Blazing Saddles (1974): Mel Brooks Goes West with Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little

Back in 1974, the central premise of Blazing Saddles, Mel Brook’s comedy spoof, was rather inventive, if not entirely new

The movie benefited from an ensemble of talented comedians, such as Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, Madeline Kahn, Alex Karras, and Brooks himself, with cameos by Dom DeLuise and Count Basie.

Blazing Saddles
Blazing saddles movie poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster by John Alvin

In this “revisionist Western,” a town needs a sheriff but nobody is foolish enough to take the job.  The townsfolk appoint a black convict as sheriff (Cleavon Little), who, with the help of an alcoholic gunfighter (Gene Wilder) succeeds in thwarting the villains.

Like most of Brooks’ films, Blazing Saddles is no more than a collection of some inspired gags linked by stretches of dull exposition. For a while, the lampooning of Western movie cliches is entertaining, though Brooks doesn’t show much feel for the genre here, unlike his achievement in Young Frankenstein (also in 1974), which did reflect a genuine love of the horror genre.

A satire on the Western genre, the movie makes direct references to older Westerns films, such as Destry Rides Again, High Noon, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as well as a surreal scene at the end, which makes allusions to the extravagant musicals of Busby Berkeley.

Blazing Saddles was not the first Western parody in Hollywood.  The trend might have begun with Elliot’s Silverstein Cat Ballou, in 1965, starring Lee Marvin in an Oscar-winning performance for two roles, as the gunfighter Strawn and as Strawn’s twin, the drunk Kid Shelleen.

After some failures (including the better and funnier The Producers), Blazing Saddles, Brooks third film was a huge hit with college students. Brooks co-wrote the script with Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Alan Unger.

An offbeat comedienne who brightened many zany farces (remember Whats Up Doc?), Madeline Kahn was equally at home playing uptight neurotics and feverishly lusty women. Her second nomination in a row (the first was for Peter Bogdanovichs Paper Moon) for Blazing Saddles marked the peak of her Hollywood career. In 1974, Kahn gave another memorable performance in a Brooks film, Young Frankenstein. The Supporting Oscar that year went to Ingrid Bergman for playing a missionary in Murder on the Orient Express.

Brooks genre spoofs combine vaudeville with inspired lunacy. His work thrives on the comedy of chaos, though there’s scarcity of witty, spontaneous lines here. The rehashed gags are often less funny than desperate in their aggressive vulgarity to squeeze laughs from the audience.

Blazing Saddles, like most of Brooks pictures, betrays his origins as a product of TV, a gag writer for Sid Caesar and others

Despite mixed reviews, the film was very successful with younger audiences, primarily college students.  Brooks later said that the film “has to do with love more than anything else. I mean when that black guy rides into that Old Western town and even a little old lady says ‘Up yours nigger!’, you know that his heart is broken. So it’s really the story of that heart being mended.”

Commercial Appeal

Blazing Saddles was the second-highest U.S. grossing film of 1974, earning $119.5 million, against a ultra-small budget of $2.6 million.

Cultural Status

The film won the Writers Guild of America Award for “Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen.”

In 2006, it was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Oscar Context

Blazing Saddles was nominated for three Oscars, including Supporting Actress for Madeline Kahn, whos doing a good parody of all the cabaret singers that Marlene Dietrich had played (including Destry Rides Again, which also had elements of spoof).

The other nominations were for the Song “Blazing Saddles” (music by John Morris, lyrics by Mel Brooks) and Editing (John C. Howard and Danford Greene).

The Best Song Oscar went to Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn for We May Never Love Like This Again, from The Towering Inferno, which also won for Harold F. Kress and Carl Kress editing.

How Gene Wilder Got the Role

When Gene Wilder replaced Gig Young as the Waco Kid, he did so on one condition, that Brooks’ next film would be an idea that Wilder had been working on: a spoof of the old Frankenstein films., made by Universal in the 1930s.  After the shoot of Blazing Saddles was over, Wilder and Brooks began writing the script for Young Frankenstein and shot the film in the spring of 1974.

Credits:

Directed by Mel Brooks
Produced by Michael Hertzberg
Screenplay by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Al Uger

Story by Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Alex Karras

Music by John Morris
Cinematography Joseph Biroc
Edited by Danford Greene, John C. Howard

Production company: Crossbow Productions

Distributed by Warner Bros.

Release date: February 7, 1974

Running time: 93 minutes
Budget $2.6 million
Box office $119.6 million