A review requested by Not Fenimore, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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Of Mel Brooks's first four feature-length comedies, which are also his four best, 1974's Blazing Saddles is by far the most difficult to get a handle on. And not just because of how extremely of its time the humor can be: the jokes about gay men are dated and terrible, but they're no worse than the jokes about gay men in his debut feature, The Producers, and I'd never feel the need to start a review of that film with any kind of hand-wringing. Nor is it the barrage of jokes about race, making free-handed use of the most vicious of the racial slurs: it's playing with fire for sure, but it also makes points about racism in 19th and 20th Century American pop culture that haven't aged a minute.

The real difficulty is that Blazing Saddles is doing just so fucking much, and I think that in this case, Brook's reach is exceeding his grasp. Maybe it's exceeding anybody's grasp. Blazing Saddles shoots off in a lot different directions, and it's hard for everything to mesh, if indeed meshing was ever the goal. All of his other films, I'd say, stick with just one thing, and do it as well as they can (which, as his career progressed, got increasingly less-well): this film is a social satire, a genre parody, an absurdist comedy, and in its final act, goes into some surreal meta-movie about filmmaking that I don't even know what the hell to say about it. It's certainly a brave, bold movie, and while I don't think for a minute that it matches the director's subsequent Young Frankenstein at being a successfully funny comedy, it is incontestably the case that it's got more on its mind than that affectionate, bawdy parody of Universal horror movies.

Like any good sprawling comedy, the film starts with a basic, firm foundation: the old Western yarn about a lone hero who rides into town to save the locals from greedy land developers. In 1874, in a state or territory given no name, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) is a businessman and politician who has more or less absolute control over the hapless, oversexed Governor William J. LePetomane (Brooks), and is using it to build a railroad straight through the frontier town of Rock Ridge. When his hired thugs, under command of a certain Taggart (Slim Pickens), fail to scare the townsfolk away, Lamarr comes up with the ingenious idea to send them their requested sheriff, but to send them a black man, Bart (Cleavon Little), who until recently was a laborer on the very same railroad. Reckoning that any white settle in the 19th Century has to be insanely racist, Lamarr figures that the town will descend into anarchy the moment Bart shows up. And he's not even wrong at first, though Bart, helped by the deeply alcoholic ex-gunslinger Jim (Gene Wilder), ends up winning the town over, and rouses the nervous residents to fight back against Lamarr's mercenaries.

Blazing Saddles is generally identified as the first of Brooks's parodies, the comic form with which he'd be tightly identified through the rest of his career (which ultimately stretched to 11 films, ending with the dreadful Dracula: Dead and Loving It in 1995), and that's accurate, I suppose. But the way that Blazing Saddles handles parody is qualitatively different from anything that followed. Basically, the biggest joke at the expense of the Western is already threaded into the scenario: making the hero African-American subverts the genre more thoroughly than any other gag could, so that's pretty much the end of it. Instead of making jokes about Westerns, the film uses the Western as a framework for basically every other kind of joke. The best of these are rarely the brainiest: Brooks honed his career aiming for the groundlings, and throughout his career, his finest moments tend to be silly broad, or smutty, and ideally all three. We've got just such a combination in Blazing Saddles: Madeline Kahn, who received a well-earned Oscar nomination for her efforts, plays a down-rent Marlene Dietrich who replaces that icon's smoldering carnality with a hilariously ribald song about having too much unsatisfying sex (it's my favorite bit in the whole movie; there's something to unpack about how in any Brooks film with a musical number, that's the best thing about that film - all the way from the epochal magnificence of "Springtime for Hitler" in The Producers to the way that, for all that Robin Hood: Men in Tights isn't much good, at least it has "The Night Is Young and You're So Beautiful" - though I cannot fathom what it might be). Nothing else that height, but most of the gags that I cherish most are somewhere in this broad, goofy mode: just about every single thing that Korman says or does, the campfire farting scene - one of cinema's first major fart jokes, in fact, and given that he named his own character after after a professional stage farter, I assume Brooks knew this and was proud of it - the dialogue given to the meaty fighter Mongo (Alex Karras) - allegedly, most of it courtesy of Richard Pryor, who was brought into the five-man writing team to help with the racial satire, though by most accounts, he only wanted to write goofy shit for Mongo.

I'm not convinced that the smarter moments are as funny. Bart is perpetually treated as clever and in control, a sly figure rather than a goofy one. At one point, he's given an explicit Bugs Bunny-style gag, handing Mongo an exploding candygram as the Merry Melodies them "Merrily We Roll Along" pipes up on the soundtrack, and this pretty well sums it up: this is a 93-minute version of a seven-minute cartoon in which Bugs keeps outwitting Yosemite Sam. Which is interesting and all, but it robs Little of the chance to indulge in the same wacky excesses as Wilder, Kahn, Korman, even Pickens. None of this is to say that Bart's not an effective character, or that Little doesn't do good work with him, though it's always when he's given an opportunity to not be the straight man to the rest of the film that he shines: the great use of voice acting and tight body movement when he takes himself hostage upon his arrival in Rock Ridge, his wonderful line delivery of "Where the white women at?" flat and bark and contemporary. Basically, when he gets to play jokes, rather than react to jokes. The thing is, Brooks isn't a Bugs Bunny kind of director: his best characters bluster and shout, his best jokes hinge on random wordplay, silly voices, and non sequiturs. I get why Blazing Saddles has a Bugs Bunny lead: it's a way of making it clear that the film takes racism seriously and allowing it to clearly mock the racists within the film as idiots or villains or both. But understanding why a thing is so doesn't mean that the film's racial satire "works" the way that Kahn hoisting a giant sausage "works".

Nonetheless, even if I prefer the more purely goofy Brooks of Young Frankenstein, I couldn't dare to claim that Blazing Saddles isn't an extraordinarily gutsy film, where as that one basically just makes a bunch of quips. Tackling race without any filters or safety net is part of it; so is the extremity of the film's absurdist humor, which involves more and more acute anachronisms throughout, and culminates in the astonishing finale, where the film spills out into the real world with no warning. I frankly don't know if this works at all, though Korman's visit to Mann's Chinese Theater is precious and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Still, the sheer derangement of the final act is effective in its own right: it speaks to a commitment to devil-may-care wackiness so intense that meaning and reality themselves are expendable. It's not the first meta-comedy, not by a long shot, nor the most satisfying, but it's so inexplicable as to feel more aggressive than anything comparable. Between the confrontational race satire and the total nonsense of the climax, there's a dangerous streak in this film, something Brooks had only previously tapped into with "Springtime for Hitler" and would never do much with again, and comedy needs a bit of danger if it's truly going to thrive. It'll never be more than my third-favorite Brooks film, but Blazing Saddles is probably the one where he most thoroughly earned the attention of generations yet to come.