Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing_saddles_movie_posterThough it’s easy to be a proponent of Support your Local Sheriff for its sheer scatterbrained zaniness, Blazing Saddles has that and something more to offer, making it arguably the greatest western satire of all time. Brooks took part in all facets of the film as was his normal prerogative and he sets up the introduction with Frankie Laine belting out the main theme with a tremendous gusto that evokes the grandeur of the West. It makes it ten times funnier when the film actually begins to hit its stride. Because it sounds like a western in the beginning, it even looks like a western, and it goes through many of the plot cycles that we’ve grown used to, but in other ways, it’s so fundamentally different.

The most obvious demarcation Blazing Saddles takes in telling its tale of the Old West involves the very fact that Bart (Cleavon Little) is made acting sheriff of the quaint frontier town of  Rock Ridge. In actuality, it’s all part of a nefarious scheme by the local man in black Hedley Lamarr and his right-hand thug Taggart (the iconic Slim Pickens). Hedley Lamarr uses the incompetent, womanizing governor as his pawn to get the new sheriff installed so the town will be sent in an uproar and he can swoop in and buy off all their land. After all, none of the white folk could possibly hope to live in a town with a black sheriff.

So that is the main conflict at the center of Blazing Saddles and it’s absolutely ludicrous and at the same time still somewhat unnerving and telling about American society. Mainstream white society did not really know how to cope with African-Americans and other racial minorities in some ways and even more so they didn’t know what to do with their own amount of messy history. Because it’s true that even in film, the mythic Old West was not very good to Native Americans or Asians and African-Americans were all but nonexistent. And in his film, Brooks takes all of that on thumbing his nose at every archetype as well as political correctness (although that term undoubtedly did not exist as prevalently as it now does throughout our culture).

Supposedly the writer’s room was utter mayhem for this film with Brooks certainly at the center of the mix with the likes of Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman also heavily involved. No matter the amount of chaos, however, the film does come off fairly well. It’s laden with purposely absurd anachronisms like Count Basie’s orchestra, for instance, a medieval hangman’s noose complete with a medieval hangman, and of course, droves and droves of Nazis and other baddies who answer Hedley Lamarr’s call for criminal types of all descriptions.

There’s a local dance hall singer (Madeline Kahn) who does her best Marlena Dietrich knockoff from Destry Rides Again, while Mel Brooks even manages to portray a Yiddish-speaking Native American who allows the segregated black wagon train to pass as the whites get attacked.

Gene Wilder takes on a typically understated role as the town drunk and deputy who shares some traces of Dean Martin’s role in Rio Bravo. Meanwhile, the locals (all named Johnson) gather at their place of worship to have a plaintive dialogue about what they are to do to protect their good names a la High Noon. So there you have it. That’s the film in a very small nutshell as Bart must try to calm the townsfolks fears and quell his enemy all the while trying to not go crazy with all the racist white folk.

Be warned that this film does have funny segments but it also happens to be fairly crude which is not necessarily a surprise. Still, it’s obviously something to consider before watching. But it does seem that sometimes comedy such as this is able to enter territory that we’re squeamish to go in our everyday conversations and more serious moments. Because in some sense maybe comedy can poke fun at all the things we take so seriously — the things we need to lighten up about and connect over by the very fact that we’re all human beings.

However, it can also be pointed, ribbing its audience as it highlights the very things problematic not only in our past but in our present too. And that’s one of the most redeeming things that can be taken out of Blazing Saddles. Sure, you can take it simply as a raucous, inane, often vulgar western comedy from the estimable nut Mel Brooks, but it also speaks a little bit to film’s ability to enter into areas that we as a society still need to address.

The use of the “N” word throughout the film personally makes me tense as that word has so much history and a racial charge going through it. But when Brooks used it, apparently with the vehement backing of Cleavon Little and Richard Pryor, you could even argue that its very use takes some of the power away from those who wish to use it perniciously. But that’s necessary dialogue to have.

The best scene in the film has to be near the end, at the studio, as the camera pulls back and we realize we’re only on a film set. An absolute doozie of a pie fight ensues at the commissary to punctuate the utter tumult that is going down thus far and Hedley is pursued by Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid to the film’s premiere. In the end, they get their man and ride, err, are driven off into the sunset. The fitting ending to arguably Mel Brooks greatest cinematic achievement.  If John Wayne’s any litmus test, Duke famously told Brooks being in the film didn’t fit his image, but he would be the first in line to see it. That gives you a good idea of what you’re in for.

4/5 Stars

Top Secret! (1984)

93bc0-top_secret_ver1From the creators of Airplane! comes this uproarious comedy that parodies everything from Elvis musicals and surf music to spy thrillers and action movies. Nick Rivers is an American pop star known for his surf music and he is invited to the closed off nation of East Germany to perform at a cultural festival. He is advised not to cause any trouble since he is a guest, but pretty soon he meets a pretty girl who is in way over her head. Soon he finds himself involved and they must attempt to rescue her father who is a scientist forced to work for the East Germans. They gain help from the French Resistance and Nick begins to fall for Hillary only to find her long lost boyfriend is leading the resistance. Together they devise a daring plan to get her father out, but unfortunately there is a traitor among them! As would be expected they get away and Nick gets the girl with a bellyful of laughs along the way. If you are looking for a deep plot you won’t find it here. If you want laughs you have come to the right place. I honestly do not remember Airplane! so well, but after seeing this film I want to go back, because this was genuinely hilarious. There are so many great sight gags, slap stick moments, quirky characters, parodies, and verbal jokes. Many pop up when you least expect them making them even better and by the end of the film you begin to expect the unexpected laugh. It’s great. The film includes skeet surfing, a talking horse, a scene played in reverse, cows, and much, much more. Hopefully you enjoy it as much as I did.
 
4/5 Stars

Airplane! (1980)

15556-airplaneStarring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, this is a funny if not quirky parody and comedy. The story opens with the break up of a former pilot who is scared of flying, and his flight attendant girlfriend. She leaves on her flight and he also boards unbeknownst to her. In the air many passengers get food poisoning, but it also affects the pilot and co pilot. After a doctor diagnoses everyone, the attendant messages the control tower and is instructed to activate the autopilot. But someone needs to land the plane so the fearful Ted is called upon to face his fear. Despite the anxiety and some engine trouble, his former commanding officer is able to talk him down. After these events, the couple is back together once more. Airplane has memorable lines, sight gags, puns, and a plot that parodies other films. It takes a normally dramatic and serious situation and makes it utterly hilarious. I think it works so well because the gags infiltrate the story in every instance creating this tongue-in-cheek humor.

4/5 Stars