Blazing Saddles

Mel Brooks has been in the comedy business for more than half a century, during which time he's probably never met a gag he hasn't liked. Re-released for its 30th anniversary, Brooks' ribald Western send-up Blazing Saddles ranks with The Producers and Young Frankenstein among his funniest work, but it isn't much different in approach from the many awful entries in his see-what-sticks school of genre parody. No comic trope, however musty or studded with whiskers, is off limits, including bad puns, physical shtick, pie fights, goofy names and accents, song-and-dance numbers, Jewish Indians, or just having a bunch of cowpokes farting around the campfire. Some of the jokes drop like lead, but the film's anarchic spirit carries a lot of excitement, because Brooks' anything-goes philosophy means that no comedic possibilities go unconsidered.

Paced with the manic energy of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Blazing Saddles had five credited screenwriters, including Richard Pryor, and they've stuffed a clever plot with endlessly quotable lines and colorful profanities. As part of a nefarious plan to scare the citizens of Rock Ridge away and seize their land, attorney general Harvey Korman sends Cleavon Little, the first black sheriff in the West, to protect their village from a band of murderous thugs. Waiting to greet his arrival with "a laurel, and hardy handshake," the townspeople are initially shocked when they meet Little, but he easily outsmarts them before things turn ugly. With the help of quick-draw legend Gene Wilder, who claims to have "killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille," Little fends off Korman's henchmen through savvy improvisation.

Throughout the film, Brooks is never afraid to let viewers know they're watching a movie: At one point, a jazzy piece of orchestration leads to a shot of the Count Basie Orchestra playing in the middle of a prairie. By the end, the action has broken down into chaos, with Rock Ridge turning into a two-dimensional backlot and a cavalry busting down the walls of a Hollywood soundstage in mid-musical number. Bigger-is-better comedies of this scale tend to suffer from 1941 Syndrome, but the more Blazing Saddles seems in danger of toppling over, the funnier it is, because Brooks is willing to go to any lengths necessary to get a laugh.

The special-edition DVD contains a rambling Brooks commentary and a few unfunny deleted scenes, including an edited-for-television version of the campfire scene that replaces the farting with the sound of whinnying horses. But for bad-TV aficionados, the real find is the 1975 pilot episode of Black Bart, a sitcom adaptation starring a young Lou Gossett Jr. as the "uppity" misfit sheriff. In spite of canned guffaws, there's not a single laugh in Black Bart, but the amount of racial humor deemed suitable for network television is stunning in light of today's more freshly scrubbed standards. Brooks is probably kicking himself for not thinking up the gag where Gossett tries to mount "Whitey" the horse, only to smash his groin on the saddle.

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