If there’s an upside to the rash of celebrity deaths this year, it’s that The Rio Theatre has been honouring the deceased with retrospectives of their best movies. First it was Bowie, then it was Prince, and lately it’s been Gene Wilder.
Last night I went and saw a double-feature of The Producers and Blazing Saddles. The Producers is one of those movies that’s always alluded me so I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen. It did not disappoint. Springtime for Hitler never fails to crack me up; the musical number itself is hilarious, made better by the theatre audience’s reaction to what they’re seeing.
Blazing Saddles was the first “adult” comedy I ever saw. My brother went to see it a couple of times in the theatre when it came to the Brampton Mall Cinema, and then CityTV showed it on TV a couple of years later.
Back in the Seventies and Eighties, CityTV in Toronto was a novice cineaste’s dream come true. Every night they showed R-rated movies like Taxi Driver and Annie Hall at 8PM and 11PM. They would show the “edited for TV” version at 8PM and then show the same movie again unedited at 11PM—swearing and nudity and all. CityTV basically taught a generation of Southern Ontario kids how to cuss and have sex.
My older brother and I shared a room at the time. He said I could stay up and watch Blazing Saddles with him as long as I promised to be quiet. The two of us squeezed onto his single bed, our faces inches away from his 10 inch black and white TV with the volume turned down really low.
Fifteen minutes into the movie, I was laughing so hard, my brother had to cover my face with a pillow so I wound’t wake up my parents. It’s one of my fondest memories I have of my brother.
The last time I saw Blazing Saddles was at The Castro Theatre in the late-Nineties/early-Naughts. People in the audience hissed whenever the N-Word was used. I thought they were being overly-sensitive since Richard Pryor co-wrote the script. According IMBD, he was supposed to play Bart but Mel Brooks couldn’t secure financing with him as the star (I thought it had to with insurance).
I was curious how the audience at The Rio would respond to the use of the N-word in light of the recent deaths of two black men by police in Charlotte, NC and Tulsa, OK. I half-expected people to walk out or someone to cause a scene.
Watching the movies you love from the late-sixties and early-seventies can be challenging in this day and age. Blacks, Asians, and gays had their place in films: the butt of a joke, or a body bag. It’s sort of like reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: you have to be prepared to turn blind eye to the times to focus on the story.
I personally, have a hard time believing Mel Brooks is a racist, homophobe. If anything, I think he was one of the first people to appropriate hate-speech and use against his oppressors. The song, Springtime for Hitler, is not an homage to the Furher—it’s a thumb in the eye of anti-semites.
The N-word was certainly used more liberally by white movie characters in the Seventies, but I’m still of the mind that Blazing Saddles is actually a satire about race, and a good one at that. The movie doesn’t shy away from how blacks would have been treated during the Gold Rush, and all of the racists in the movie come off as idiots. If anything, the movie was a great antidote to the racist rhetoric coming out of the American election at the moment.
The only scene that made me really uncomfortable was when Mel Brooks appeared onscreen in red face as an Indian Chief. Laughing at the expense of First Nations is not cool, but in the context of the film, the joke was about race as opposed to being at the expense of it.
Being gay, I didn’t have any issue with the gay stereotypes in either The Producers and Blazing Saddles—truth be told, I thought they were offensive, but pretty funny. That said, if someone pulled that shit now, I would go up and down their ass.
I don’t know if I’m turning a blind-eye to the blatant racism, misogyny, and homophobia of Mel Brooks’ early films because I have fond memories of them, or because he used humour to make a point. I certainly wouldn’t laugh at the same movie were it by someone like Adam Sandler.
However, I couldn’t help but notice that Blazing Saddles serves as a template to so many popular movies and television shows. Those cutaways in The Family Guy come directly from Blazing Saddles—one scene particularly. And I think it’s safe to say the shock-appeal of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s humour is definitely influenced by Mel Brooks as well.
That’s the trade-off with politically incorrect humour from 40 years ago. You don’t have to like it, but without it we wouldn’t have the political satire we know and love today.