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Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)

9 May, 2014 By: John Latchem

Western Comedy
$24.98 Blu-ray
Rated 'R.'
Stars Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, Alex Karras, Burton Gilliam, Dom DeLuise.

Is Blazing Saddles the funniest movie ever made?

Mel Brooks seems to think so, expressing such an opinion about his 1974 masterpiece on the new half-hour “Blaze of Glory: Mel Brooks’ Wild, Wild West” featurette included with this 40th anniversary Blu-ray.

Of course, Brooks may be biased on the issue, having directed and co-written the thing. It did make No. 6 on the AFI’s top 100 comedies list in 2000, which is no small feat considering how stuffy the selection criteria for lists such as that tend to be (It certainly is the highest-ranking movie by Brooks, who had three on the list, with The Producers at No. 11 and Young Frankenstein at No. 13).

What makes Blazing Saddles such a classic is the fact that Brooks put no limits on the material. This is one of the most politically incorrect films ever made, absolutely refusing to soft-pedal the racial humor at its core. And boy, there’s a lot of it. But when the intent is to satirize the idiocy of bigotry, that’s going to go with the territory, especially when focused through the lens of lampooning classic matinee Westerns.

It’s often said Brooks wouldn’t be able to get away with making this movie today, but I’m not so sure. After all, Quentin Tarantino did win an Oscar for making Django Unchained, a film similarly predicated on the central motif of a black man overcoming the racism of his day, and with an equally copious use of the ‘N’-word. It’s not hard to imagine the many ways Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart serves as a spiritual ancestor to Jamie Foxx’s Django.

In his day, Brooks was able to get away with it because one of his co-writers was Richard Pryor, the famed black comedian originally tapped to play Bart but forced out by the studio due to his alleged drug use (all of which is discussed by Brooks in the new interviews). However, the revelations of exactly who wrote what jokes probably won’t do much to alleviate the concerns of anyone offended by the film’s depictions of racism.

It starts in the Old West, with newly freed slaves working on a railroad, the construction of which has to be diverted due to quicksand. The only possible route requires it go though the town of Rock Ridge, so Attorney General Hedley Lamarr, played with relish by Harvey Corman, conspires to drive the people out of town so he can buy the land for cheap and make millions selling it to the railroad.

When the townspeople ask the dimwitted governor (Brooks) to send a new sheriff to fight off Hedley’s thugs, the conniving AG arranges to send Bart, hoping their racist attitudes will cause the unrest he needs to seize the land.

Of course, Bart is more resourceful than he gets credit for, and with the help of a local gunslinger (Gene Wilder), Bart rallies the town for a final battle that explodes well beyond the fourth wall. At this point, Brooks isn’t just targeting Westerns, but the culture of film itself.

Brooks is unashamed to throw any and all jokes at the audience, including the notorious campfire scene that is widely believed to be the first instance of a fart joke in mainstream film. Of course, there’s also the unforgettable sight of Alex Karras’ oafish Mongo punching out a horse, Madeline Kahn’s indelible turn as a horny chanteuse who falls for Bart, and Western legend Slim Pickins chewing up the scenery at every turn as Hedley’s chief goon.

Plus, let’s not forget how effectively Frankie Laine’s pitch perfect title tune sets the mood. According to Brooks, Laine was never told the film was a parody, so he played it completely straight when recording the song.

The picture quality looks amazing for a film that isn’t exactly known for its innovative production design. Details are sharp and colors are vibrant, which really amplifies the rustic sensibilities for which the film is aiming.

Almost all the extras from previous releases are here too, including several deleted scenes and alternate takes, a short commentary track with Brooks, an earlier making-of featurette and the mediocre “Black Bart” television pilot based on the film, included more for its historic value than anything that would be considered required viewing.

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