I’ll be straight with you, I’m not exactly in the right frame of mind to review Blazing Saddles after only one viewing, and having seen it by myself. This is a movie that I can imagine being immensely enjoyable if seen with the right people, after you can quote it backwards and forwards. After you’ve seen it so many times that you’ve stopped looking for the point, hopefully because you’ve already found it.
The plot of Blazing Saddles, such that it is, centers around the bad guy’s attempt to clear out a town that his railroad needs to go through. Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) institutes a black sheriff in the town of Rock Ridge, in order to make the citizens so disgusted that they’ll just leave. Having been snatched from the gallows and put in a position of authority, Bart (Cleavon Little) does his best to protect Rock Ridge and win its acceptance. In the process, he makes friends with the local drunk who just so happens to be the fastest gun in the west, the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder). Mel Brooks himself plays a role as the governor, and Madeline Kahn rounds out the cast as a parody of Marlene Dietrich, called Lily Van Shtupp.
First, let it be said, that a lot of Blazing Saddles is hilarious. The humor here is the very definition of politically incorrect, but for the most part, it works. Not always, but usually. As far as I can tell, Brooks’ dominant strategy is bluntness. Everybody says exactly what is going through their mind, with absolutely no filter. It’s funny because it’s unexpected and most people have the good sense not to do that, but it’s also a bit disturbing because if characters in most westerns actually told the truth, they’d sound a bit like the characters in this movie, in spirit anyway. Despite all the anachronisms and the complete and total annihilation of the fourth wall, most western characters would be this racist and generally unsavory, only most real people and films have the sense to sugar coat it. An example, newly installed Sheriff Bart says hello to a sweet looking old lady in the street, who responds bluntly with “up yours, n-.” It’s funny because little old ladies wouldn’t say that, but it’s sad because you can bet that even little old ladies back in the west were thinking something along those lines.
That’s the satire portion of the film, and that’s where the film succeeds the most. The problem is the film keeps going, and dives into a parody of basically everything it touches upon. Though the parody aspect is funny, it sort of ends up diluting the anti-racist message the film has. He was talking about music, but Leonard Bernstein offers the best explanation of the difference between these two techniques that I’ve ever heard: “Satire makes fun of things in order to say something new and possibly even beautiful; in other words, it has a real purpose of its own; but parody, for instance, makes fun of things just for the fun of making fun of them.” There are many examples of jokes focused directly at racism, like the one I talked about above. And then there are just random references to Cecil B DeMille and Atlas Shrugged that don’t have anything to do with racism that drown out the more relevant anti-racism jokes. Brooks’ satire and parody are both brilliantly done, but satire by definition has more of an artistic purpose, so I think the film would have worked better had he toned down the parody and focused on the satire more.
Now, one could argue that the two are inseparable, that Brooks parodies the western, Hollywood, and pop culture at large in order to satirize racism. I can see this argument, but for me, that’s just not how it played out onscreen when I was watching it. I love a good parody as much as the next person; they’re fun and can be quite clever, as this one generally is. But I’ll always prefer satire, and I wish Brooks had as well.
“Oooo baby you are so talented! And they are so dumb!”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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