Mel Brooks has precisely one great film on his résumé, and it ain't this one. That great film would be the celluloid miracle that is Young Frankenstein, that perfect black-and-white horror spoof that hits every silly note eloquently. Blazing Saddles, released the same year, 1974, is a western spoof that I would deem about half as successful as Young Frankenstein. Blazing Saddles is probably a film you remember fondly, but take a look at it again: It's one big rambling mess of gags that, while funny individually and occasionally, never quite gel into a cohesive whole.
Admittedly, we must give Blazing Saddles its due credit. In the process of lampooning every Western cliché you can imagine, the film took a strong, unexpected, and unprecedented swing at racism. And from its schticky, vaudeville perspective, Blazing Saddles went hell-for-leather at its target, letting the term "nigger" fly and brazenly cracking racist jokes, including one involving anatomical "giftedness." Of course, we got fart jokes, too, and out-of-leftfield satire, and just-plain-silliness—adding up to a sense that no subject was off-limits. Who would have thought that a biting social commentary would spring from all this absurdity?
Often, however, the film seems top-heavy with its efforts to crack you up. You can sense Brooks attempting to squeeze every ounce of humor out of every moment, particularly when he's onscreen in one of his three bit roles—he's a manic performer, doing anything for a laugh. Much of the time, his efforts work, and the film's gags speed along at an impressive clip. But an appreciation of Brooks' boldness must come with the understanding that Brooks was hitting below the belt. Fart jokes and dick jokes will always be shocking and outrageous, particularly when thrown at you with such aggression. I love films that are in bad taste—don't get me wrong. But there's a delicious bad taste, and there's a desperate bad taste, and Blazing Saddles seems to hover close to the latter.
The plot of Blazing Saddles is an afterthought, pushed aside in favor of all this comic madness. It has something to do with corrupt Attorney General Hedley ("not Hedy") Lamarr (Harvey Korman) wanting to destroy a town called Rock Ridge to make way for a railroad. In an attempt to disintegrate the town from within, he hires a black sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little), to whom the townspeople will surely respond with murderous wrath. Bart soon gains sidekicks in the form of the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) and the lumbering Mongo (Alex Karras) and sets about saving the town. But you won't care about the plot. You'll have enough to do just keeping up with the jokes, which are crammed, effectively or not, in every frame.
The film is full of hilarious moments. You've got the infamous and odiferous scene around the campfire. The sight of Mongo leveling a horse with his bare fist. The indelible mark of writer Richard Pryor in such lines as "Mongo only pawn in game of life," or "S'cuse me while I whip this out," or "Where all the white women at?" The rest is a free-for-all narrative, a patchwork of sitcom-style set pieces that might have been right at home on an unrated version of the Carol Burnett show. In the end, there's a surprising emptiness at the middle of Blazing Saddles, particularly when you compare it with the careful characterizations and plotting of Young Frankenstein. When I watch the ending of Blazing Saddles, I see a director out of ideas more than I see a rib-poke, breaking-the-fourth-wall extravaganza.
Fortunately, Blazing Saddles benefits from a fantastic ensemble cast, all of whom contribute memorable work. Gene Wilder has moments here that resonate throughout his career. I still blow a gasket when he does a double-take after sniffing the sheriff's "cigarette." Madline Kahn earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Lili Von Shtupp, a note-perfect Marlene Dietrich parody ("It's twoo, it's twoo!"). Cleavon Little has just the right edgy humor for Sheriff Bart, even when we know that Richard Pryor was initially considered for the part but deemed too unreliable. Harvey Korman and Dom DeLuise contribute Brooksish silliness, and the rest of the supporting cast have lots to do, including all those Johnsons.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Warner presents Blazing Saddles in an anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. The original DVD release (which is now almost 4 years old) benefited from an image that was also enhanced for widescreen sets, but it contained a great amount of digital artifacting, including excessive grain and a digital instability, giving the film a shifty look. (Look, for example, at that effort's opening credits, which shift blockily.) It was also an exceedingly dirty print.
This new effort is a distinct improvement over the original release's anamorphic image, offering stronger detail, more natural color, and a cleaner print. Although some source grain remains (there's just no getting around the fact that this is a 30-year-old film and is going to have an aged look), the image has been significantly cleaned up. Colors are more natural—look at the much-improved blue of that big sky, and the improved flesh tones! Black levels and shadow detail are just fine. I noticed far fewer instances of artifacting, although close inspection revealed some minor ringing. All in all, this transfer offers very impressive clarity, detail, and sharpness. There are some close-up shots that will leave you reeling, blown away by their effectiveness.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a fairly disappointing effort, although it does open up the presentation you might remember from the original release, which was a mono presentation, straight from the center channel. This presentation at least opens up into stereo, with some added, very minor presence in the surrounds. Although dialog sounds clean, with only minor distortion at the high end, the audio has lost some fidelity over 30 years. Bass comes into play in the score and in some explosions, but adequate power just isn't there. It has a fragile feel, giving in to harshness here and there. In the end, the best elements of the presentation are the musical components, which almost overpower.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The original Blazing Saddles release came with some lightweight text supplements, as well as a nice feature titled A Conversation with Mel Brooks, which ran over the film like a non-scene-specific audio commentary. That effort is duplicated here and called, on the packaging, a Scene-Specific Commentary by Mel Brooks. Although it's a fine conversation that touches on many aspects of the film's origins and legacy, it's far from scene-specific. And it lasts for less than an hour. Those hoping for a new commentary here (as I was) will be disappointed.
Next up is a 28-minute featurette entitled Back in the Saddle, a full-frame effort that features interviews with director Mel Brooks, writer Andrew Bergman, producer Michael Hertzberg, actor Harvey Korman (looking ancient), actor Gene Wilder, and actor Burton Gilliam. Unfortunately, this piece comes across as way too reverential, with Brooks even proclaiming, "We were celebrating the triumph of humanity over its inherent hatreds and prejudices." And, "Blazing Saddles is one of a kind—it'll stand for all time as a monumental American film comedy." That being said, there are some good moments here, as we learn of Richard Pryor's involvement, and how the writer envisioned the film as "1974 in 1874," and particularly about the film's blistering racial satire. I also enjoyed the included edited-for-TV footage: The campfire scene, sans any audio of digestive output, is fall-down funny…but it's also included in the Additional Scenes later.
The Intimate Portrait of Madeline Kahn is a too-short 4-minute segment from a Lifetime special about the actress. Essentially, it's just the bits about Blazing Saddles. It mentions her second Oscar nomination for the part, and it features brief interview segments with Brooks, Dom DeLuise, and Lily Tomlin.
We also get the full 24-minute TV Pilot: Black Bart, a shamelessly stupid attempt to take Blazing Saddles to prime time, complete with N word and really lame attempts at humor. Louis Gosset doesn't feel quite right in the lead role, although he does his best, and the laugh track will have you laughing for all the wrong reasons. The show had the right low-rent look, but it's just extremely lousy.
In the Additional Scenes section, we're treated to 9 minutes worth of extra footage, making up seven scenes:
The final extra is the film's long Theatrical Trailer, presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. (On the original DVD, this trailer appeared cropped at 1.85:1.)
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
If you're a Blazing Saddles fan—and admittedly, the film is one of the director's better efforts—you're going to have to pick this up, even if it's to replace the previously released DVD. This effort offers better image, sound, and supplements, despite some disappointments.