MEL BROOKS is a screenwriter/director/actor whose latest comedy, Blazing Saddles, indicates that he should stick to screenwriting.
Blazing Saddles is full of inspired concepts, but Brook's insipid direction dilutes their strength. His acting is no better: Instead of comedic precision or subtlety, Brooks offers the sort of mugging and clowning found in bad summer camp skits.
This film is probably the best argument against letting a writer direct and star in his movie. Chaplin did it, Woody Allen does it, but Brooks and most other writers simply cannot pull it off and they should not try.
Fortunately, enough of Brooks's humor filters through the muck of wrong camera angles and oafish acting to make Blazing Saddles worth seeing.
There is the film's beginning, for example. It is 1874 and a group of legally free but exploited blacks is laying railroad tracks under the hot sun. The white boss man demands a song--"a nigger song"--to pass the time. The blacks huddle together and sweetly coo Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out Of You."
For that and other insolence, the group's leader, Black Bart (Cleavon Little) is about to be hung. With the noose around his neck, Bart wins a reprieve--from Hedley Lamaar (Harvey Korman), the governor's scheming aide-de-camp. Lamaar convinces Governor Lepetomane (Mel Brooks) to make Bart the sheriff of the peaceful Western town of Rock Ridge. Lamaar figures that the spectre of a black sheriff will drive the citizens away, enabling him to buy their land and sell it at a huge profit to the railroad.
Scattered along the bends and twists of this satire-of-a-plot are cameo appearances and sight gags that somehow work. Alex Karras, the ox-like former tackle of the Detroit Lions, plays Mongo, a villain who storms into Rock Ridge and knocks out a horse with a punch in the mouth. Madeline Kahn, the nebbish circus dancer in Paper Moon, is a saloon singer who wails about her sexual fatigue in a clever ditty called "I'm Tired" (words and music, of course, by Mel Brooks).
Where Blazing Saddles is not funny Brooks's direction is not entirely to blame. The usually amusing script (which he wrote with four other men, among them, comedian Richard Pryor) is threadbare in parts, and some of Brooks's cast need all the help they can get. Harvey Korman, better known for his boring slapstickery on the Carol Burnett Show, destroys the comedy of the villain's role by his overbearing and predictable gestures and expressions. Cleavon Little, another gift from the world of TV comedy, plays Black Bart like Stepin Fetchit. Such a portrayal lacks not only racial sensitivity; it lacks wit.
Gene Wilder, who appears late in the film as a drunk ex-gunslinger, adds some lustre to the cast. He is a veteran of Brook's The Producers (1968) and The Twelve Chairs (1970), both of which--like Blazing Saddles--were blessed in potential and mangled in execution. Considerations of loyalty and ability should have motivated Brooks to write a bigger part for Wilder, who is one of the most accomplished young comedians in American movies.
There is more cause to snipe at Brooks. Some of his material--especially a sequence involving Count Basie and his Orchestra--is remarkably similar to Woody Allen films; He seems gratuitously to use the sort of language that he could not use in 1968 and 1970 ("Provincial putz" and "Teutonic twat," to cite two examples); he has trouble ending scenes smoothly.
But these are small points. There is a more serious problem with Blazing Saddles, aside from the unprofessional direction: Brooks has confused absurdity with humor. This is especially true of the film's end, when the time frame shifts jarringly back to 1974 and the cast runs amok through sound stages of The Burbank Studios. It is contrived absurdity, the sort that permeates the film. Absurdity is simply not funny unless it complements genuine humor.
A publicity woman for Sack Theatres, the chain currently showing Blazing Shaddles in Boston, reports that a large segment of each audience expects the movie to be a serious, shoot-'em-up Western. "They're middle-aged audiences, and they come in here with that expectation and just don't laugh," she says. "They're surprised."
It is probably as unfair to expect Blazing Saddles to be a straight Western as it is to expect that it be a normal, professional comedy. Mel Brooks is incapable of making either kind of movie. His comedies will probably always be ragged at the edges and amateurish at the core.
A Mel Brooks film is probably best seen as an investment in future reminiscences. The clumsy, unprofessional touches are the first to fade from memory, and one is left to savor the concepts and situations in their pure form--the way Brooks envisioned them. In five years, Blazing Saddles will be one helluva film.
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