Sunday, June 28, 2015

Birthday Take: Mel Brooks in "Blazing Saddles" (1974)

Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Mel Brooks
Born: June 28, 1926 (89 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Song for "Blazing Saddles" from Blazing Saddles (nominated)

The Take

In the echelon of comedy, there are few directors as revered and recognized as Mel Brooks. On top of his achievements, he is one of the few EGOT members, or someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony; the categories considered to be the top of their respective fields. So what exactly makes a man whose best films were often lowbrow and dealt with very silly premises so special? It is hard to really judge comedy, as it is a subjective medium. However, if one was to properly understand the appeal of Brooks in one of his Oscar nominations, it would have to be for his Best Original Song nomination, which served as the film's theme song that comically told a story about the central characters.

The thing was that despite the comical nature, it is a very convincing song unto itself. It serves as the intro to one of his most beloved movies. It is a song that is done earnestly and has a sense of purpose in every note. It has the southern twang necessary to make it sound real. It also has intricate details, such as whips and yells that aren't just comical, but uncover something richer in the song. While Brooks doesn't deserve sole credit for why this song work, his nomination at least proves what is inevitable about his charm. He may be into very silly jokes, but he's also into doing things respectfully enough that you recognize the joke without groaning. He is just as much about detail as he is the payoff. That alone is what elevates Blazing Saddles, a film that has radically racist content, into something unique over 40 years later.

Then one can easily just continue to look through the rest of Blazing Saddles for further evidence of Brooks' ingenuity. The first immediate shots are those of slave owners insulting their slaves with every possible slur. It is immediately disarming and while hard to fully enjoy in a more conscious society, it isn't the insults that are the fuel of the joke. It's the reaction from the slaves that shifts perspective. As the owners try to get them to sing songs, they end up doing it themselves. This is only the start of a massive subversion of how the western genre is secretly racist by exploiting what is wrong with everything about it.

For many, Blazing Saddles is their favorite western on top of comedy. While it is likely because that genre doesn't appeal to them, it is also a reflection of Brooks' effort. He is continually commenting on the dumb nature of various archetypes. There's a few pop culture references spread throughout, but even if you don't know them they won't distract you. Even if the film doesn't have a direct response to racism, it does at least address the issues in an over the top manner, lacking the pretensions that other issues movies usually give the subject. It may be hard to immediately notice and for some audience members even hard to understand the motives, but that's the charm of Brooks. Even when he's lecturing you, he makes it so much fun.

While it is arguable that he has trailed off as a director in later decades, he remains a sharp and important mind of comedy all of these years later. He has done several HBO specials, sometimes with Carl Reiner, where all he does is talk. If there's one thing that's integral to Brooks' legacy, it is his ability to be a great showman and talker. While it is debatable what his best film actually is, he elevated comedy by making the details feel important. There's a certain craft to the joke that goes beyond the racism that many will rightfully accuse the film of having. Though if you're not in the mood, it still is quite a funny movie.

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