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Feature: Back in the 'Saddles' again

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   June 28, 2004 at 9:25 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, June 28 (UPI) -- Mel Brooks' classic surreal Western comedy "Blazing Saddles" is getting the special-edition DVD treatment 30 years after it set new standards -- or simply obliterated old standards, depending on how you look at it -- of taste in mainstream American movies.

Warner Home Video has prepared a package that contains additional scenes of unreleased footage, interviews with Brooks, Gene Wilder and other members of the cast and crew and 5.1 audio. There is also a tribute to Madeline Kahn, who earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the over-the-top comedy. Kahn died of cancer at 57 in 1999.

"Blazing Saddles," which came in at No. 6 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best U.S. comedy movies, also includes a scene-specific director's commentary by Brooks.

Released in December 1973, "Blazing Saddles" became one of the biggest box-office hits of 1974 -- grossing nearly $120 million in the United States. Previous video and DVD releases of the title have sold more than 3 million copies.

Brooks, who established his career as a writer on the pioneering sketch-comedy TV series "Your Show of Shows," had already written and directed two movies before "Blazing Saddles." His first feature, "The Producers," was a cult classic with an Oscar-winning screenplay, and his musical-comedy adaptation went on to become one of the biggest hits ever on Broadway.

"Blazing Saddles" starred Cleavon Little as Bart, the black sheriff of the town of Rock Ridge, populated almost entirely by racists. Gene Wilder played his partner, the Waco Kid. Harvey Korman played the villain, a corrupt politician named Hedley Lamarr.

Little, who died of cancer at 53 in 1992, almost didn't get the part. Brooks wanted Richard Pryor to play the sheriff, but Warner Bros. was unwilling to take a chance on Pryor, who at the time was relatively unknown but known well enough within the entertainment industry to have a reputation already as brilliant but not entirely reliable.

Pryor joined the writing staff, which also included Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Alan Uger and Andrew Bergman. Bergman wrote the first screenplay for "Blazing Saddles" in 1971.

In an interview with United Press International, Bergman said Brooks decided to rework his original screenplay to turn it into a broad send-up of every cliché that ever appeared in a Western. The movie was transformed into something mainstream American audiences had never seen before.

"It certainly broke a bunch of bounds," said Bergman. "The campfire scene for sure."

Ah, yes, the campfire scene. That's the famous scene where a gang of cowboys is sitting around a campfire at night eating beans, accompanied -- for the first time in movie history -- by explicit and loud sound effects.

Bergman said some of the language in "Blazing Saddles" also pushed the limits of taste, but he said it was anything but a gross-out movie.

"The thing that made the picture work ultimately was the relationship between Cleavon and Gene," he said.

There was also an interracial love scene -- played in the dark -- between Little and Kahn. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" explored interracial romance in 1966, but "Blazing Saddles" left no doubt about the physical relationship between a black man and a white woman.

Just 10 years after landmark civil-rights legislation transformed America -- and just 20 years after Emmett Till was lynched for the presumed offense of talking to a white woman -- "Blazing Saddles" got a laugh when Little taunted two robed and hooded Klan members by asking, "Hey, where are the white women at?"

Burton Gilliam, who played the racist cowboy Lyle -- a character who used racial and ethnic epithets freely and gleefully -- told UPI he was uncomfortable with the offensive dialogue, but Little assured him that it was OK.

Gilliam was glad to report that the racist image did not stick with him over the years. But he said there were a few occasions when people confused him with his character.

"One person who will remain unnamed here -- but he was a big football star for the Los Angeles Rams for a number of years," said Gilliam, "we were at a party down in South Central and he got a little drunked up and said some things about the words I used in 'Blazing Saddles,' and he got a little testy."

Among other things, "Blazing Saddles" has been credited with abetting a more open exchange in American society over race relations.

"I'm not sure it did," said Bergman, "but in our most grandiose moments we like to think the movie made a small contribution to that."

In the documentary feature, Wilder said the main reason he wanted to do "Blazing Saddles" was because he thought it would be a powerful tool against racism.

"They've smacked racism in the face and the nose is bleeding," said Wilder, "but they're doing it while you laugh."

Also in the featurette, Brooks said offensive language was essential to making "Blazing Saddles" work.

"People would say, 'We can't use these words, these are bad words,'" said Brooks. "But you can use any words you want -- and should."

Bergman said it would not be possible to make "Blazing Saddles" today. So did producer Michael Hertzberg.

"There are too many stock options to risk anything," he said.

--

(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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