Mark G's Blog
As I am sure many of the friends of the 10 Spot are well aware, a national treasure was lost on this past Thursday. I am of course speaking of Mr.Harvey Korman, a.k.a. Hedy "That's Hedley" Lamarr. Seeing as I have a long and storied history with Mr. Korman's most infamous (it means "more than famous") character I decided to saddle up for an evening viewing of "Blazing Saddles." Where do I start? (Spoiler Alert: the following assumes you have seen the movie.)

The most obvious critique of Blazing Saddles is its frank discussion of race relations in the U.S. At the time it was made (1974) the civil rights movement was just beginning to bear its fruit. This was a time when an on-screen inter-racial romance was still considered a ballsy move but a portrayal of a black hero was far from unheard of (see "Shaft" (1971)). So, along comes a Mel Brooks comedy that uses language that would never be green-lit today unless it was a Spike Lee joint. Or so I hear. All I know is that when I first saw this movie at about the age of 12 I laughed my butt off. More importantly: I got it. I understood that the morons tossing around epithets were just as ignorant as the language they used. I understood that the heroes - Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) and Jim, The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) succeeded because they weren't trapped by small-mindedness. Instead they worked together to stamp out the idiots who were trying to destroy a peaceful town being built in the wilderness - and all despite the best efforts of the townsfolk to hold on to their own inherited biases. In this sense, Blazing Saddles played the Western allegory as an awakening of the national consciousness of the 1960s that had come into full effect by the 70s. Specifically, it showed that once a few people from both sides of the racial divide got together they could prove that being one people was better than being two and, in the end, life was better for everyone. Even the Irish.

Aside from the message of "Blazing Saddles," I noticed several other things that make this movie great. Foremost - the little things. As I noted before, I first saw this movie years ago, and I have seen it many times since. As a result, I could annoy the hell out of you when watching it by belting out the most memorable lines well before the occur. Nonetheless, upon this latest re-viewing I was laughing out loud at all the little things that I had forgotten about. Two things really got me going: the physical gags (AG Lamarr bumping his head on the window, the subtle cringe as Bart puffs a home-rolled "cigarette") and the throw-away lines (Bart's disbelieving "You must be pulling my lariat" or an unlucky townsman calling "That's the end of this suit!" as he gets dragged through the mud by bandits). Even the now-obscure references to then-famous personalities aren't a big throw. In fact, they are quite funny if you take the time to figure them out (hint: Hedy Lamarr was a famous actress, Randolph Scott a famous star of the western film sagas that "Saddles" spoofs). Amongst all the things I forgot four really stood out.

First was Madeline Kahn's performance. I was completely blown away when she showed up for about 10 minutes and stole the show. Wow. Not a single moment on screen was wasted. When she sings "I'm Tired" she sings it like a weary WWII Berlin lady-of-the-evening who just spent five years servicing the Wehrmacht. She sells the character with every word, expression, and punctuation. Moreover, she carries it through to every scene thereafter, whether she's seducing Bart like with the same game she has used a thousand times before or leading hired Naz-i thugs in a sing-along (remember, the movie's set in 1874). And it's not just me. I didn't know this until watching the special features but apparently the Academy agreed and gave Ms. Kahn a nomination for best supporting actress (I'm sure the irony was not lost on Mr. Korman, given his famous line towards the end of the flick).

Second was the aforementioned Mr. Korman as main villain Hedley Lamarr. He plays it so straight as the evil bureaucrat that you can't help but hate him through the giggles. Here's a guy who organizes a gang of thieves through a sign up sheet. In perhaps the single funniest moment in a movie filled with funny moments, he takes a prospective gang-member to task for chewing gum in line ("I hope you brought enough for everybody." - BANG!). I have no words. Rest in peace, sir. And I mean Mr. Korman, not the guy he shot.

Third was Boris the hangman. He probably has about two minutes of screen time (apparently all uncredited). He is THE prototype for Will Ferrel and other "weird humor" protagonists, an inexplicable medieval hangman dropped into the American West, swaying back and forth with an unknown disease (plague? polio?) all while sputtering about his booked hanging schedule and planting kisses on condemned men bound to wheel-chairs.

Fourth was the deleted scenes. As mentioned ad nausea, I first saw Blazing Saddles as a child. And, I distinctly recall that Sheriff Bart went through several Bugs Bunny scenarios before capturing Mongo (fun fact -Richard Pryor pretty much wrote these scenes single-handedly). I also recalled that Sheriff Bart and The Waco Kid ran across a baptismal party during their escape from the bandits led by Slim Pickens (a.k.a. Mr. Taggart). I thought I was crazy for several years, as every subsequent version of "Saddles" I have seen lacked these scenes. Viewing the deleted scenes on the DVD-version finally dispelled my notions of insanity and affirmed that they did exist. Thank you, DVD.

The last thing I wanted to mention, which is also mentioned on the DVD extras (although I was aware of before), is that Richard Pryor was originally cast as the hero, Sheriff Bart. Watching the movie, I couldn't help but wonder how different it would be with Pryor in the lead instead of Cleavon Little. Little's performance ranges from functional to hilarious - especially when given the chance to delivers Pryor-writ lines (albeit with Little's own cold-chill 70's style). That said, if there is any sparse performance it is Little's. Everyone else seems to be begging for more lines to kill your funny bone, from the ignorant bandits to the ignorant townsfolk (notably the Preacher and Olson Johnson, a.k.a. the guy who is a dead-ringer for Fred Thompson). Little's performance often seems to pale next to the other stars, most notably Slim Pickens, a surprisingly subdued Gene Wilder, and a not-so-surprisingly-over-the-top Mel Brooks. But in the end, I think that Little holds the movie together better than Pryor could have. He lets all the stars in the ensemble cast shine instead of blotting out their light. Moreover, when it's his turn to come out he delivers as cool as if he was kicking back in the club ("Bita, Baby").


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