Sunday, April 20, 2014

Just how good is 'Blazing Saddles'? Even better than you thought

I am late to this party, but I recently discovered a 'Code Switch' post celebrating the anniversary of Mel Brooks' classic film Blazing Saddles (1974).  There is a great deal to say about this film, and it will probably merit its own post overall, but I wanted to demonstrate how it is not only a satire of race relations, as the post demonstrates, but also that I think it is very criticizing the 'hidden' element in Westerns up until this time.  One scene from early in the movie suffices, and it is a doozy:

(There is language.  And some exceedingly white dancing.  Go ahead, rewatch it, I know that you were laughing too hard during the exceedingly white dancing to fully appreciate it)

I think that Mel Brooks' critique here is pointed squarely and directly at the unquestionably iconic American musical, Oklahoma!  The show debuted in 1943 and was a phenomenal success (if you want to know more, I would highly recommend Tim Carter's book on the subject).  This led, of course, to a movie adaption, which appeared in 1955.  In revisiting Oklahoma!, I found that it was an incredibly weird show.  The morale of the story, to me, is that if you act 'normal' you will be accepted by society, even if you have a funny accent like Ali Hakim.  If, on the other hand, you do not, you could theoretically be murdered in a manner that the society deems as justifiable (and you will be judged for your crime through a scam trial).  There is a great deal more to be said about Oklahoma!, but the basic summary is that if you do not conform to the expectations of that society, you should probably look out.

Also, it is worth noting that the musical/film is comprised almost exclusively of white people--this was not true of the 1931 Lynn Riggs play upon which the musical was based (Green Grow the Lilacs), which also incorporated Native Americans.  Oklahoma! is a remarkably homogenous society (apart from Ali Hakim, who is totes coded Jewish, but he assimilates into this culture).  Right away, though, we see that Blazing Saddles is not.

I am getting ahead of myself, though, because we need to start with where we are: a railway building site.  Railroads are ubiquitous in Westerns, but rarely do you see who built those railroads.  The multi-ethnic nature of this group is shown right away, as there are Chinese workers (a fact that is explicitly referenced when one of them passes out from the heat and exertion) and, of course, a large contingent of African-American men.  A later line in the movie suggests that the guys in bowler hats are Irish.  Already, Blazing Saddles is more diverse than Oklahoma!  The railway is not incidental, since it also plays a key role during one of Oklahoma!'s songs:

In Blazing Saddles, when Taggert comes to ask what is happening, he asks why the group is dancing around like a bunch of Kansas City [bleeps].  I don't think that the reference to Kansas City is a coincidence, I think it is directly conjuring up this scene from a very well-known film.  Also, as is made clear far later in Blazing Saddles, the dancers in these elaborate musical scenes are often gay (naturally, this is a stereotype, but this film trucks exactly in stereotypes to debunk them).  The dancers contrast starkly with the 'rough and tumble' cowboys, who literally break the (fourth) wall.  As the scene plays out, though, there is less of a division between the two groups than is initially suggested:

The choice of 'I Get A Kick Outta You' is also a deeper satire than might be understood at first.  Of course, part of the humor in this scene is that Lyle, the supervisor, wants to hear a 'real' song for his amusement, which are really slave work songs.  But then Mel Brooks takes it a bit further with the song that the African-American singers present:

Written by nice Jewish boy Cole Porter.

What is Brooks saying here?  That it is all of these race associations are absurd.  The white guys can sing 'Camptown Ladies' (even if they can't dance).  The African-American workers present Cole Porter, but in the traditionally African-American style of barbershop.  The satire here goes in recognizing what often goes unrecognized, including the workers who are the real ones bringing the railroad to Claremont and Kansas City.  There is so much contained in this one, short wonder this movie is still such a classic!


  1. Zoe, this is a great post on a film that probably couldn't be made today. And it even had Count Basie.

  2. Thanks Bruce! I appreciate you reading it! I agree that in some ways this film couldn't be made today, although it is a very thought-provoking movie once you turn it over in your head, so maybe it would get the support it would need. Much of the humor needs to be put in the context of the film as a whole to fully understand it (like what Taggert calls the guys dancing around at the start), so I would imagine it would have been risky. I wonder, too, how much control/information was unveiled in advance. The singer of the theme song was Frankie Lane, who had done a lot of these types of songs for westerns, and he thought it was a 'serious' movie!

    Apparently, studio executives were also worried about (the original) 'Producers,' because of all of the 'pro-Nazi' sentiment, but they let that one go. There was tension over 'Blazing Saddles,' since originally Richard Pryor was cast as Bart, but he was encountering too many issues at the time (his stand-up explains pretty much all of it). This was also a few years after the first blaxplotiation movies, which opened up a lot more possibilities in terms of how race was depicted in film. But yes, I do think that it would encounter controversy today, which suggests that it remains a great work of art!