Golden Oldies On the Big Screen Golden Oldies On the Big Screen



For, Friday, Jan. 29, 2016

Mel Brooks. I became a fan when I was quite young after seeing him on “The Steve Allen Show” as the 2,000-Year-Old Man, with Carl Reiner feeding him straight lines.

Later, they put that and other routines on a record, “2,000 Years With Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks,” which I bought the day it came out and played over and over. Hilarious.

Later I would see Brooks occasionally guesting on Allen’s show and other programs, with and without Reiner, and found him to be an off-the-cuff riot every time.

Years later, in 1968, when I finished Army basic training in Fort Ord, California, and went home for a week before shipping out to Vietnam, I read in the newspaper that a movie called “The Producers” was playing in a local theater. The description sounded amusing but I’d never heard of the stars, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.

Then I saw the name of the writer-director — Mel Brooks. Really? My Mel Brooks? I raced to the theater, dragging some friends (Mel who? Why are we going to this?), and we laughed ourselves silly for 88 minutes.

Brooks’ next film came out two years later, “The Twelve Chairs,” but I was in the Army and wasn’t able to see it until years later.

But when his third film came out in 1974, I was back in civilian life — and I headed straight to the theater a day or two after it opened. “Blazing Saddles,” as it was called, was quite different from Brooks’ other films, both of which had narrative stories to prop up the more organic jokes.


     Cleavon Little, left, Gene Wilder, 'Blazing Saddles'

Although “Blazing Saddles” has a story of sorts, it’s really just a clothesline on which to hang wall-to-wall, off-the-wall, anachronistic silliness, stream-of-consciousness gags that came so fast and furious it’s hard to keep up. And it was also rather naughty for the time, with sexual innuendo that earned the film an R rating.

But it got away with it for two reasons: First, it had a timely civil-rights message with its plot about a black sheriff (the witty and very appealing Cleavon Little) in a bigoted frontier town, and second — and most important — it was very funny. I laughed and laughed.

Watching “Blazing Saddles” today, there are still some hysterical bits and skits (most famously the campfire scene), and it’s still naughty. But the big surprise is that, compared with what’s out there today, it’s actually quite tame. In fact, it’s doubtful the film would even get an R rating in 2016, considering the things that PG-13 movies get away with now.


Mel Brooks as a Yiddish-speaking Indian, 'Blazing Saddles'

In addition to Little, plenty of laughs are generated by Gene Wilder as an alcoholic gunslinger, Harvey Korman as the state attorney general, Western veteran Slim Pickens as Korman’s henchman, Madeline Kahn as a German saloon singer, Alex Karras as Mongo (who, famously, punches out a horse) along with brief appearances by Dom DeLuise, John Hillerman, David Huddleston, and Brooks himself as two characters, and as an extra in a couple of scenes. Count Basie and his orchestra also show up.

Although Olsen & Johnson’s 1941 “Hellzapoppin’ ” may be the first truly off-the-wall movie spoof, “Blazing Saddles” opened the door for “Airplane!” and the “Naked Gun” movies, and every other off-the-wall farce that followed.

Of course, it also paved the way for vulgar, sleazy comedy that goes a lot further than Brooks would have dreamed of in 1974.

Best of all, it opened the door for Brooks to make more, and next came his best film, “Young Frankenstein,” which opened later the same year.

You can see “Blazing Saddles” in several (but not all) Cinemark Theaters on Sunday, Jan. 31, at 2 p.m., and on Wednesday, Feb. 3, at 2 and 7 p.m.