Mel Brooks, legendary director-actor-producer-writer- (keep filling in the blanks and you’ll never exhaust his talents), kicked off tonight’s screening of BLAZING SADDLES (1974) by singing the film’s theme song to a full house at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre—and from there, things only got more interesting.
Brooks shared with TCM Host Robert Osborne numerous behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the making of the film—from asking to see Madeline Kahn’s “gams” before deciding to cast her as Lili Von Stupp (to which she responded, “Oh, it’s one of those auditions”), to following screenwriter Richard Pryor’s advice to cast Cleavon Little as the Sheriff (“This guy’s coal black. He’s gonna scare the sh** out of the people in this town.”) Brooks also claimed to have placed live cattle in the lobby of the theater where they first screened the film for Warner Bros. executives, and said that after the screening he dutifully wrote down notes from studio brass on everything that would have to be edited from the movie, then promptly threw the notes in the trash once the grilling was over. In other words, a Brooks interview is a little like a Brooks film: it can be hard to separate the joke from the story, and everyone is better for it.
What was clear—from the thunderous laughter and applause that rocked the Chinese Theatre tonight—was that everyone in attendance was having as much fun as Brooks himself.
And why not? The film is the ultimate Western spoof, telling the tale of corrupt Attorney General Hedley Lamarr, played to perfection by Harvey Korman, in charge of efforts to build a railway across the Ol’ West. When the projected route hits quicksand, he sees an opportunity to make a fortune by driving the honest citizens from the nearby town Rock Ridge, taking over all the businesses, then rerouting the railroad through town. The plan seems foolproof, for Lamarr has complete control over an indomitable cast of characters: an imbecilic governor (Brooks), who rubber stamps every decision Lamarr makes; the toughest muscle who ever lived, the half-beast, half-man Mongo (played by ex-professional football star Alex Karras); a virtual army of hired ruffians; and, if all else fails, the most irresistible saloon showgirl and henchwoman of them all (Kahn).
As Lamarr sends his thugs to bust up the town of Rock Ridge, locals appeal to the Governor for a new Sheriff. At Lamarr’s urging, the “Gov” sends them one of the black railway workers who has been causing trouble for Lamarr. Newly deputized, wearing a soft buckskin two-piece getup with white leather piping, Sheriff Bart (Little) rides nonchalantly into town, only to find the citizens less welcoming than one might expect from folks badly in need of a Sheriff.
The rest of the film pits Lamarr against Bart, as the former brainstorms ever more elaborate plans for eliminating the Sheriff and destroying the town, and the latter finds ever more clever ways to foil them, using his formidable style and wiles, and the services of the drunk residing in his jail—the once great Waco Kid (Gene Wilder).
In other words, the storyline is well-ridden terrain, as are many of the character types (with Kahn’s showgirl reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich’s character in Destry Rides Again, and Gene Wilder’s Kid similar to the role played by Dean Martin in Rio Bravo). But Brooks consistently surprises us with unexpected variations on what might seem a rote Western tune. (At times literally: in the opening credits, for example, where the standard longshot of the western landscape and catchy title tune are given a comic touch with excessive whip-cracking in the score.) When he turns his gaze westward, the henchmen have odd vices and the digestive issues that go with a diet of campfire beans, the hired muscle is a half-wit who rides and ox and punches out horses, the seductive showgirl is a German-born Frau dubbed the “Teutonic Titmouse,” who can’t carry a tune but performs elaborate numbers with a four-person dance troupe dressed as the Kaiser’s soldiers, and the Sheriff who must save the day is one slick urbanite sporting Gucci saddle bags.
It might seem like an impossible setup, but Brooks has a simple formula for making it all work—a formula he spells out for us in the film (though in typical Brooks fashion, even this revelation is a comic inversion). A town-hall meeting is called to protest the governor’s election of a black man as Sheriff. As order is called, self-important local businessman Howard Johnson (John Hillerman, soon to be of Magnum PI fame), opines “Nietzsche says ‘From chaos comes order,” to which Olson Johnson (David Huddleston) responds “Oh blow it out you’re a** Howard.”
In a nutshell, this captures how Brooks builds not just a single gag, but all of his genre films—from BLAZING SADDLES to Young Frankenstein to Spaceballs. What seems to be a perfectly recognizable genre picture establishes a horizon of expectation, then turns our expectations on their head with sudden eruptions of incongruity and chaos. Take, for example, the conclusion. As the good citizens of Rock Ridge—now united behind their wily Sheriff and his increasingly sober sidekick the Waco Kid—battle Lamarr’s henchmen, the camera pulls back to reveal the scene is taking place on the Warner Bros. lot, where the melee spills over into the set of a musical, then into commissary, then onto the streets beyond the studio—until the Sheriff and the Kid get their revenge right at the Chinese Theatre where crowds gathered today to watch this film. Only then, after every gag has played out and every wall has been broken, does the action head back to the Ol’ West for something approaching a conclusion.
From order comes chaos—and damn, is it funny. No lesser genius than Brooks could make such an ending work, and it was a pleasure and an honor to have him with us today.