Mel Brooks' 'Blazing Saddles' Ridiculed By Critics, Adored By Audiences In 1974

42 years ago, on February 7, 1974, Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles opened in select theaters in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The movie was a satirical take on the Western film genre and Brooks' unique brand of comedy. While the film was embraced by audiences, it was initially dismissed by critics.

The film's script, co-written by Richard Pryor, featured a mostly African-American cast of characters in the Old West, including Cleavon Little as Bart, the sheriff of a small western town. The town's residents are up in arms over the appointment of Bart, and schemes are hatched to oust him, which leads to a series of comical situations.

Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart rides into town in Blazing Saddles, which adopts the rhythms of a black/white buddy comedy.

The supporting cast was also notable, with Harvey Korman, Gene Wilder, and Madeline Kahn rounding out the top billing. The movie became famous for its coarse humor and slapstick comedy, which was groundbreaking for its time.

In 2006, NPR's Linda Wertheimer reported that Blazing Saddles had been added to the National Film Registry, with obvious incredulity: "Who could have imagined a film featuring a bunch of cowboys sitting around the campfire, eating beans and breaking wind, to be enshrined in the Library of Congress?"

By then, of course, everyone could imagine. Brooks had subsequently made a slew of genre-spoof classics, including Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, High Anxiety, Spaceballs, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The man was a legend, but in 1974, he was significantly less well-known, having made a couple of mildly successful comedies.

So, what he was doing in this western parody got, in the words of another of that era's funnymen, "no respect." Brooks worried about using a racial epithet common at the time; however, his screenwriters insisted on using it, specifically putting it in the mouths of evil or unthinking characters.

This allowed star Cleavon Little to comically mock or demolish them, which he does repeatedly and hilariously. So, Blazing Saddles is not really "like many a Western before it." Brooks was upending Hollywood's version of the Old West, much as Robert Altman's dark, land-grab drama McCabe & Mrs. Miller had, three years earlier.

He took a different tack, using 1870s characters to satirize 1970s racial prejudice. To set his comedy in motion, Harvey Korman's scheming politician devised the idea of hiring a Black sheriff to scare the townsfolk away from their town, so he could buy it cheaply before any of them learned the rail line would soon be coming through. His ploy worked. When Cleavon Little's Sheriff Bart rides into view, they are indeed less than welcoming. However, they are also less than bright - foiled in their plan to shoot their new sheriff when he points his gun at his head and takes himself hostage.

Bart then teams up with Gene Wilder's Waco Kid, a hung-over gunslinger, and the film adopts the rhythms of a black/white buddy comedy until it turns into a spoof of The Blue Angel. Madeline Kahn's seductress-for-hire Lili Von Shtupp croons a gloriously off-key "I'm Tired" and sets about seducing Sheriff Bart. "He's like wet sauerkraut in my hands," she purrs in an accent that suggests she got vocal coaching from both Marlene Dietrich and Elmer Fudd.

To satirize racial prejudice using 1870s characters, Brooks opted to become an equal-opportunity shredder of genres and conventions. A horse gets punched, as does an old lady. Even Busby Berkeley musicals come in for a brief ribbing when a brawl breaks the fourth wall and the cast crashes into a dance number on a soundstage.

And, of course, there's that campfire scene: cowboys consuming pots of coffee and platefuls of baked beans with predictable -- but unusual for film -- results. "Bury it," said one studio executive when shown the film. Others wanted rewrites, but Brooks' contract gave him final cut, and he flat-out refused to make changes.

So, on February 7, 1974, the studio opened the film as a test in three cities -- NYC, LA, and Chicago -- considered the most likely to get Brooks' Borscht Belt sense of humor. Critics were dismissive, but even the most negative reviews conceded that audiences were howling.

It's now considered one of the greatest comedy films of all time.

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