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Gene Wilder

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.

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Review: Young Frankenstein

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

If I suggest that Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein is more fond than funny, I don’t mean at all to imply that it isn’t funny. It is. But the first response of any devotee of classic horror films, especially the cycle out of Universal Studios in the Thirties and early Forties, must have to do with Brooks’s—and Wilder’s, but especially director Brooks’s—conspicuous scrupulousness about and passionate love for the old films he’s remembering and celebrating. No opportunistic schmuck out to poke facile fun at antique movies is going to bother setting up his camera in such a way that it will observe Frederick (Froedrich?) von Frankenstein carefully framed at his breakfast table by two gracefully curving chairbacks; in such niceties of style even more than the restoration of the “original” laboratory equipment does Brooks reveal himself a true obsédé and an honorable heir to the eerily delicate comic-horror tradition of James Whale.

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Videophiled: ‘Blazing Saddles’ at 40 and ‘Thunderbirds’ are Blu!

BlazingSaddlesBDBlazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray)

Years ago, when singer Frankie Laine was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, he confessed that when he was engaged to record the theme song to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), he was not told that the film (and the song) was a spoof. He simply thought it was a bad song that he gave lines like “He rode a blazing saddle” a gravity that defies the painful lyric. Which was what Brooks wanted all along. It’s my favorite story behind one of the funniest movies ever made (it was in fact voted the sixth funniest movie of all time in an AFI poll) and one of the most audacious satires of racism to come out of Hollywood.

Mel Brooks came to Blazing Saddles on the success of The Producers, a film that also flirted with bad taste close to edge of offensiveness, but for this spoof he charged over the line with a brilliant staff of co-writers, including Andrew Bergman (The In-Laws), Norman Steinberg (My Favorite Year) and Richard Pryor (who was originally cast in the lead by Brooks but nixed by the studio, apparently nervous over the comedian’s reputation). They stirred racial humor into a broad parody of western movies with satirical lampooning, cartoon slapstick and bathroom humor. The sheer energy and anything-goes inventiveness of the film—quick costume changes, exploding candy boxes and a hulking brute named Mongo (Alex Karras)—suggests at times a live action Tex Avery cartoon. It was comic gold and a smash hit for Brooks.

Cleavon Little is a quick-witted railway worker saved from the gallows by corrupt governor’s aide Hedy (“That’s Hedley!”) Lamar (Harvey Korman) only to be offered up for a sure lynching as the sheriff of a conservative western town under siege from the Governor’s own gangsters. Madeline Kahn is a scream as a lisping Dietrich-like entertainer (she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance) and Gene Wilder provides amiable support and crack timing as the alcoholic ex-gunfighter who joins our stalwart hero. Brooks himself co-stars as the Governor and as a kvetching Indian chief in a brief flashback and Frankie Lane indeed sings the brilliant theme song without a trace of camp (it also received an Oscar nomination). Campfire meals have never been the same since. Watch it. You’d do it for Randolph Scott!

It’s been on both Blu-ray and DVD a number of times already but it turns 40 this year and that calls for an anniversary edition. New to this release is the half-hour featurette “Blaze of Glory: Mel Brooks’ Wild, Wild West,” built around a new interview the Brooks and featuring archival interview clips with Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn, and a collection of postcard-sized stills with comic-strip bubble lines from the film.

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Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, and music scorer John Morris notwithstanding, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is no Young Frankenstein. What’s been crucially left out of the mix is virtually any feeling for those literary and cinematic forebears all but the most couthless of viewers must have in the back or front of mind. The Mel Brooks film’s attention to the traditions from which it sprang supplied it with not only resonance but also more sheer utilitarian structure than its catch-all creator had ever managed to come up with before. Lacking such scrupulousness, Wilder’s own directorial debut (he did help write Young Frankenstein) is reduced to a series of skits and skips—or hops, as it would musically have it—which stand or stumble according to the sweetness and sureness, or vagrancy and lameness, of the momentary shtick. Only one moment early in the film suggests a commitment to comedic extrapolation and embellishment of Conan Doyle’s abundant narrative quirks: As a menacing—and very literal—heavy (George Silver, the Fat Man of Gumshoe) crouches outside Sherlock Holmes’ door, Holmes (Douglas Wilmer) apprises Watson (Thorley Walters) of the fact by way of flashcard—then proceeds to run through a series of cards anticipating Watson’s ensuing reactions and questions.

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Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

by Ken Eisler

It just so happens that I was one of that lonely number who actually liked Mel Stuart’s One Is a Lonely Number some five years back. Couple of Sundays ago I caught up with Stuart’s children’s-pic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, made at about the same time, and I like this one even better. It was fun, too, being part of an audience this time (at a children’s matinee) which patently appreciated the strengths of Stuart’s style. Both One and Wonka are characterized by a peculiar blend of sentiment and acerbity. At times, the sentiment in One tipped over into sentimentality. It was the acerbity, according to report, that got out of hand in Stuart’s contemporaneous feature, I Love My … Wife, a vehicle for the too-busy Elliott Gould of that time. Willie Wonka, a few cloying patches apart, strikes an admirable balance, it seems to me. It’s Gene Wilder, at the top of his form, who makes this uneasy amalgam work, but Stuart must surely deserve some of the credit for setting off and perhaps controlling this actor’s talents. He got an exceptionally good performance from Trish van Devere in One,plus a hilarious character bit from Janet Leigh. Wilder, cast as chocolate factory owner Willie Wonka in this one, doesn’t appear until the movie is at least half over, but his star turn more than repays the long wait.

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