When Mel Brooks’s now classic comedy “Blazing Saddles” first aired before a bunch of Warner Bros. studio execs, it almost didn’t make the cut.
According to the director, after that first select showing, Leo Greenfield, head of the studio’s domestic distribution, tried to kill the movie.
“I have never asked Warner Bros. to eat a movie. I am asking them to do it now. This is a disgusting movie and [we] should never have the Warner Bros. seal on such a terrible, disgusting, embarrassing movie for our company,” Greenfield warned.
Several other Warner Bros. hands agreed with Greenfield. Brooks summarized their reactions: “Yeah, I think he’s right, you know, so what? It’s $2.5 million we’ve invested. The hell with it. So we lose it. We shouldn’t go any further than this because we’re putting our name in jeopardy.”
They were all overruled by head studio exec John Calley. “No, we’re not putting our name in jeopardy. You know, I think it’s funny. And I think we ought to try it in three cities and see what reaction we get,” Calley said.
It was the right call. Audiences in those three cities liked “Blazing Saddles” a whole lot more than Warner Bros. brass did. The movie was a critical and commercial hit.
American Film Institute ranks the film sixth on its list of top funny movies of the twentieth century. Off a production budget of $2.5 million and with no advertising budget to speak of, “Blazing Saddles” pulled in over $119 million in domestic box office sales in the summer of 1974.
According to Boxofficemojo.com, if we adjust for inflation “Blazing Saddles” grossed over $500 million in today’s dollars. That makes it the forty-ninth highest grossing movie of all time.
It’s also a ridiculously funny send-up of racism in the Wild West. One of life’s great pleasures for “Blazing Saddles” fans is to watch the jaw-dropping, eye-popping, belly-laughing reactions of folks who see the movie for the first time.
The plot, such as it is, involves the efforts of a railroad company to get land that it needs on the cheap by driving people in the frontier town of Rock Ridge away. The people ask for some help against the hired bandits. The territorial government, in cahoots with the railroad company, answers by sending a new sheriff named Bart (played by Cleavon Little) who just happens to be black.
Rock Ridge residents flip out, but Sheriff Bart manages to avoid being lynched. Eventually, he finds a way to win them over and save them all from the railroad company thugs, with a little help from a multi-racial coalition of disgruntled railroad workers. In an exchange that captures the beating comic heart of the movie, Bart arrives with the cavalry and has to overcome some objections:
Townspeople: Who the hell are they?
Bart: Railroad workers. They’ve agreed to help us make our dream come true. And all they ask in return is a little bit of land they can call their own to homestead. Now what do you say?
Townspeople: (Disgruntled muttering.)
Guy from Bonanza: All right, we’ll give some land to the niggers and the chinks, but we don’t want the Irish!
Railroad workers: (Disgruntled muttering.)
Bart: No deal.
Bonanza guy: Aw, prairie shit. (Waves arm like he’s throwing in the towel.) Everybody!
Brooks gave a long interview to Yahoo News for the fortieth anniversary special rerelease of the movie on Blu-ray. He called it his funniest movie, which is saying something seeing as how he also directed “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” and “Spaceballs.” He also said that it couldn’t be made today “because everybody’s so politically correct.”
“You’ve got to really examine these things and see what’s right and what’s wrong. Politically correct is absolutely wrong, because it inhibits the freedom of thought,” Brooks said.
He claimed studio fear of protests over the use of “the N-word” would keep today’s “Blazing Saddles” from ever being made for a mass audience, and he’s probably right about that. He argued this was really a disservice to black Americans and indeed to all Americans.
Brooks said many people tell him that the “farting scene” is the funniest bit in “Blazing Saddles.” Looking back, he disagrees: “You know what makes something funny? The juxtaposition of different textures. What makes it really funny is that there’s a black guy fighting for integrity, for dignity, for humanity. Just fighting to be looked at as a human being.”