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.