Friday 23 November 2007

Blazing Saddles (1974) Mel Brooks

Blazing Saddles is pure undistilled genius and what stuns me most is that every time I see it the more apparent that becomes. I've seen it a lot of times, I don't know how many but it's plenty; I loved it on the first viewing; and yet it gets better with every further time through. This time I got to see it on the big screen, in 35mm Panavision glory, courtesy of Midnite Movie Mamacita, and I saw things I'd never seen before. I knew those were bodies flying into the air in the explosion scene but I hadn't realised that they included horses.

There is a plot here but it's almost irrelevant because it's what hides behind the plot that's important: the social comment, the jokes and the manipulation of reality. This film (along with Dr Strangelove and Monty Python's Life of Brian) are to me the greatest three comedies of all time, for a few reasons. They don't just remain funny, which is a requirement for a comedy to be called great, but they get funnier; they broke the rules to create something truly unique; and they still stand alone in what they did even though decades have passed since their respective releases.

Harvey Korman plays Hedley Lamarr (cue no end of Hedy Lamarr jokes) who is a ruthless villain eager to make money off anyone else's misfortune. He'll make a killing out of running the railroad through the frontier town of Rock Ridge but needs to get rid of all the townsfolk first. His master plan is to appoint a sheriff so offensive to their sensibilities that they'll leave out of disgust. That new sheriff is a black man, played by Cleavon Little, enabling Mel Brooks to have a riot with the racial attitudes of the early settlers of the west.

And beyond that, which ought to be enough for anyone, there's everything else you can imagine too. Only Mel Brooks could manage to get Adolf Hitler into a western, and beyond a black sheriff, there's Jewish indians, the Ku Klux Klan, you name it and the eventual chase through Hollywood. Characters talk to the screen, reference who they're working for, even end up in Grauman's Chinese watching the film they're appearing in.

My delving into classic cinema has helped me to understand more and more of the references here each time I see the film. I think I always knew that Madeline Kahn based her role as Lily van Schtupp on Marlene Dietrich but now I understand how and why. I know now about Richard Dix and Randolph Scott and more, as well as references to specific films like Destry Rides Again. Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Slim Pickens and others are all perfect in their roles, but this remains Mel Brooks's show. Amazing stuff, the stuff of genius, and even more amazing for the realisation that he made Young Frankenstein in the same year. Talk about a creative spurt!

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