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Blazing Saddles at 45: It Couldn’t be Made Today, but it Needs to be Seen by Everyone

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last Thursday, the 7th of February, was the 45th anniversary of an iconic film that even today challenges Americans about the evils of racism and prejudice. Since I was pretty much out of it following my surgery I didn’t write about Blazing Saddles was shocking in its humor which exposed the racism, sexism, and even the anti-gay prejudices that were common in the era. The use of racial invective and slurs by various characters is so shocking now that people who didn’t live during those times cannot understand the real intent of the film.

Mel Brooks used the parody of the classic America  Western Film to confront very real prejudices that ran rampant at the time, and still do, though most people are a bit more careful to disguise their public language and camouflage their prejudices without ever really given them up. In fact the language and terms used by Brooks and his co-writer, the late Richard Pryor are off limits in much of film. I remember showing the DVD to our younger enslisted personnel in Iraq and they were shocked. I had to explain how prevalent open racism was back when the film was released, and what Brooks’s intentions were. He used the humor of the film to bring to the surface the prejudices of many people, including many who later became his fans.

What is really hard for me to believe is that this masterpiece is unknown to many people. The fact that I lied about my age to get a ticket to see the movie when it came out, it was rated R and I had not yet turned 14, and that it remains one of my favorite films of all time, and not just mine, the film was nominated for 3 Academy Awards and is ranked number 6 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs list.

The fact is that Blazing Saddles probably couldn’t be made today because of hyper-politcially correct era. Anyone who knows me knows that I am exceptionally wary of ever using racial stereotypes or slurs and have enough empathy and concern for the sensibilities of people who have suffered through racial, ethnic, or religious persecution and prejudice not to want to see them used for cheap laughs. That being said, in certain times where racial prejudice is being driven from the top down, where the President of the United States can get elected by eliciting racism, sometimes it is appropriate to stick a finger in their eye through the use of comedy. Brook’s used that to drive home to people who otherwise wouldn’t recognize just how deeply racism and racist tropes are past f our society even today.

I think for me one of the most poingent moments in Blazing Saddles is in a scene where Chinese, African American, and Irish Railroad workers come to help the Balck Sheriff Bart, played by Cleavon Little and the self-described White God Fearing Citizens Of Rock Ridge save the town. All that was asked was that they would be able to live there. The late great actor David Huddleston, who played one of the town council members said:

“All right… we’ll give some land to the niggers and the chinks. But we don’t want the Irish!” 

When they all threaten to leave he changes his toon and says:

“Aw, prairie shit… Everybody!” 

The thing is that in those days the Irish were still a despised minority, even though they were white. I am about half Irish by my DNA, and I remember how upset my mom got when she heard that line. It offended her, but I think that such comedic barbs are helpful to all of us if they make us more sensitive to others and aware of our own racial, ethnic, religious, or social prejudices.

Besides the camp fire fart scene my friends, that is the continuing value of Blazing Saddles.

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

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Blazing Saddles at 39

blazing_saddles

“I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists.” Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiTKIbR69ss

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Today is the 39th anniversary of the release of the Mel Brook Western parody classic Blazing Saddles. I wasn’t quite 14 years old when it came out but somehow managed to get a ticket to the R rated movie. I didn’t have a fake I.D. like President Obama said was how he might have gotten into the theater to see it when he was 13, but I remember getting in to a lot of R rated movies back in those days without any parental supervision.

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To me the film is a cultural icon and classic. I watch it several times a year and if there is nothing else on and I want a good laugh there is a good chance that I will put it in my DVD player.

jPeOJ

The movie couldn’t be made today. It insulted everyone and was one of the most politically incorrect movies ever made. However, 1974 was a different time. It was a time of social and political turmoil as the Vietnam War wound down, the economy tanked and the Nixon Presidency teetered with each new revelation about the Watergate break in and cover-up.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upvZdVK913I

Mel Brooks used comedy to confront many of the evils still rampant in our society, racism, sexism, political corruption as well is simple ignorance were all targets of Brooks’ wit.

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Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, and Madeline Kahn it became one of the surprise hits of its era, surprising even Brooks in its acceptance and box office success. Unlike many movies it has endured and now at 39 years is considered one of the classics of American film.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6dm9rN6oTs

Brooks’ rich parody of the Western genre. Even John Wayne, though asked by Brooks to be in the film after looking at the script “Naw, I can’t do a movie like that, but I’ll be first in line to see it!” 

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Now when I see some of the same prejudice, racism, ignorance and corruption today I am reminded of Jim the Waco Kid’s (Gene Wilder) comments to Sheriff Bart when he experienced the racial prejudice of a little old lady:

blazing-saddles-old-lady.jpg

“What did you expect? “Welcome, sonny”? “Make yourself at home”? “Marry my daughter”? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”

slim_pickens-harvey_korman

Now since it is getting late and I have things to do in the morning even though “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives” I must prepare for bed.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Blazing Saddles and Contemporary American Life and Politics

 The affairs of state

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiF0M4uOhgI&feature=related

What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?

Sometimes a film can capture the spirit of a society. If there is an iconic film that captures the spirit of America it has to be Mel Brooks’ classic Western spoof Blazing Saddles.  It debuted back in 1974 when the nation was bitterly divided facing political crisis in the wake of the Watergate break-in cover-up which was soon to usher President Richard Nixon out of office and an economic crisis including a spike in oil and gas prices brought about by Middle East tensions.  Americans also faced the end of a disastrous war in Vietnam the military threat of the Soviet Union, dissent among our Allies and the rise of a new economic power Japan.

It is at times like this that our political leaders almost always fail to rise to the occasion and take every opportunity to preserve their power and political offices catering to their own interest groups at the expense of everyone else.  Blazing Saddles captures the moment quite well when upon learning of chaos in the town of Rock Ridge Governor LePetomane played by Mel Brooks reacts as almost all politicians do when a crisis arises.

“Holy underwear! Sheriff murdered! Innocent women and children blown to bits! We have to protect our phony baloney jobs here, gentlemen! We must do something about this immediately! Immediately! Immediately! Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph!”

Unfortunately when I look at our political, economic and social landscape I am frequently taken back to this bit of the film.  Sometimes I think that Governor LePetomane is much more reflective of the men and women that we elect at every level of government than it is not. I think that the only time that politicians get concerned about something that really matters is when their “phony baloney jobs” are at stake. Come to think of it I don’t think it matters if they are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Tea Partiers or even Commies the only time that 99.61872% of politicians give a damn about an issue is if it threatens their re-election bids or aspirations to a higher office.  Then and only then do they at least pretend to care, well at least until they are re-elected.  My number might actually be lower than reality but you get the idea.  But of course the affairs of state must take precedence over the affairs of state and the business of government really hasn’t changed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-cje17OGnQ&feature=related

Attorney Generla Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman): Under the provisions of this bill we would snatch 200,000 acres of Indian Territory, which we have deemed unsafe for their use at this time. They’re such children.
Governor LePeotomane: 200,000 acres? 200,000 acres? What will it cost, man? What will it cost?
Headley Lamar: A box of these (box of paddle balls).
LePetomane: Are you crazy? They’ll never go for it, and then again they might. Little red devils! They love toys!

Lamar then has Governor LePetomane sign another bill to “convert the state hospital for the insane into the William J. Le Petomane Memorial Gambling Casino for the Insane.”

In such times many people take refuge in their faith and the people of Rock Ridge were no exception. Since I am well versed in almost every Mel Brooks movie song I immediately thought of the following verse from the song The Ballad of Rock Ridge.

Now is a time of great decision

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9v0OLW3Qhc8

“Now is a time of great decision, are we to stand up or to quit? There’s no avoiding this conclusion, our town is turning into shit.”

In such a climate citizens have to ask the question so aptly put in The Ballad of Rock Ridge. What will citizens do?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9v0OLW3Qhc8

Some like the preacher, Reverend Johnson want to leave “Now I don’t have to tell you good folks what’s been happening in our beloved little town. Sheriff murdered, crops burned, stores looted, people stampeded, and cattle raped. The time has come to act, and act fast. I’m leaving.”


But the town drunk Gabby Johnson tells the reverend exactly what he thinks:

“You get back here you pious candy-ass sidewinder. Ain’t no way that nobody is gonna’ to leave this town. Hell, I was born here, an’ I was raished here, an’ dad gum it, I am gonna die here, an no sidewindin bushwhackin, hornswaglin, cracker croaker is gonna ruin my biscuit cutter.”

Gabby manages to inspire his fellow townspeople into staying as Olson Johnson played by David Huddleston rallies the town “What are we made of? Our fathers came across the prairie, fought Indians, fought drought, fought locusts, fought Dix – remember when Richard Dix came in here and tried to take over this town? Well, we didn’t give up then, and by gum, we’re not gonna give up now.”

I think is that if we want the country to get better we can’t give up no matter how nutty the extremists on both sides of the political divide get. Of course those on the extremes who all believe that they are the mainstream seem to constantly multiply by exponential exponents. This means of course, mathematically speaking that there are a lot more of the extremists than there have ever been before and we moderates will soon be an endangered species no matter which bunch of extremists eventually wins though at the present time it seems that the political right is setting the agenda but back to the film and its application in today’s world.

I saw an article about a Republican leader of the Orange County Tea Party named Marilyn Davenport who had sent out a very racist and ugly e-mail to friends and supporters that like so many e-mails happen to get forwarded to people that don’t see the humor.  The e-mail showed an image, posed like a family portrait, of chimpanzee parents and child, with Obama’s face artificially superimposed on the child. Text beneath the photo reads, “Now you know why no birth certificate.”

I am depressed

Unfortunately beyond the matters of policy, eligibility or political ideology that some on the right have with President Obama and the Democrats there is also a racist element that just hates the fact that we have a black man in the White House. Mr. Taggart played by Slim Pickins made this comment on being introduced to a very black Sheriff Bart played by Cleavon Little  “Well, if that don’t beat all. Here we take the good time and trouble to slaughter every last Indian in the West, and for what? So they can appoint a sheriff that’s blacker than any Indian. I am depressed.”  Having been threatened by White Supremacists on this website I know that there is an undercurrent of racism involved in this. Policy disagreements are one thing, as far as I’m concerned on policy issues there is nothing off limits whether I agree or disagree. That is political free speech which I will die to defend. However vitriolic racial hatred masquerading as “internet humor” as Mrs. Davenport called it is unacceptable. It may be free speech but we have to call it what it is, racial hatred.  Now people on the political left often flippantly refer to Conservatives of all varieties as “Nazis” and have their own fair share of hateful e-mails and prejudices so this cuts both ways.

However I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when lynching’s still occurred in the South and even in Northern California adults, contemporaries of my parents produced some of the most racially insensitive and prejudiced comments when our schools in Stockton were desegregated.  The comments were made in school district meetings and in the opinion page of the Stockton Record and they were quite ugly. I was part of the first High School classes to go through my entire high school years in a desegregated school, Edison High School in Stockton California. Somehow the “Soul Vikes” made it work and of our class which was about 25% black, 25% white, 25% Mexican American and 25% Asian along with a further 8% that no-one could place are still close and care about each other.  We have we attended reunions and hundreds of us are friends on Facebook. We defied the “experts” who said that there would be violence and that the “social experiment” could not work.  We are conservatives and liberals, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and Tea Partiers, straight and gay, black, white, Hispanic and Asian, Fundamental Christians, Progressive Christians, traditionalists, non-traditionalists, Buddhists, Jews, maybe even a Moslem or two and certainly some free tinkers, agnostics and Atheists too, but we share something very special. While we may disagree on some very important matters we still care about each other and respect each other.

What bothers me about the present racism is that some of the worst offenders claim to be Christians or if they do not claim to be Christians often seek the support of conservative Christians for their political agendas.  Somehow I think that Jesus would not approve.  Racism has no place in our society no matter what race does it especially for people who claim to be followers of Jesus.

The sad truth is that in his time Mel Brooks took a bolder stand against racism than most Christians. Using the Old West and humor he mocked racism and showed its ugliness in a way that Middle America got.  Maybe we should take a mass dandelion break and grab a copy of Blazing Saddle’s put it in our DVD, Blue-Ray or computer and reflect back on what might be. Maybe like Sheriff Bart we can ride into the sunset knowing that our job is done.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MySGAaB0A9k

Bart: Work here is done. I’m needed elsewhere now. I’m needed wherever outlaws rule the West, wherever innocent women and children are afraid to walk the streets, wherever a man cannot live in simple dignity, wherever a people cry out for justice.
The Townspeople: (in unison) Bullshit!
Bart: All right, you caught me. Speaking the plain truth is getting pretty damn dull around here.


Dull can be good but anyway I digress….however there are times that I feel like Mongo…”Mongo not know Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, History, movies, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion

Laughing to the Music: The Musical Genius of Mel Brooks

The Zany Mel Brooks as the Governor in Blazing Saddles

When most people think of legendary comedian Mel Brooks they are likely to think of the hilarious shtick of such movies as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs, the Movie, DVD or Video. Brooks is a comic genius but mixed in with the comedic side of Brooks he has a musical side that captures some of the most popular genres of yesteryear and overlays them with incredibly witty lyrics and catchy music.  Whether the music is Broadway musical, crooning, or even something out of the old west brooks brings a comedic edginess that can offend and delight at the same time. Today I will share a bit about the songs and soundtracks from the various Brooks films interspersed with the songs from the films.

Teri Garr, Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein

Now I know that some people will say and rightly so that I am just a bit warped in my worldview.  I’m okay with that, in fact I would hate not to be as I think that life would be boring.  Maybe that is why I like Brooks so much.  He demonstrates that rare form of being able to entertain and even provide social commentary on issues like racism and discrimination in Blazing Saddles.  Part of how he did this so successfully was in the music that he often wrote for his movies.  It is one of those unusual things that most people, even Brooks aficionados have no idea that Brooks was the genius behind the music in his movies.

As for me I love Brooks’ music as well as his comedy.  I can practically sing from memory the major songs of each of his movies and frequently will find that I am inadvertently singing them going down a hallway at work or in the car. Some Priests sing hymns or praise and worship songs, I sing Mel Brooks songs. C’est la vie.

Springtime for Hitler 1968

The first film that Brooks music featured prominently was the original The Producers starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Dick Shawn which was reprised on Broadway and later on the big screen with Nathan Lane, Matthew Modine and Will Ferrell. The original Producers involved a Broadway producer who has seen better days (Mostel) and his new tax accountant (Wilder) trying to find the “world’s worst play” to produce as a flop which they would then keep the money raised for the play.  They find their play written by former German Soldier Franz Liebkind the author of Springtime for Hitler “a gay romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchesgarten.”  They hire the world’s worst director “Roger DeBris” to direct the play and raise a huge amount of money to produce it by selling well far more than 100% of the profits.  Expecting the play to offend everyone they begin an early celebration before finding out that people love the play. The play becomes a critically acclaimed hit leading them to try to blow up the theater.  The music of Brooks is prominently featured in all three. The irony of producers producing a guaranteed flop which becomes a hot on the big screen and then a real hit on Broadway is not to be lost.  The theme song from the play Springtime for Hitler both in 1968 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGp0hCxSg98 and the later version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCUfkMkVbwo also found its way into Blazing Saddles.

Springtime for Hitler 2005

As an interesting side note Brooks has a cameo during the song in both versions where as a member of the cast he sings “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty come and join the Nazi Party.” The Producers also featured more Brooks’ songs including Love Power sung by Dick Shawn playing Lorenzo St. Dubois or LSD http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkYBJId7WZs Prisoners of Love featured in both the 1968 and the 2005 versions and When You Got it Flaunt it, I Want to Be a Producer and Keep it Gay all from the 2005 version are classic show tunes.

Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder as Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles

The Producer’s netted Brooks an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  Brooks’ next two hit films Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein both featured interesting musical arrangements, The most memorable coming from Blazing Saddles which starred Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn.  The songs Blazing Saddles http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tyhpt6_pwc the Ballad of Rock Ridge http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiTKIbR69ss

Madeline Kahn as Lilly Von Schtupp singing “I’m Tired”

I’m Tired http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQU0_PHUB2E and the French Mistake featuring Dom DeLuise http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMK6lzmSk2o are all Brooks’ work.

The French Mistake Musical Scene from Blazing Saddles

He even managed to take an old tune into Young Frankenstein where Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle as Dr Frankenstein and the monster perform Puttin’ on the Ritz http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VH2nQHPs4aA.

Dr Frankenstein and the Monster (Wilder and Peter Boyle) singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz”

Brook’s next film’s High Anxiety, a takeoff on Hitchcock movies starring Brooks, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman feature Brooks’ songs High Anxiety http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ki_UcRmELvs and If You Love Me Tell Me Loud. History of the World Part I which starred Brooks, Kahn, Korman and a host of comic greats would incorporate music is ways undreamed of by those who viewed these films.

The Inquisition from History of the World Part One

In fact the musical segment The Spanish Inquisition featured the song The Inquisition http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oppHeMlaLVM where Brooks plays the Spanish Inquisitor Torquemada in a spoof of the 1930s musical featuring dancing monks in wink tips, nuns who perform a synchronized swimming number as well as banter between Brooks and the various Jews and heretics that he is trying to convert. The irony of course being that Brooks is Jewish.  The closing song Jews in Space http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_jLnrUXJNM is the trailer for a sequel which was never produced. In Spaceballs Brooks collaborated with others to produce the title song Spaceballs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezyoKr0v-HQ which was performed by The Spinners.

Men in Tights

Brooks would continue making movies which though not as popular brilliant as his earlier works would feature some funny songs written by Brooks.  Robin Hood: Men in Tights featured Men in Tights http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pc1am3KyYgA , Marian and the Sherwood Forrest Rap http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APTXBm5Zp-Y The 1983 film To Be or Not to Be in which Brooks starred with his wife Anne Bancroft was about the Nazi invasion of Poland featured the Brooks songs A Little Peace and Ladies. A music video for this film entitled The Hitler Rap http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yu2NqfISm9k was released as part of the promotion for the film.

Hitler as a polish Jew playing Hitler in a Parody in pre-War Warsaw in To Be or Not to Be

I don’t know that we will ever see a comedic genius who is able to also incorporate music, especially classic Broadway style show tunes in about every movie that they make.  Brooks in my mind is one of those once in a blue moon kind of entertainers whose creativity is not bound by words or gags but crafted through a diverse experience of live performance, film, writing and producing taking comedy to places where his edginess and occasional social commentary was heard and appreciated by middle America.  That is the genius of Mel Brooks.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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