I’ve been a fan of Mel Brooks for as long as I can remember. The first movie of his that I saw was Spaceballs. The humor is sophomoric and obvious and low-brow and terrible and hilarious. I loved it. Over the years, I have watched all the other movies he made, and have mostly enjoyed them all. Whether it was the genius of The Producers or the sheer insanity of History of the World: Part One, Brooks always had me laughing. His best movie is without a doubt Young Frankenstein, which is also one of the greatest comedy films of all time. The one movie of his that I never seemed to get around to until recently was Blazing Saddles.
This 1974 movie was not the first that Mel Brooks directed, but it was probably the one that really put him on the map for the public at large. Supposedly, it is a hilarious, classic film that should be watched by all movie fans. At least that’s what the film-fags say. Of course, having enjoyed all of Brooks’ other works, I expected them to be right. It turns out the film-fags were wrong again.
Blazing Saddles is, for lack of a better word, shitty. I wish there was another word I could use to articulate what a bloated, excessive, nonsensical, boring piece of crap this movie is. But no other word better encompasses all of those things than: shitty.
The movie starts out promising. As an apparent parody of a Western film, it begins with one of the genre’s biggest plot cliches: an evil railroad company wants to build their newest line right through a small town, and is trying to buy out its residents. The residents who won’t sell are intimidated by a band of thugs. The residents, sick of being treated badly, hire a new, honest sheriff to save the day. The catch is that the sheriff is black.
SINCE EVERYBODY IS A HUGE RACIST THEN HILARITY WILL INEVITABLY ENSUE!
Brooks seems to think that just because the sheriff is black, and the townspeople are racist, the movie is automatically funny. I’ll give him kudos on the premise, because it is ripe for mining comedy gold. However, that’s where he stops. The racist angle is hardly expanded upon. He seems to think the premise alone is enough to carry the film, but it’s not. Here’s a look inside my own head as I was watching Blazing Saddles:
Me: Oh, that’s a great premise. This should be a funny movie.
Me: You know, this is kind of boring. There aren’t any jokes.
Me: Jokes? What are those?
Me: Those things that have a set-up and a punch-line, and make you laugh at the end. The kind of thing you see in comedy movies.
Me: Oh, those?
Me: Yeah, those.
Me: This movie doesn’t have any jokes.
Me: Do you think Mel Brooks forget to include them?
While Brooks did give this movie a perfect set-up, he forgot to include any of the punch-lines. We get the fact that the situation has the potential for humor. We want to laugh at it. But without any follow-through, we can’t laugh. We just sit there in anticipation, hoping for something hilarious to happen, and it never does. The story just sort of meanders around with not much really going on, and the longer it goes without a joke, the more annoying the movie becomes.
I suppose the racist angle is continued to some degree as lots of people say racist shit. The word “nigger” gets said about eleven-thousand times. But just saying racist shit doesn’t make the movie funny. Without it being amidst a joke (or at least humorous situation), then it isn’t funny, it’s just a word.
So, the movie drifts along without any clear direction. A huge chunk of the running time isn’t even focused on the black sheriff, but rather boring side characters that weigh the pacing of the film down amidst their tedium. Among these character are Governor Le Petomane (played by Mel Brooks) and Lili von Shtupp (played by Madeline Kahn). Their scenes drag on incessantly with nothing of note happening. Brooks and Kahn look like they are having a good time, like they are taking part in a hilarious movie, but the hilarious movie certainly wasn’t this one. I’m not sure why they are having such a good time, other than the fact that they are just fucking around on-camera and getting paid big bucks for it.
Kahn’s scene in particular, a big musical-dance number, seems to last around 4 hours. The pacing could have been better. A skilled editor could have chopped out the huge swaths of scenes where nothing much is happening in order to pick up the pace. And considering this movie is only 93 minutes long, well, that’s saying something. Of course if they properly edited it, the movie would probably only be about 20 minutes long.
Some of the jokes that do exist are so narrow in scope they can be easily missed. For example, The Waco Kid (played by Gene Wilder) says, “I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille.” Um. LOL? Upon further research, I learned that DeMille was a famous director who did not take the safety of his cast and crew under much consideration. You know, any time you have to look up a joke to see why it’s funny, it’s failed. I’m not advocating all comedies have extremely broad jokes. Movies and TV shows should have humor that require some wit and ingenuity, and not be just a bunch of fart jokes. Lord knows we already have enough Adam Sandler movies. But when the jokes require the audience to have intimate knowledge of 1930s-50s Hollywood, you are skewing way too narrow.
Topical humor, while funny in the moment, never ages well. Blazing Saddles has stuff that was probably a laugh riot in the 1970s, but 40 years later falls completely flat. (Such as the running gag about Hedy Lamarr – whoever the hell that is.) Part of that is the racist shit. Race relations and calling people “nigger” a lot were probably hilarious to movie-goers of the 1970s. But today, it doesn’t come across as either offensive or funny. It’s just more WTF than anything else. The rest of the humor is a time-capsule of the era the movie came from. It would be a good example for an anthropologist to see what passed for comedy in the 1970s. But it would not be a good example of an “all time classic” comedy film, simply because the humor doesn’t work for anyone who didn’t live in that era. Truly classic comedies (or films in general) should have a timeless quality to them and can be seen and appreciated by people of any age. They should not require you to look up their jokes to understand them. A better example of a film from the same era would be National Lampoon’s Animal House, a movie whose humor develops from the characters and situations, rather than an underdeveloped concept and obscure references.
The final problem is that Brooks clearly has no idea what he wants his movie to be. At times it tries to be a parody of a Western, other times a zany over-the-top film, and later it tries to be a wild, fourth-wall breaking extravaganza. The film shifts settings and tones so frequently there is very little continuity. What starts out as a parody of the Western genre ends in a bizarre scene in which the movie spills out into the movie studio lot, and the characters chase each other through other film sets, the studio cafeteria, and end at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for the premiere of Blazing Saddles. To be honest, this was the only part of the movie I actually found to be enjoyable. It did mark an unexpected shift, and I was certainly caught off guard by it. While there were still no jokes, the absurdity of the situation was mildly humorous.
Overall, Blazing Saddles is a very weak film. The humor (if you can even call it that) is extremely bland and practically non-existent. The jokes, when they do come, are both too narrow in scope, and too dated to be funny or even relevant to anyone who hasn’t been alive at least 50 years. The pacing of the film drags, and overall it’s just a huge bore. The only joke that actually really works doesn’t even come from this film, but rather as a reference to it from Mel Brooks’ later movie, Robin Hood: Men in Tights. At the end of that movie, Ahchoo gets hired as sheriff, people scoff at the concept of a black sheriff, and he replies, “And why not? It worked in Blazing Saddles.” It’s sad that the best part of Blazing Saddles is a joke from another movie.
Surprisingly, I don’t hate Blazing Saddles. It’s not the worst movie out there. It doesn’t really do anything for me one way or the other. I certainly don’t hate it with the fury of a thousand suns like I do The Hustler. But it isn’t a good movie. It isn’t even an average movie. It is an out-and-out shitfest. I suppose Brooks was trying to be experimental, but he ended up just taking a giant dump on celluloid. Don’t waste your time watching this piece of crap. Brooks has a lot of movies that are far better.
Check out these other entries in the Classically Shitty series: