Review: Blazing Saddles

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

The first wave of reviews said it was hilarious; the second, that it wasn’t that funny. I caught it on the third wave and it was almost that funny—assuming, that is, that you have a stomach for unrelenting bad taste, dirty jokes, and goodnatured, let’s-be-egalitarian-and-offend-everybody racist references. That wasn’t structured as a putdown—I have one of those stomachs myself. But halfway through Blazing Saddles I suddenly realized I’d guffawed good and hard at quite a few things along the way, but I could call almost none of them to mind. Like Friedkin and Blatty in their department, Mel Brooks tends to shock and run. I’d probably laugh a second time at Slim Pickens’s riding up and demanding “Whut in th’ wide wide world uh sports is goin’ on here?!” because, although it’s a dumb joke, it and Pickens were both funny the first time and Pickens would still be delightful the second. I wouldn’t be caved in a second time when John Hillerman pretentiously invokes Nietzsche and David Huddleston responds, “Ah, blow it out your ass, Howard!” with a ten-gallon scowl, because that gag lacks even the whimsy of “wide wide world of sports” and depends purely on surprise to work at all. Both Hillerman and Huddleston have done fine comic turns in the past (for Bogdanovich in What’s Up, Doc? and Newman-Benton in Bad Company, respectively; and there was also Hillerman’s truly menacing job as the sheriff—and his bootlegger brother—in Paper Moon), but Brooks encourages them to turn in only the broadest, most insubstantial, TV-variety-sketch performances.

In some measure, then, I must agree with the second-wavers: it isn’t that funny, in that the really good screen comedies, silent and sound, have depths of behavioral style and beauty, a multiplicity of comic—and dramatic—reference, and a sturdy—and sometimes very graceful—sense of form, all of which assure satisfaction on repeat viewings. Brooks’s direction is formless (Woody Allen is trying harder in this area, and has cinematographer David M. Walsh to help him): he just slaps stuff on the screen. This time he’s using a Panavision screen because he can get more stuff on it, and also because that’s consistent with his spoofing of big westerns and oldfashioned Hollywood vulgarity that begins promisingly with a reprise of the old Warner Brothers shield and the Max Steiner studio fanfare. I remember that logo and music fondly, and I feel fondly disposed toward Brooks for liking them enough to make fun of them. That sense of affection, or caring in any form, is absent from most of the film. When Cleavon Little, as a black sheriff who’s been appointed for the express purpose of getting killed, and Gene Wilder, as an alcoholic but serenely self-possessed gunfighter named the Waco Kid, sit around in Little’s office and become buddies, the movies taps some of the players’ natural charm, and the moment glows in the memory. Madeleine Kahn is devastatingly thorough in her Marlene Dietrich takeoff and has just enough time to make a good chunk of the film experience hers before the script forgets about her. But mostly the performances and the movie run down, become tedious and shrill. Brooks finally gives up trying to have Blazing Saddles go anywhere and opts for a banal it’s-only-a-movie copout at the end. It’s a complete copout because, for Mel Brooks, Director, it isn’t a movie, not yet.

RTJ

BLAZING SADDLES
Direction: Mel Brooks. Screenplay: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger, after a story by Andrew Bergman. Cinematography: Joseph Biroc. Music: John Morris; songs by Morris and Mel Brooks.
The Players: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, David Huddleston, John Hillerman, Liam Dunn, Alex Karras, Mel Brooks, Robyn Hilton, Dom DeLuise.

Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson