Mel Brooks is/was a big deal in comedy right? And Blazing Saddles is supposed to be one of the best comedies ever made. So said all of my comedian friends, which is to say people who have taken comedy classes at UCB or Second City, etc. It also usually places in the “top ten” comedy lists from AFI, Ebert, IMDB or any other place that bothers to list such things.
So having not seen it with all the bona fides was for me both one of the biggest holes in the film canon and made it perhaps the film with the heaviest burden of its own reputation. Any film that is touted as “one of the greatest ever made” has the viewers’ expectations raised to an almost insurmountable level, but to also call it “funniest” is tantamount to a death warrant. It is the curse of all “great” works that as the standard-bearers for their form they are always under the most scrutiny -- especially from those who are not yet familiar or sympathetic with the artist, players or story. Comedy usually works best when it is unexpected, so a movie that has become the definition of funny-movies starts with a very un-funny handicap.
Of course people who know and love Blazing Saddles would probably disqualify me from writing about it now that I’m thirty-one and have a film degree, but that doesn’t stop me from doing it anyway, and I fully acknowledged all of my expectations as I sat down to watch it.
It dawned on me by the third or fourth line of the film, “Dock that c**nk a day’s pay for sleepin’ on the job,” that this was a much more potent comedic film than I had anticipated. From that point forward the film continued with its surprises, some subtle, most not. The Count Basie orchestra playing in the middle of the dessert; the infamous baked beans scene; the pie fight in the break room at Warner Brothers studios -- they all go one step further than another until they’re so far off the map that its difficult to say if anyone has really gone “there” since, certainly not in the past ten or fifteen years.
Brooks seems determined to take the low road at every juncture and also determined to subvert any and all conventions of not only the Western Genre but even the most basic of film “rules.” The anachronistic inclusion of Nazis and motorcycle handlebars on horses, the direct addresses to camera, even the clearly-intentional continuity errors; these all challenge the accepted format and syntax to which 90% of Hollywood movies conform. While this is hardly unique in Brooks’ body of work, these devices keep the audience on their toes and reminds them that they are in on the joke that the characters in the film never seem to be aware of.
But was it funny? Oddly enough, I can’t recall laughing out loud once during the entire film, but while writing this I find myself smirking at all the absurdity. In fact I think that’s why you should push this film to at least number #4 or #7 on your Netflix queue. Besides being a side-splitting movie (which it wasn’t for me), Blazing Saddles has the balls to reach for the most absurd and in doing so it achieves a singular place in “the canon.” This is a filmic Myth Of Sisyphus because it in all the chaos and absurdity, the film’s critiques of racism and the bogus mythology of The Old West are able to transcend the farts and schticky-fake-accents to a timeless-poignancy and simultaneously defeat the despair you would expect from such madness. As Brooks himself put it, “it rises below vulgarity.”