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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Blazing Saddles (HD DVD)
Blazing Saddles (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // R // May 23, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 28, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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"Mornin', ma'am. And isn't it a lovely morning?"
"Up yours, nigger."
. . .
"What did you expect? 'Welcome, sonny.' 'Make yourself at home.' 'Marry my daughter.' You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land...the common clay of the New West. Y'know: morons."

Co-writing and directing a pair of movies as successful, widely loved, and wildly influential as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in the course of an entire career would be a remarkable achievement for any filmmaker. Mel Brooks did it in a year. I have a rambling, overanalytical comparison of those two movies half-written out in my head, but I'll save that until Fox plops Young Frankenstein out on Blu-ray. In the meantime, here's a rambling, overanalytical review of Brooks' other 1974 comedy classic, Blazing Saddles.

Dateline! 1874. Cleavon Little is Bart, a smartass whisked away from the certain death of the gallows to face...well, certain death as The Ol' West's first black sheriff. It's all part of a diabolical scheme concocted by Hedy...I mean, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) to put the squeeze on a festering zit of a town to clear way for the railroad. As diabolical schemes go, it's not a bad one: the salt-of-the-earth morons of Rock Ridge don't take too kindly to their new sheriff, and his only pal in town is a washed-up, drunken gunslinger nicknamed The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder). The townsfolk aren't revolting as quickly as Lamarr would like, but never one to put all of his rubber froggies in one basket, he has backup diabolical schemes, such as wecruiting the wovewy Lili von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn) to womance the new shewiff. Gradually, the Rock Ridge-eans grow to (gasp!) secretly halfway tolerate Bart, prompting Lamarr to take drastic measures and tear down that pesky fourth wall once an' for all.

If you've never seen Blazing Saddles and don't know what to make of that desperately unfunny, overly in-joke-y plot summary, don't fret: the story's kinda incidental, really only there as an excuse to string together an hour and a half worth of gags. Since I like Blazing Saddles and don't want to give the wrong impression, I guess I'll start off with all the gushingly positive stuff first. The movie goes a great job skewering all of the old Western clichés, aided in that mighty task by a strong cast that wouldn't seem the least bit out of place in a 'real' Western. Harvey Korman is especially brilliant as the overenunciating, conniving state attorney general-slash-villain, and Madeline Kahn's spoof of Marlene Dietrich is barely in the movie but is so memorable that those few minutes on-screen landed her an Oscar nomination. Blazing Saddles wouldn't be the movie it is, though, if not for the late, great, should've-been-a-bigger-star-than-he-was Cleavon Little. Even if the role of Bart was originally penned with a largely unknown comic named Richard Pryor in mind, it's tough to imagine anyone but Cleavon Little in the part. Think Bugs Bunny, only...y'know, black: just as animated (figuratively!) and instantly endearing no matter how much of a mischievous wiseass he might be. What an immeasurably talented guy.

Blazing Saddles isn't just a mindless genre spoof, though. At its core is a story about racial intolerance, and the writers' approach was not only ballsy for its time, but I sincerely don't think any studio would let a movie get away with something like this now. The movie's just about a guy who's caught a couple of hard breaks and is trying to do the best he can, but his efforts are dismissed at every turn by a group of ungrateful, irrational, ignorant, but not exactly evil townsfolk. Its heavy use of the word "nigger" still stings today (even though they don't make 'em much whiter than me), but it's not used gratuitously, and Brooks and company squeeze in this racial angle without seeming like some kind of awkward morality tale.

So, great cast? Check. On-target genre lampooning? Clever and still-relevant social commentary? Check and check. Is it funny? Well...see, that's the thing. Blazing Saddles is a funny movie, but when I see it seize the #6 spot on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 comedies, I scratch my head. (Not literally.) Humor's so subjective that your mileage probably does vary, but I find Blazing Saddles' hit-to-miss ratio to really not be that great. Part of that's because of the movie's age -- jokes that shocked and startled an audience into laughter in 1974 can see awfully tame thirty years and change later. This is why Young Frankenstein holds up so much better, at least in my eyes, than Blazing Saddles: wit ages gracefully. A circle of cowboys wolfing down platefuls of beans and farting in sequence? Not so much. The dumber, more puerile stuff is all over the map, but the inspired silliness still plays really well, and the cast is so gosh-darn likeable that even the most lackluster gags seem better than they really are.

Okay, so I don't find Blazing Saddles to be as endlessly brilliant as seemingly everyone else on the planet does, but even if it's not "great", "pretty damn good" isn't a bad consolation prize. It's still one of those comedic touchstones that's required viewing, and although admittedly its only competition at the moment is the unwatchable Rumor Has It..., Blazing Saddles is by far the best comedy out right now on HD DVD. So, go back, get a shitload of dimes, and at least give Blazing Saddles a rental.

Video: Originally released in 1974, Blazing Saddles is the oldest movie to make its way to HD DVD so far, and this 2.40:1 presentation is proof-positive that a movie doesn't have to be some post-1990 CGI-fest to look great in high-def. Even though it was presumably minted from the same master as the 30th anniversary edition DVD that was issued a couple years back, the increase in crispness and clarity on HD DVD is not subtle. It's a spiffy transfer -- handsome, even, if you want me to sound really pretentious -- with a vividly saturated (yet still somewhat distinctively '70s) palette, rock-solid contrast, practically no speckling, and very little in the way of film grain. A handful of scattered shots -- optically processed stuff and stock footage, mostly -- don't quite stack up to the rest, but this is overall a very nice lookin' disc and makes me eager to see Warner continue diving into their back catalog like this.

Audio: On the other hand, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track settles for just sounding alright. It's really more of a stereo mix than anything else, anchoring the audio in the front speakers and reserving the surround channels primarily for reinforcing various bits of music. The film's dialogue is somewhat strained, lacking the presence that the movie's songs offer, and there's not a whole lot rumbling around in the lower frequencies. Pretty much what I was expecting. Warner has tacked on the usual assortment of English, French, and Spanish subtitles, and dubs in Spanish and Quebecois French are also provided.

Supplements: The extras are all reheated leftovers from the 30th anniversary edition DVD, so it's safe to mash the Page Down key a couple of times to skip to the end if you're already familiar.

The flipside of the case promises "scene-specific commentary by Mel Brooks", which there isn't, but that's okay. I don't think Brooks ever directly refers to anything that's happening on-screen, and he's in and out in under an hour. It's not a scene-by-scene attack so much as an extremely detailed overview of the whole project, covering everything from Brooks being handed a first-time writer's extended treatment to circumventing Warner's attempts to sink its theatrical release. He delves in depth about the state of his career at the time, the frenzied group writing process, assembling a cast, and his struggles with the studio. Yeah, yeah, his unlistenable Spaceballs track might have have left you swearing off Mel Brooks' commentaries for good, but set aside 55 minutes for this one.

Some of those same stories are retold in the half-hour retrospective "Back in the Saddle" with Mel Brooks, screenwriter Andrew Bergman, producer Michael Hertzberg, and actors Gene Wilder, Burton Gilliam, and a nearly-unrecognizable Harvey Korman. Although much of this territory has already been blazed, some of these stories are further fleshed out here, such as why the studio frowned on a then-unknown Richard Pryor playing the lead. A couple of outtakes and TV edits are tossed into the featurette too, and they also wind up in a section of their own on this disc. They run a little under ten minutes total, including a sanitized, de-farted campfire scene for television and Bart relentlessly tormenting Mongo. 'Sokay.

A three and a half minute excerpt from a Lifetime 'intimate portrait' of Madeline Kahn is also included, amounting pretty much to Mel Brooks retelling the story of Kahn's Blazing Saddles audition alongside some additional praise from Dom DeLuise and Lily Tomlin. The most fascinatingly bizarre extra is the bafflingly unfunny pilot for Black Bart, a stillborn attempt at bringing Blazing Saddles to television that might even unseat Aces: Iron Eagle III and Jaws 3-D as the worst thing ever starring Louis Gossett Jr. Last up is an anamorphic widescreen trailer.

Conclusion: Although I find the comedy in Blazing Saddles too scattershot to completely deserve the reputation the movie's netted over the years (watch me deftly avoid using the word "overpraised", even though I kinda want to!), I still laugh enough and am so won over by its cast that I have to slap it with that emboldened, italicized Recommended tag.

Disclaimer in tiny text: the screengrabs in this review were lifted from the 2003 DVD and are just supposed to be window dressing. Don't read anything more than that into 'em.
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