Mel Brooks' 'Blazing Saddles' Ridiculed By Critics And Studios, But Audiences Loved It

Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles is a classic today, but when it was released, the film was a risky, controversial bet. It spoofed beloved Western tropes and its use of racial slurs and caricatures was meant to subvert but was also questioned. The Hollywood studios that made the film were not confident it would be a success and their lack of faith resulted in a limited release. However, the movie’s clever writing, wacky humor, and willingness to poke fun at different genres and social norms drew in audiences who laughed so hard that the film’s reputation slowly grew.

In the early “70s, Westerns were still ubiquitous, but they were also being subverted. Anthony Mann’s stylish, gritty Westerns with James Stewart were already a decade old, but they were contrasted with the more whimsical, comedic Westerns that followed, like Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker!'' from 1971 (known in the U.S. as A Fistful of Dollars''). This film, along with others, poked fun at the genre’s conventions while also paying homage to it.

Brooks had already made a few comedies, but they had not found a wide audience. His first film, The Producers, was a moderate success, but his follow-up, The Twelve Chairs, fared worse at the box office. When Brooks turned his attention to the Western, he chose to take a risky, satirical approach. The film featured a mostly African American cast of characters, led by Cleavon Little as Bart, the sheriff of the town of Rock Ridge.

The townspeople of Rock Ridge are not used to seeing people of color, and the film makes use of stereotypes and direct references to racial epithets in its first half. Brooks and his co-writer, Richard Pryor, intentionally used the N-word repeatedly, putting it in the mouths of villains and townspeople to highlight the absurdity of their thinking.

The film follows the townspeople’s efforts to oust Bart, which include hiring a “blind” gunfighter and a “waco” (an urban cowboy) to kill him. The latter is played by Gene Wilder, who teams up with Bart to fend off the town’s harassment. The film transitions from a Western to a black/white buddy comedy, subverting two genres at once.

Brooks’ comedy targeted multiple genres and types of movies. It’s a Western, a buddy comedy, a musical, and a “blaxploitation” film, and it sends up each genre’s conventions while also targeting prejudices about multiple groups of people. It’s a film that’s not “safe” in any sense of the word, but its comedy allowed audiences to experience the joy of laughing at social norms and film genres in a way that felt refreshing.

When the film was released in 1974, it was not an immediate hit. The studios that made the film were not confident it would find an audience and dumped it with a limited release in just three cities.

Critics were mostly dismissive of the film, but even negative reviews noted that audiences were responding well to it. One reviewer in 1974 joked that the film’s jokes “might have been better” if Brooks had enlisted the help of Mad Magazine.

But audiences laughed and shared the film with friends and family, ensuring that the film had a second life in theaters and, eventually, on home video and TV.

Blazing Saddles is now considered one of Brooks’ best films and a highlight of 1970s comedy. Its blend of satire, slapstick, and societal critique has kept it alive in the cultural memory, providing a model for how to successfully make a comedy that’s not afraid to offend but also packs a lot of heart and humor into its plot.

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