 1970), Mel Brooks took a chance on a western comedy. This was before the days of Airplane! and The Naked Gun, decades before Scary Movie, and a generation of time (and quality) from Meet the Spartans and A Haunted House. Brooks broke all sorts of social and decency taboos with Blazing Saddles, from the subversive racial commentary to the orchestra of cowboy farts around a campfire.
Blazing Saddles turns 40 in 2014, which makes it as good of a time as any to look back on the production with Mel Brooks himself.
The commentary on the original Blu-ray release comes from the initial DVD release back in the late 1990s, but it still has a lot to say about this comedy classic.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Commentator: Mel Brooks (co-writer/director)
1. The title of the film went through various names. The original script written by Andrew Bergman (which was much shorter than feature-length) carried the title Tex X (a reference to Malcolm X). The executives at Warner Bros. wanted the name changed because it sounded too much like a blaxploitation film that would only have a limited market. Brooks then suggested Black Bart, but the executives would not approve it. His next title was The Purple Sage in reference to a 1912 Zane Grey novel, but the executives thought it was too archaic. Eventually, while in the shower, Brooks came up with the title Blazing Saddles. His wife, Anne Bancroft, thought it was a senseless title, but Brooks defended it, saying that it said: “western” with the word Saddles and “crazy” with the word Blazing.
2. When given the original script to read, Brooks knew it needed to be fleshed out, so he hired a large group of writers, like what he worked with Your Show of Shows. He kept Bergman as a writer (which was unheard of at the time), and he hired Richard Pryor who was known mostly for his stand-up because he needed a black writer on the project about a black sheriff.
3. Brooks claims to have written most of the black sheriff jokes, while Pryor apparently wrote most of the Mongo jokes.
4. The movie cost $2.6M, which did not leave much for above-the-line costs. Brooks’ fee was $50,000 total for writing, directing, and “sweeping up.”
5. Warner Bros. executive John Calley was the inside supporter of the film. Brooks even went to him, worried that he might be turning off the audience with the farting scene, the punching of the horse, and with Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn) in the dark with Bart (Cleavon Little) yelling “It’s twue! It’s twue!” when she unzips his pants. Calley told Brooks: “Mel, if you’re gonna go up to the bell, ring it!” So Brooks left the jokes in the picture.
6. Originally, Brooks wanted Pryor to play Bart, but Warner Bros. nixed the idea because of his reputation for using drugs.
7. While auditioning Madeline Kahn, Brooks asked to see her leg. Kahn was skittish about this, asking him if he was “that kind of director.” Brooks assured her he was a happily married family man, but explained that while she could act like Marlene Dietrich, she also had to have the body to pull it off as well.
8. Film and television director Claude Ennis Starrett Jr. once did an impromptu impression of Gabby Hayes for Brooks in the commissary. It left such an impression on Brooks that when he was casting Blazing Saddles, he called Starrett and asked him to play Gabby Johnson.
9. Gene Wilder petitioned Brooks to cast him as the Waco Kid, but Brooks wanted an older, grizzled actor with lines in his face. Dan Dailey was Brooks’ original choice, but the actor didn’t think his eyesight was good enough. Brooks later asked John Wayne to play the role, but Wayne thought the script was too dirty (though he thought it was hilarious and promised to be first in line to see the movie when it came out). Eventually, Brooks cast Gig Young because he was a grizzled alcoholic in real life and fit the part. However, on the first day of shooting (which covered the Waco Kid waking up in the jail cell), he suffered from severe withdrawal from alcoholism. After calling an ambulance and shutting down production for the day, Brooks desperately called in Wilder, who eased right into the part. The production ended up only losing half of a day because they had shot Little’s coverage and only had to shoot Wilder’s coverage for that first scene.
10. Once on the film, Wilder pitched Young Frankenstein to Brooks, and they worked on the script after production wrapped.
11. Hedy Lamarr famously sued the production for using the name Hedley Lamarr for Harvey Korman’s character (a case of life imitating art because the movie includes a joke about him suing her). The studio settled out of court for only a couple thousand dollars, and Brooks personally apologized for “almost using her name.” He contends that Lamarr never got the joke.
12. Alan Johnson choreographed the German soldiers dancing in Lili Von Shtupp’s song “I’m Tired.” He also choreographed “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers and did some work on Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
13. Cinematographer Joseph Biroc used two cameras for most of the scenes so the takes would edit together easier. Brooks adopted this technique and has since used it for all of his films.
14. Frankie Laine, who performed the title song “Blazing Saddles,” never knew the film was a comedy. From this, Brooks learned that an absurd situation played straight makes for great comedy.
15. When the film was screened for executives at Warner Bros., there was very little laughter, and complete silence in the room after the film ended. The executives considered not giving the film a wide release because they felt the ethnic and racial humor was too narrow. Calley convinced them to sleep on the decision, and that night, Brooks arranged another screening. Using the secretaries in the offices, they got the word out to the regular people working at the studio to come to the screening, and they called the cast to bring their friends. The movie was a huge hit with this crowd, and word soon got back to the executives the next day. From this, the big shots agreed to give the film a wide release.
16. After seeing the film, chairman of Warner Bros. Ted Ashley did not know Brooks had final cut of the film, so he gave him various notes. Ashley wanted all instances of the N-word removed, he wanted to lose the farting scene as well as Mongo (Alex Karras) punching out the horse, and he wanted the scene of Lili Von Shtupp in the dark with Bart taken out. Brooks obediently took notes on a sheet of paper, but as soon as Ashley walked away, Brooks crumpled it up and threw it away. They ended up cutting nothing and releasing the film as it was.
17. Brooks refuses to watch the broadcast TV edit of the film because he believes all the comedy has been stripped out of the movie.
18. Well after the film’s initial release on February 7, the studio made 250 new prints to re-release it in the middle of the year because Warner Bros. did not have a major release for the summer months.
19. The film received many complaints, mainly from animal lovers who objected to Mongo punching out a horse and people complaining about the film’s liberal use of the N-word. According to Brooks, most of the letters complaining about it were from white people.
Best in Commentary
- “We had things that were really scary, like the farting scene. Could we do that? I mean, I mean, talk about political. We didn’t even know the word politically correct or incorrect. There was no such word. But we knew that a lot of farts had never been done in a movie.”
- “It was the first movie I ever made that got to Texas. Everybody in Texas loved it. It’s very strange. Maybe they loved it from both sides.”
- “It’s still paying for my beans, in video.”
The biggest disappointment in listening to Brooks’ commentary for Blazing Saddles is that he cuts out of the film just before the one-hour mark. This is probably a result of it being recorded as a scene-specific commentary for the original DVD release, which would also explain why he jumps around the story as he talks about the film. I’m curious how this was recorded, whether Brooks actually watched the movie while he talked or whether someone just chatted him up for an hour to reminisce.
The audience does feel Brooks’ passion for his film in the commentary, particularly in the less technically interesting scenes where he summarizes what happens in a scene (which is usually not the one playing at the time). There is a certain amount of warmth that comes with hearing him recount his favorite scenes, but it makes for a bit of a choppy commentary.
Still, the information contained in the track is good. Sure, you’ve probably heard many of the stories before (such as how Brooks took notes from a studio head and promptly tossed them out after the screening), but they’re still nice to hear again in a more casual, conversational tone.
The truncated, choppy commentary isn’t worth the price of the disc, but that’s okay because the movie itself certainly is.
Read more in the Commentary Commentary archives.