Thanksgiving. The real inauguration of the holiday season in the United States, and in homes, countries, points and vast places all around the globe, seems to begin here. If all goes according to plan, each year we enter into it primed to consider and acknowledge the aspects of our lives that make it worth living, our blessings, if you will. And so it is this year, even when things are not necessarily following the path to peace and happiness, in cities like Paris or Beirut or Chicago, or in many homes where sickness or poverty or other circumstances beyond individual control color our day-to-day experience outside the lines of a Rockwell-esque representation of holiday bliss.
And so it also has been for my family, a stressful month-long prelude to Thanksgiving Day precipitated by the simple act of changing bedsheets. One wrong move ended up meaning excruciating back pain, eventual back surgery and nearly the entire month of November recuperating in a hospital near downtown Los Angeles for our mother, all of which rippled out into an avalanche of worry for everyone else, especially my wife, who accepted her responsibility both as the primary facilitator for managing Mommy’s care within the system, and also for her father, who found himself suddenly unmoored from routine and the comfort of his wife’s company and set loose on a sea of anxiety over her well-being.
It has been a difficult, stressful time for all of us, and both my wife and I count ourselves lucky to be surrounded by those who seem to know how to care for us too in their own way, and that at-home care usually involves kitty cuddling and the liberal application of laughter inspired by our uniquely nutty daughters. Over this past month my wife’s tensions have often been effectively eased by the sound of their chatter and the invitation to join in a conversation which usually centers around Game of Thrones, Star Wars or some K-Pop phenomenon she only knows or cares about because it sends one or both of the girls into a hot-cheeked fangirl flameout. (If there’s a copious supply of jelly beans nearby, so much the better.)
One evening last week I was slumped in a chair, bedraggled by a day of less-than-satisfying news about our mother’s level of pain in recovery and a long day of driving back and forth around Los Angeles through harrowing traffic on one errand of mercy or another, when suddenly my phone jingled, indicating the receipt of a text message. It was from my eldest daughter, and when I opened it I was greeted by a .GIF of a large man hitching up a longhorn steer in front of a saloon on the street of a pokey Western town. One of the town’s citizenry berates the large man: “You can’t park that animal here!” To which the large man responds by sauntering over and punching the citizen’s horse square in the jaw, knocking man and beast into the dust.
It was a clip, of course, from Blazing Saddles, a perhaps unlikely candidate for status as a Life-Changing or Otherwise Important Movie which has nonetheless been exactly that for me ever since I saw it when it played my hometown in 1974. I have somehow been able to transfer my love for Mel Brooks’ loony classic to my oldest youngster, and she knew that seeing the clip was just what I needed in my worn-out moment, just the thing to momentarily lift me out of the murkiness of worry and into a perhaps lighter place. After she got the big laugh she was fishing for, the clips began flying from her phone and pinging mine with speed and fury—“Hey, where the white women at?!” “To tell a family secret, my grandmother was Dutch.” “I didn’t get a harrumph outta that guy!” “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” Of course, it wasn’t long before the stress was effectively chucked and I whipped out (cue horrified gasp from the citizens of Rock Ridge) the Blu-ray, allowing Frankie Laine to commence serenading us toward a familiar destination of comedy heaven which could never fully be contained by the boundaries of the Warner Brothers backlot.
I’ve always enjoyed telling my daughter stories of seeing the movie for the first time at age 14, in a packed house at my hometown movie palace, the Alger, accompanied by my mother, my younger sister (13) and for some reason my youngest sister (3) as well. We were seated together near the back of the auditorium, but it wasn’t long—sometime in the middle of Cleavon Little’s suave rail-side rendering of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” perhaps at the replacement of the word “kick” with the hilariously emphatic “belt”—before I was banished, because of my helpless and none-too-quiet laughter, to the back of the house, far enough away from the women to theoretically ease their embarrassment. Without missing a beat, I filled an empty seat just off the entrance to the snack bar and proceeded to howl away. Around the three-quarter mark, after a movie’s worth of relentless shrieking, I blasted a loud barking laugh in response to the gruff concession of frontier largesse directed by Olsen Johnson (David Huddleston) toward the railroad workers whom Sheriff Bart has employed to help the citizens foil Hedley Lamarr’s land-snatching ambitions– “We’ll take the niggers and the chinks, but we don’t want the Irish!” My hometown, you see, was largely settled by Irish immigrants, and the idea of the sort of self-made Irish folks I knew being denied any such thing as land or even common courtesy was to my mind so randomly hilarious that I couldn’t help my convulsive response. It was then that I noticed the wife of the owner of the theater, Norene Alger, né Norene O’Keefe, standing in the doorway to the lobby just over my left shoulder. Oops! But before my humiliation could profoundly settle in, she put her hand on that shoulder, leaned down, smiled and said, “I could hear you from the box office. I just wanted to come in and see if you were all right.” She just thought she’d check in before calling an ambulance. How’s that for customer service?
Blazing Saddles may have seemed like a throwaway at the time, and in some ways I suppose it still is; therein lies a considerable part of its charm. But its staying power, particularly for a comedy that doesn’t seem so much rooted in style as in the rage and uncertainty of the moment in which it first became a sensation, is worth examining, and the behind-the-scenes glimpses inside the gorgeous Mel Brooks Collection Blu-ray box set from which we pulled Blazing Saddles the other night (which I wrote about for Ray Young’s late, lamented Flickhead blog six years ago) offer some interesting observations. For Brooks’ career, Blazing Saddles marked a seismic shift after the Oscar-winning triumph of The Producers and the relatively tepid reception of The Twelve Chairs; it changed Brooks’ entire approach to filmmaking (for better and worse), and it ended up being a landmark in movie comedy as well. The 55-minute interview attached to the commentary track for that Blazing Saddles Blu-ray is an invaluable peek into the process of creating this foul-mouthed, subversive satire. In it Brooks details with fond remembrance, and not just a smidgen of frustration, the difficulties and joys of bringing the movie together. And in the set’s accompanying 120-page book, It’s Good to Be a King, Brooks recalls the process of fleshing out Andrew Bergman’s script, initially entitled Black Bart: “I wrote berserk, heartfelt stuff about white corruption and racism and Bible-thumping bigotry,” said the director, beginning the movie’s transformation from a wacky lark into, as producer Michael Hertzberg says on one of the Blu-ray’s documentaries, a movie that felt as though it had to be made. “Writing the movie got everything out of me,” remembers Brooks, “all of my furor, my frenzy, my insanity, my love of life and hatred of death.”
Seen in 2015, Blazing Saddles is, against all odds, as funny as ever– and this from someone who laughed so hard upon seeing it in 1974, you remember, that several of my classmates at school told me the next day, “I heard you at the movies last night!” To my mind that frenzy Brooks speaks of is channeled here into something truly representative not only of its creators’ states of mind, but the state of mind of the country at the time the movie was being made. It may be in many ways a pastiche, lacking the cohesive sense of style and tribute that marks Young Frankenstein, but no other Mel Brooks movie hits the kind of gasp-inducing highs that Blazing Saddles does, or sustains that delirium as well.
Maybe part of why the movie plays so brilliantly in 2015 is that it taps into our memories of a time that was perhaps less enlightened but also far less suppressed in terms of a culture’s permission to air its filthy laundry in the form of a vicious romp like this. (Even if someone had the nerve to try out a gag like Slim Pickens’ “#6 Dance” solution, in these lunatic days of trigger warnings and otherwise overly coddled sensibilities they’d likely get hauled up before a committee.) Going into the second American decade of the millennium, we have a Black president and nobody says the “N” word anymore. But anybody with sense and/or access to the daily reports filed from the streets of Ferguson and Chicago and Los Angeles and New York and all points around and between ought to be able to see that the old devils ain’t gone, they’re just hidden more deceptively. And as the 2016 presidential campaign begins ramping up it is clear enough that those devils are feeling distressingly empowered to start emerging from the shadows from where several decades of progressive social thinking had hoped to banish them. In Blazing Saddles Brooks fiddles with the enemy, recognizes him in us, and has a hell of a laugh in the attempted exorcism. In the long run that exorcism may not have worked, but it’s good to know that this movie, far exceeding is value as well-preserved time capsule, is still in there throwing punches around.
And thinking about this crazy picture certainly has seemed to have distracted me from other worries of the day too, hasn’t it? Mission accomplished, my sweet, thoughtful, .GIF-sending girl. I guess it wouldn’t be inappropriate at all to express thanksgiving to Mel Brooks, Cleavon Little, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, Richard Pryor and everyone who had a hand in making Blazing Saddles what it is. But I’m also grateful to my daughter for bringing it back to my attention, encouraging me with its humor and her appreciation of that humor, and for getting the movie back inside my head long enough to take me, for a few hours anyway, away from the worries swirling around in there with it. And oh, yeah, when I’m finished writing this we’re off to my wife’s parents’ house, where she will cook the day’s turkey and we’ll all raise a toast to happiness and health and all the rest of the things we seem to so easily take for granted. Our Mommy came back from the hospital yesterday, and we can’t wait to see her once again in the home where she belongs. She’s not a Mel Brooks fan, but that’s okay. Before and after dinner, while being waited on hand and foot, she can eat potato chips and watch anything she wants.