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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Blazing Saddles At 40

If I asked you what was the most successful western movie of all time, you'd probably name a John Wayne movie like "True Grit," or Clint Eastwood in "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," or Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves."

But you'd be wrong.

The movie at the top of the list -- and at the top of many comedy lists as well -- was Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," released 40 years ago this month. It not only set box office records, but also pushed the envelope of movie-making, including the first time we'd ever heard farts on screen.

I saw "Blazing Saddles" on its first weekend and laughed so hard I missed some of the jokes. So I stayed in my seat and watched it again. Then I came back the next day and saw it a third time. That was a big commitment for a kid in high school. But unlike today (when you can download virtually any movie and watch it on demand as often as you like), if I didn't see it again in the movie theater, I might never see it again, or at least for a very long time.

The buzz on the movie was immediate, as if Brooks (and fellow screenwriters Richard Pryor, Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg, and Alan Uger) had blazed a new comedy trail that everyone had to see. Between the clever dialogue, the outrageous characters, and the perfect performances by Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, and Oscar-nominated Madeline Kahn -- not to mention the movie bursting out its western setting and onto the Warner Brothers lot -- it set a new standard for every movie parody that followed.

Hollywood was so taken with the success of "Blazing Saddles" that someone commissioned a pilot for a TV version, called "Black Bart." Unfortunately, it had neither the wit nor the the talent of the movie. Instead of Cleavon Little, the sheriff was played by Lou Gossett Jr., who's a fine dramatic actor, but not known for comedy. Instead of Gene Wilder, the sheriff's sidekick was played by Steve Landesberg, a mildly amusing comedian with no acting chops. There was also a woman doing a bad Madeline Kahn imitation, a horrible laugh track, multiple uses of the n-word (there's something you'd never see today!), and no sense of what made the movie funny in the first place.

The only good news about "Black Bart" (which had been the original title of the movie) was that the pilot bombed when it aired on April 4, 1975 on CBS, so it never became a series. But the half-hour was included on a 30th anniversary DVD of "Blazing Saddles" and has found its way to YouTube, so you can see how bad it was for yourself...


After the mega-success of the Broadway musical version of "The Producers" and the medium-sized success of a stage version of "Young Frankenstein," Brooks has tried to develop "Blazing Saddles" as musical, too, but the project has never gotten off the ground. That's probably a good thing, as the big screen was and is its only appropriate venue.