Blazing Saddles could be the most difficult movie to celebrate with a Scenes We Love feature. Not only is it a laugh-a-minute comedy with too many classic moments to narrow down from, but more importantly it is such a politically incorrect work that it’s hard to showcase excerpts that don’t play too offensively out of context of the whole picture. I realized this long ago while listening to shock jock radio and hearing many of the most hilarious quotes from the movie turned into uncomfortable soundbites.
Yet this movie, which turned 40 years old this month, is a masterpiece of satire, slapstick and silliness. It’s one of the most important American comedies ever made, not to mention possibly the funniest in the last half century. Like another classic that recently celebrated an anniversary – Dr. Strangelove, which also features Slim Pickens – it played the nation’s fears and flaws for laughs. With Blazing Saddles, co-writer/director/co-star Mel Brooks lampoons historical and contemporary intolerance, among many other things, as well as the Western genre.
And it remains as relevant as any of the countless movies that have been influenced by it, from near-rip-off comedies like Three Amigos! to fellow subversive takes on systemic racism in 19th century America like Django Unchained. I invite further discussion of Blazing Saddles after this look at a number of my favorite bits, and I welcome mention of any additional scenes you love that I didn’t have room to include.
This early scene is a perfect set up for the kind of humor and commentary the movie continues to deal in for the next hour and a half. Having just met Bart (Cleavon Little), we watch as he and a fellow track layer are selected to check the railroad path for quicksand. They’re sent as an alternative to horses, which Pickens’s uber-bigot character, Taggart, deems too expensive to lose. And after the men do wind up sinking in the muck, Taggart is mostly concerned with recovering the $400 handcar rather than a couple human beings. That isn’t the only repetition of a joke here. We also get the second instance in the first five minutes of near-dead workers being criticized for taking a break. Of course, these bits are still funny each and every time, and Brooks could always get away with recycling, whether immediately or years later in his own movies. Also hilarious is the hardly unique gag of someone taking down another person’s dictation including a part that’s obviously not part of the statement.
One of my all-time favorite comedy scenes, the arrival of newly appointed Sheriff Bart into Rock Ridge is filled with dialogue that you don’t want to quote in public. Particularly those including the n-word. As much as I enjoy the gag involving that word at the start of this scene, with Gabby Johnson (Jack Starrett) being muted by the church bell as he says it, there might have been more of a punchline to the bit had we not already heard the word used plainly beforehand. Same goes for the punchline of its utterance given by Howard Johnson (John Hellerman). Still, Brooks makes it work and it’s funny anyway. The best part is when Bart fools the crowd into thinking he’ll shoot himself, an ironic threat of course since they’re all about to shoot him themselves. It’s one routine where I’ve constantly tried to picture originally intended actor Richard Pryor – who co-wrote the movie – doing it, and I just can’t imagine anyone giving as perfect a performance here than Little.
The Waco Kid
If there’s any actor in retirement who I wish was still in movies, it’s Gene Wilder. He’s sort of the unsung part of Blazing Saddles, because he’s a relatively straight performer amidst all the comical co-stars, including Little, to whom he plays sidekick (ironically, as a drunk, he still gives the most sober performance). Yet just as it’s hard to picture Pryor as Bart most of the time, it’s also hard to imagine anyone – including originally cast Gig Young – as the washed up gunslinger. Two years after this movie, Wilder would actually get his first of four pairings with Pryor (in Silver Streak, where he may have tried to top Blazing Saddles by doing black face), but here he’s got almost as perfect chemistry with Little, enough that leading up to the memorable chess piece bit they are able to have a nice, fairly joke-free talking scene. Some riotous comedies might attempt such a slowed-down moment for character development and exposition, but usually they feel too much like slowed-down interruptions to the humor. There are quieter gags and jokes here that help keep that from being the case, but mostly it’s the two actors who keep the scene entertaining.
Another interruptive moment that modern audiences might not tolerate in new comedies, in spite of its still being really funny, is Madeline Kahn’s musical number, singing “I’m Tired” as Lili von Shtupp. It’s a full-on parody of Marlene Dietrich’s performance of “The Laziest Gal In Town” from Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, and if you think about it, that’s a really long joke. But there is some extra stuff with the German army men joining in the production, kind of a call back to Brooks’s The Producers, maybe? And that’s Brooks as one of them, with all the lines, an often forgotten role by the director, who also plays Governor William J. Le Petomane and the Native American chief in Bart’s flashback. Kahn was one of the funniest ladies in film, it’s twue.
Never Mind That Shit, Here Comes Mongo!
From the iconic horse punch (which Warner Bros. execs wanted removed, along with all the uses of the n-word) to the very direct Looney Tunes gag, Mongo’s arrival into Rock Ridge is one of the most wonderful vignette-like moments of this movie. It became even more wonderful for me once I found out it was Alex Karras who plays the menacing thug – sadly I never realized before the actor died, not once during my youth, that this was the same guy who played Webster’s adopted father. I only heard about another bit of trivia regarding this scene with another death recently: Sid Caesar’s. Apparently he actually did punch a horse in the face once, and that was the inspiration for Mongo’s famous animal abuse.
In that last clip, we see a perfect example of how Brooks both invented iconic movie moments and paid tribute to iconic movie moments of the past in the same sequence. It’s a representation of how cinema moves forward and in circles, how great films build upon others and then contribute to what comes next. And here is another scene that does the same thing. We get Bart and the Waco Kid using the easy disguise of KKK robes, something that’s been done numerous times since (most memorably in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) mixed with a very easy parody of a famous line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This should be how all spoof movies are, derivative by definition yet still totally progressive and fresh and influential in their own right.
The Great Pie Fight
Between Blazing Saddles and the following year’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, period comedy masterpieces were fond of the anachronistic ending. Brooks goes a lot further with his version, as the climactic battle between Rock Ridge and Hedley Lamarr’s hired hands bursts through a Warner Bros. sound stage, onto the set of a ‘30s-style musical then into the studio commissary where a pie fight occurs. You have to love that such a significant satire near-concludes with such a basic slapstick movie trope. And I’m surely not the only person who wishes there were more of these at the end of modern comedies. Moving on, I absolutely love reflexive double entendres, and Lamarr (Harvey Korman) telling a cab driver to take him off the picture is brilliant. But what does he do then? He goes to a movie theater premiering that very picture and winds up seeing his own fate. It’s a bit that will, like many gags and jokes here, be someway recycled for Spaceballs.