Never give a saga an even break” screamed the poster for Mel Brooks’ uproarious Blazing Saddles, which stampeded into theaters on Feb. 7, 1974. As it turned out, that combination of bad pun and backhanded homage (to W.C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break) merely hinted at the kitchen-sink mayhem that lay beyond the theater lobby.
Saddles‘ plot — to the extent that it mattered — revolved around the efforts of a dastardly attorney general (Harvey Korman) to decimate the dusty hamlet of Rock Ridge in time to orchestrate a deal to run a railroad through it. To that end, he appoints a lowly black gang worker (Cleavon Little) as the sheriff, hoping that his mere presence will stir the town’s indignant white folk to hightail it out of there.
Tossing screwball, slapstick, double entendres, and sight gags into the mix, Brooks also gave nearly every potential viewer something to be offended by. There was a generous dose of ethnic slurring, including jabs at Jews, Native Americans, and the Irish, as well as numerous utterances of the N-word; the infamous campfire scene, in which a band of bean-eating cowboys loose their flatulent fury; and in what must have been a heart stopper for animal-rights folks, a ham-fisted assault on a horse by Alex Karras’ not-so-gentle giant, Mongo.
”Some of the people within the studio were very disapproving and critical of it,” recalls John Calley, the then head of Warner Bros. who greenlit the flick. In fact, Little’s casting was reportedly a concession to those suits who felt the original choice for the part, Richard Pryor, was too controversial. By the same token (as it were), Brooks, anticipating criticism from black activists, recruited Pryor to the writing team (joining Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg, and Alan Uger).
Not surprisingly, critical reaction was mixed. The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby harrumphed that the film was ”funny in the way…a rude burp in church can be.” The Wall Street Journal pronounced it ”an undisciplined mess.” Imagine their irritation when it became one of the highest-grossing films of the year, and Brooks snagged an Oscar nod for the title song.
But Saddles‘ biggest impact would be on the next generation of envelope pushers. It’s hard to imagine the Airplane! sensibility of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, let alone Jim Carrey’s butt talking, the antics of the Farrelly brothers, or the South Park phenomenon, in the absence of this outrageous oater. ”Should I be happy that I’ve spawned such insanity?” Brooks says. ”Yes, I’m very proud and very ashamed at the same time.”