Although the film is more than three decades old, “Blazing Saddles” still looks great, more so now in its new high-definition transfer. With video quality that is better than ever, sound that is better than ever, and most of the extras contained on the standard-definition 30th Anniversary Special Edition, the new HD-DVD is a must-have for lovers of this movie.
“Blazing Saddles” was Mel Brooks’s third feature film and the one that put him on the Hollywood star map. After a successful stint as a television comedy writer, Brooks made “The Producers” in 1968, a modest success that later became a cult classic, followed by “The Twelve Chairs” in 1970, a funny picture that was largely ignored by the public and critics alike. Then came “Blazing Saddles” in 1974, obviously a very good year for Brooks since he released “Young Frankenstein” a few months later, and together the two films made him the new sensation of the comedy world.
“Blazing Saddles” is at once a parody of old Western movies and a social satire on race and prejudice. But those elements alone would never have made the film a hit. Rather, it was Brooks’s outrageous political incorrectness that stunned, infuriated, and delighted audiences everywhere. Nothing was sacred to Brooks, as he threw around derogatory racial epithets with abandon and ridiculed every bigoted, ethnic, and religious stereotype he could lay a gag to. The results raised eyebrows, to be sure, but the movie made the name “Mel Brooks” synonymous with daring cinema humor, and the movie became a trendsetter in the world of Hollywood laughter. In the seventies and eighties only Woody Allen would attain such comedic renown as Brooks, but without quite the zany edge.
The plot of “Blazing Saddles” is little more than a clothesline for Brooks to hang his jokes on, and the antics come flying fast, from straight lampoon to outright silliness; from old-fashioned slapstick to topical, witty quips; from puns to pranks to everything in between. Some of it misses the mark and seems dumb even by the lowest standards, but enough of it hits that even after seeing the movie a dozen times a person can’t help laughing at favorite scenes.
The time is 1874, and the railroad is coming West. Having the most to gain from it is an unscrupulous Attorney General, Assistant to the Governor, and State Procurer, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). “That’s Hedley, not Hedy,” he keeps telling people, for which the real-life actress Hedy Lamarr sued Brooks, settling out of court. Lamar, Hedley, will do anything to get this railroad built, so when its path encounters quicksand and has to be rerouted through the little town of Rock Ridge, it means clearing out all the townspeople to do so. The story involves Lamarr’s frustrated attempts to rid the community of its citizens.
Most of the movie is cartoon fare with cartoon violence (it helps that it’s a Warner Bros. picture because we get to hear the Looney Tunes signature strain), but it has a decidedly adult spin (it’s rated R for profanity and sexual references). Things start quickly with an onslaught of racial slurs from the white foreman (Burton Gilliam) of an all-black work crew building the railroad. The foreman wants them to toil harder by singing old Negro spirituals and work songs. Instead, the black laborers reply by crooning Cole Porter’s “I Get No Kick From Champagne,” while the white overseers start singing “Camptown races, doo-da, doo-da.”
Lamarr’s initial idea to rid the town of its citizenry is to hire a black sheriff for the place, knowing none of the white bigots in town will want to stay if he’s there. Naturally, the plan doesn’t work, despite Lamarr’s bad intentions and the townsfolk’s racial bias. Next Lamarr hires a series of no-good villains to tear the place up, but he finds the problem is doubled when he not only has to get rid of the townspeople but now the sheriff as well.
Richard Pryor, who helped cowrite the script, was slated to play the black sheriff, Bart (though never is the term “Black Bart” mentioned, part of the gag), but the studio’s issues with the nature of Pryor’s stand-up comedy act and the comedian’s well-known drug use prevented him from getting the part. So it went to Cleavon Little, a more handsome and dashing hero, no doubt, but a less-formidable funnyman. At his side is Jim, the Waco Kid, a drunken, chess-playing gunslinger played by Gene Wilder. Wilder is always funny, but he wasn’t Brooks’s first choice, either; Wilder was called in at the last minute when the original actor for the part was found to be in reality too drunk to do the role.
Brooks himself, who had taken a bit part in “The Producers” and a small supporting part in “The Twelve Chairs,” assumed his biggest movie role yet as the Governor, William J. LePetomaine, as well as an Indian Chief and a fighter pilot. His portrayal of the governor is broad to the point of absurdity, but he is endearing, nonetheless. Slim Pickens, so good in “Dr. Strangelove” and no stranger to Hollywood Westerns, plays to perfection the dim-witted foreman, Taggart.
Madeline Kahn does a hilarious turn as a Marlene Dietrich clone, Lili Von Shtupp, a femme fatale sent to seduce and abandon the sheriff, who herself gets seduced. Former football star Alex Karras plays Mongo, the monster Lamarr assigns to assassinate the sheriff. Mongo is like the Tasmanian Devil, so tough he knocks out a horse. Dom DeLuise plays a precious and pretentious movie director, Buddy Bizarre, in the film’s finale. And a number of cameos show up along the way, including Count Basie and his orchestra; Wilder’s soon-to-be wife, Gilda Radner; Brooks’s wife Anne Bancroft; and veteran movie hero, Tom Steele.
The all-white townspeople of Rock Ridge are a kick. They’re so alike they’re all named “Johnson.” I suppose Brooks could have named them all “Smith” or “Jones,” but he gets more comic mileage out of “Johnson.” To illustrate, there is Howard Johnson (John Hillerman); Olson Johnson (David Huddleston), and for those who need it explained, Olson and Johnson were a comedy team; the Reverend Johnson (Liam Dunn); Gabby Johnson (Jack Starrett), whose imitation of old-time cowboy sidekick George “Gabby” Hayes includes a dialect so slurred and garbled it’s unrecognizable by anyone who listens to him. It was a gag Brooks would repeat with Kenneth Mars as the Police Inspector in “Young Frankenstein”; and, of course, there’s a Van Johnson (George Furth); yes, Van Johnson is also a famous old movie star, youngster.
It wouldn’t be a Mel Brooks film without music, so he wrote three songs especially for the show: “I’m Tired,” “The French Mistake,” and “The Ballad of Rock Ridge,” and he cowrote the title song, “Blazing Saddles.” But Brooks needed someone to sing the title tune, someone, he thought, like Frankie Laine, who had made such Western hits as “Mule Train,” “Rawhide,” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” But who could imitate Laine? Well, how about Laine? Brooks asked the singer and he did it.
Anyway, half the time Brooks is the clever, witty raconteur, and half the time he’s the naughty schoolboy trying to shock and offend his parents’ house guests. Racism and prejudice feel the brunt of Brooks’s barbs, and here he spares no one. As Lamarr declares in a hiring poster: “Help wanted: Heartless Villains for Destruction of Rock Ridge. Criminal Record Required. Hedley Lamarr, an Equal Opportunity Employer.” Well, Brooks is an equal-opportunity satirist, and it’s not only white bigots who get zapped but Jews, Native Americans, gays, Germans, preachers, all rolled into one.
Notoriously, the word “nigger” gets a workout, offending probably as many people as it enlightened, but always used to the detriment of its users if white and affectionately if black. The movie is a slap in the face of racial intolerance, doing so with the back of the hand, making us both recognize and laugh at society’s narrow-minded intolerance. “You’ve got to remember,” comments the Waco Kid, “that these are just simple farmers; these are people of the land, the common clay of the new West. You know, morons.”
Yes, there are more than few memorable lines: “Excuse me while I whip this out,” says Sheriff Bart to the townsfolk. “Why don’t you loosen your bullets?” says Lili to the Sheriff. “Head ’em off at the pass? I hate that cliché,” says Lamarr to Taggart. “You are about to embark on a great crusade,” Lamarr says to his henchmen, “to stamp out runaway decency in the West.”
Should I also remind you of the campfire scene and the baked beans? I thought not.
The ending is pure Brooks as the entire cast of “Blazing Saddles” in a moment of cinematic reflexivity overflows into the soundstage of another film production, and the sheriff has to follow Lamarr to the movie’s own première for the final shoot-out. Harrumph, harrumph!
Warner Bros.’ first DVD edition of “Blazing Saddles” had a picture and sound quality less than commendable, which was happily rectified in the high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer of the 30th Anniversary Special Edition. Now, the video has been improved even further in 1080 high definition. I spent the first twenty or thirty minutes of my reviewing session simply switching back and forth between the previous SD special edition and this new HD-DVD one as they played in separate machines, choosing about two dozen spots and pausing them for comparison. In a couple of instances I confess I could see little or no difference in picture quality, but in the vast majority of cases, there was a marked improvement in detail and object delineation from the HD-DVD.
The screen ratio of the new version remains as before, measuring about 2.18:1 across my widescreen television, and its HD image is sharp and clear, with colors deep and bright . Unlike on the previous edition, I noticed no moments of even the slightest minor fading, and the only grain I saw was in the outdoor footage, where vast expanses of sky are always a problem. I’ve owned this movie in Beta and VHS tape copies, two DVD editions, and now on HD-DVD, and I must say I’ve appreciated the improvement I’ve seen with each new rendering. Lastly, let me assure those several readers who have written in to mention the HD picture freezing up from time to time that I encountered no such problem. After my initial comparison tests, I played the disc from beginning to end in a single run, and it performed flawlessly. In fact, in the first eleven HD-DVDs I’ve watched, only once has the picture momentarily hesitated before continuing, an error I could not repeat and which I can only attribute to a speck of dust.
I was also impressed by the sound of the movie’s Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio track as delivered to my receiver via the HD-DVD player’s 5.1 analogue outputs. Again, I initially kept the SD edition of the movie playing simultaneously and in sync with the HD movie and spent about fifteen or twenty minutes switching the audio inputs on my receiver from DD+/5.1 analogue to regular Dolby Digital 5.1. As I found with the picture quality, I observed a pronounced improvement in the clarity of the DD+ over the standard DD 5.1.
The audio displays a reasonably wide front stereo spread, with strong dynamic impact, but the rear channels are still not fed much in the way of a signal, and there is still very little deep bass to speak of. This is undoubtedly as it should be if the remastered soundtrack is reproducing the original audio signals. The surround speakers are used for modest musical ambiance enhancement and the occasional ricochetting gunshot. I also continued to hear in the DD+ soundtrack the same slight tendency toward nasality in voices that I heard in the DD 5.1 track, but it didn’t seem quite as noticeable to me in the new edition.
Meanwhile, in DD+ I found the front-channel sound more alive than ever, the improvement most apparent during the brief session with Count Basie and his band, who now sounded as if they were in the same room with me. Needless to say, how much of an improvement in picture and sound you’ll find with this HD-DVD will depend on your playback equipment and your expectations. If you’re anticipating a night-and-day difference in quality, you may be disappointed. The high-def picture and sound are assuredly better in almost every way than on the SD Special Edition, but the contrasts come in small increments, not vast changes. As I said in the beginning, if you love this movie, this is the best form Warner Bros. have ever made it available for home viewing.
For the HD-DVD release of the film, WB give us the same assortment of bonus materials they provided for their 30th Anniversary Edition. As before, though, the extras are in standard definition, 480, not high-def. I suspect there are several reasons for this. The studio probably wants to save time and money by recycling as much of its old product as possible, rather than having to remaster too much stuff; the studio probably wants to save space on the disc; and the studio probably figures most buyers are only going to watch the extras once or twice, while they will be watching the movie over and over again. It seems like a reasonable compromise.
The first bonus item is a scene-specific commentary by Mel Brooks. The next is a twenty-eight-minute cast-and-crew reunion documentary, “Back in the Saddle,” made in 2001. In it, cowriter Andrew Bergman says he wanted the movie to reveal a hip, 1974 sensibility in an 1874 setting. Reminiscences come from Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Burton Gilliam, and others. Then, there’s a brief, three-minute tribute excerpt, “Intimate Portrait: Madeline Kahn”; followed by twenty-four minutes of “Black Bart,” a 1975 TV pilot inspired by the movie; and about nine minutes of additional scenes, many of which were later edited into a longer, television version of the movie. Finally, there are twenty-six scene selections; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
Warner Bros. package the disc in an Elite Red HD case, which because of its smaller size serves the function of making the HD-DVD more conspicuous on one’s shelf, making it more conspicuous in the video store, and conserving space in both places. In addition, the disc continues to offer among its pop-up menu options a zoom-and-pan feature, which allows the user to zoom in by 2x, 4x, or 8x on any scene and then maneuver around the screen. I’m not sure why they include this feature, but it’s sort of fun for a minute or two. However, WB provide no chapter insert within the Elite case, which still seems an odd thing for them to be skimping on.
So, how can you not like a Western where the heroes ride off into the sunset in a Cadillac El Dorado? I mean, it’s so…Hollywood. And so funny. Much of “Blazing Saddles” may seem less than inspired because its style has been so often imitated, but the parts that work continue to provoke strong laughs no matter how often you’ve seen them. Face it, it’s a landmark film from a funnyman who continues to remain commercially strong and vibrant to this day. Harrumph, harrumph for high definition!