Friday, February 07, 2014

Mel Brooks' Masterpiece?

"If you shoot him, you'll just make him mad."

Jim (Gene Wilder)

A friend of mine recently observed, after watching it again, that "Blazing Saddles" is still good after 40 years. "Why is that?" she asked.

I guess the answer to that is different for everyone. In my case, it's just always funny, no matter how many times I see it. Some movies (or sitcom episodes or comedy CDs) are like that. They always make me laugh, even though I know what is coming.

Others have much shorter shelf lives.

But "Blazing Saddles," which premiered on this day in 1974, always makes me laugh. It's one of those movies that you can just say the punchline and usually make the people around you laugh.

Such as ... "Mongo like candy." (I suppose that is my personal favorite.)

"Blazing Saddles" was like anything else Mel Brooks did. It was simply silly fun, usually offensive to someone, in some respects a guilty pleasure, I guess.

It might have been his masterpiece, though.

Whatever you might say about any other Mel Brooks movie — that, for example, it was not politically correct — went double for "Blazing Saddles."

In many ways, Brooks seemed to save his most objectionable stuff for "Blazing Saddles."

Like this line (delivered by Slim Pickens) on testing for quicksand: "Horses? We cain't afford t' lose no horses, you dummy! Send in a couple–a niggers."

The "N–word," as it is called now, was abundant in "Blazing Saddles." I can only wonder what kind of response this movie would get if it was making its debut today. Would people appreciate the satire? Or would they focus only on the use of an offensive word?

The head of Warner Bros. objected to the word at the time — but he also objected to the campfire scene and the scene in which Mongo punched a horse, two of the scenes I hear mentioned the most. He wanted those scenes and every use of that word cut from the final product, but Brooks had complete control and ignored the complaints.

A few years ago, in an interview that served as the basis for an article in the Directors Guild of America's magazine, the DGA Quarterly, Brooks said he probably would have to leave out the N–words if he made the movie today.

Interestingly, both actor Cleavon Little and writer Richard Pryor encouraged the word's use 40 years ago.

Frankly, it would be wrong for anyone to take offense at anything Brooks said or did in his movies. He was impartial about that, an equal–opportunity offender. He made fun of blacks, but he made fun of whites, too. He made fun of Jews, but he also made fun of Christians. He made fun of women, but he also made fun of men. He spared no one.

I have always thought his humor was — mostly — just plain silly. If I had a complaint about Brooks' humor, it was that I often thought it lacked sophistication. Sometimes I thought his humor was a little, well, obvious. I like wit that catches you by surprise. But that's just me. There have certainly been times over the years when I have felt that the humor on Saturday Night Live was just plain silly, lacking sophistication, a little obvious. But I still watch it. (OK, I don't watch it as often as I did, but I do watch it.)

I guess it isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it seems to appeal to most people in a guilty pleasure kind of way. I always liked what Roger Ebert said about it: "It's a crazed grabbag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken."

Ebert conceded that the movie's goal wasn't lofty — merely to make people laugh.

"It's an audience picture," Ebert wrote, "it doesn't have a lot of classy polish and its structure is a total mess."

And, yet, Brooks always makes me laugh. Saturday Night Live does that, too. Not as much as it once did, but still ...

Did you know that Brooks wanted John Wayne to make a cameo appearance? Wayne declined. He loved the script and assured Brooks he would be "the first in line" to see the movie, but he thought the risqué material wasn't right for his image.

Others have been more willing to publicly embrace the movie. The American Film Institute ranked it #6 on AFI's list of the Top 100 comedies. And the Academy Awards recognized it with three nominations.

Madeline Kahn received one of those nominations — for Best Supporting Actress, which she lost to Ingrid Bergman. It was Kahn's second straight Best Supporting Actress nomination. She was nominated for her work in "Paper Moon" but lost to co–star Tatum O'Neal.

For my money, Harvey Korman could have received a nomination. At one point in the movie, his character actually does say, "You men are only risking your lives while I am risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor."

But Korman was not nominated. The movie received its two other nominations for film editing and best original song.

He could have been nominated. It was one of the best things he ever did. Likewise for Kahn, who was nominated.

And it is one of the best things Wilder has done. (Wilder wasn't nominated for "Blazing Saddles," but he has been nominated for Oscars twice, both times for Brooks projects.)

All the folks who worked on "Blazing Saddles" deserve to have it mentioned in the lead paragraphs of their obituaries when they die — as it was when Kahn's death was reported in the New York Times in 1999 and when Korman's death was reported in the Los Angeles Times in 2008.