INDEPENDENT 2024-02-06 12:15:46

Blazing Saddles at 50: Story of the wackiest western ever made

It was “too dirty” for John Wayne to accept a part. Too “disgusting and vulgar” for Ted Ashley, the chairman of Warner Brothers, who threatened to “bury” the film. But director Mel Brooks stuck to his guns, refusing to make edits, and was vindicated. Blazing Saddles, 50 this February, was a massive hit, one Brooks declared “the funniest motion picture ever”.

The story of the creation, making and legacy of Blazing Saddles is as anarchic as the movie itself. The idea for a film about Sheriff Bart, a Black dandy who saves a town of rednecks from an unscrupulous developer and his violent henchmen, came in 1972 from a young screenwriter, Andrew Bergman, who had recently completed a PhD in American movie history. Warners asked Brooks to flesh out Bergman’s 30-page “skeletal outline” for a western called Tex-X.

Brooks, then 46, was unemployed and “absolutely broke”, despite the acclaim for his 1967 movie The Producers. His actress wife Anne Bancroft was expecting their first child. He leapt at the chance to write and direct “the wackiest, most insane movie ever made”, one that lampooned racism and spoofed the westerns he watched growing up as Max Kaminsky in Williamsburg, New York.

The screenwriting team led by Brooks included Bergman, Norman Steinberg, Alan Uger and the volatile comic Richard Pryor. Brooks, clearly a fan of the superlative, described the late Pryor as “the greatest stand-up comedian who ever lived”, albeit one with demons and a ferocious appetite for Rémy Martin. Pryor, who once saw his mother tear open his father’s testicles during a fight at the family-run brothel, was also a drug addict, who had snorted cocaine with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. When Pryor offered a vial to Brooks during a writing session, the director joked, “Me? Never before lunch.”

To Warner Brothers, Pryor was “a known sniffer” (in Brooks’s words) and, following a drugs arrest, they flatly rejected the proposal that the “uninsurable” comedian play Black Bart, the sheriff of frontier town Rock Ridge. Pryor and Brooks auditioned about 100 actors until being captivated by Cleavon Little, a Broadway star Brooks described as “this beautiful, sculptured, laidback man”. Pryor was blunter. “I’m coffee-coloured and have a moustache, I look Cuban,” he told Brooks. “That mother****er is so Black; he’s gonna scare the s*** out of that town.’”

For the white screenwriters, the racist slurs were a problem. However, Pryor was adamant they must use the “N” word – and frequently. “We are writing a story of racial prejudice. That’s the word, the only word. It’s profound, it’s real, and the more we use it from the rednecks, the more the victory of the Black sheriff will resonate,” he said. The result was a groundbreaking satire of bigotry, with the sophisticated Bart (he has a Gucci saddlebag) deftly exposing the stupidity of the white racists. When a chain-gang boss demands a “good old n***** work song”, the Sheriff and his Black co-workers croon Cole Porter’s “I Get No Kick from Champagne”. The punchline is that the white cowboys end up in a ludicrous demonstration of how to sing and dance to “De Camptown Races”. Later, when the townsfolk want to shoot Bart, he escapes by holding a gun to his own throat and faking a surreal self-hostage situation. “Oh, baby, you’re so talented… and they are so dumb,” he remarks.

The most unsettling moment, though, is when Bart meets a resident from Rock Ridge, the sort of bonnet-wearing, sweet-looking old lady who is a stereotype of the western, and she yells: “Up yours, n*****!” in his face. When Bart returns to his sheriff’s office, his drunken gunslinger deputy Jim the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) notices his crestfallen face and says, “These people are the common clay of the New West… you know… morons.” Brooks said that line always got the biggest laugh from cinema audiences, who were sampling the big screen’s first interracial buddy comedy.

Wilder was hired by chance. Brooks originally cast Gig Young, an Oscar winner for 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, after being told the star was in recovery. Brooks joked that he was delighted to hire “a real old alkie”. Sadly, after one attempt at his first scene, Young began screaming, shaking and spewing green vomit, and had to be taken away in an ambulance. Brooks rang Young’s manager and quipped, “He ain’t quite recovered.” Gigs later filed a $100,000 suit for damages but was reportedly unsuccessful. Wilder answered Brooks’s plea to replace Young and flew straight to California from New York. He learned lines on the plane and was magnificent, without a single rehearsal.

One lawsuit that did earn a payout was to the Golden Age actress Hedy Lemarr, who took exception to Brooks’s scheming attorney general Hedley Lamarr (played by Harvey Korman) and the running joke over his name. In June 1974, she filed a $10,000,000 suit for invasion of privacy and exploiting her name without permission. “We settled out of court,” Brooks admitted. “It wasn’t a lot, a couple of thousand dollars. I apologised to her for ‘almost using your name’… I don’t think she got the joke.”

Another running gag was around the gargantuan subliterate thug Mongo, played by former Detroit Lions American football star Alex Karras. Pryor wrote witty dialogue for Mongo’s scenes, including Jim’s advice to Bart, “Don’t shoot him, it will just make him mad.” Pryor also penned the poignant line when, gazing up with puppy eyes, the hulking outlaw says, “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

Mongo’s most famous scene, however, was knocking down a horse with one mighty punch, after riding into town on a Brahman bull. Brooks had been told by comedian Sid Caesar about the time he slugged an unruly horse between the eyes. The screenwriter stored the anecdote away. Brooks said he got about a thousand letters of complaint from animal lovers, even though it was a horse trained to fall when the stunt ride pulled back on the bridle, before contact with Mongo’s fist.

The supporting cast – including Slim Pickens, David Huddleston, Burton Gilliam, Madeline Kahn and bandleader Count Basie (playing himself in a funny music scene in the desert) – were superb. Brooks had fun playing a Native American chief who talks with a Yiddish accent, and the lecherous, cross-eyed Governor William J Le Petomane (named after the 19th-century Frenchman Le Pétomane, whose whole act was based on flatulence). One of the most cutting moments in the film is when Le Petomane praises the “fair” scheme to give Indigenous Indians a box of paddleball toys in exchange for duping them out of 200,000 acres of their land.

Perhaps the most celebrated scene in the film, though, is when a band of outlaws sit around a campfire eating beans. They belch and fart loudly for over a minute. Brooks asked a friend about the edginess of the scene and was told, “If you are going up to the bell you better ring it.” Brooks was asked in 2016 whether Blazing Saddles could have been made in the 21st century. “I don’t think so, no,” he replied. “Maybe you could get away with the campfire scene with the farting. I think you could. But I don’t think you could ever get away with the “N” word being done by so many white people so many times.”

Although the film is a terrific parody of racism and small-mindedness – and full of clever inside jokes, routines, sight gags and homages about iconic westerns such as High Noon, Looney Tunes cartoons, vaudeville acts, Busby Berkeley dance routines and William Shakespeare’s Henry V – it is less clear how much the casual homophobia (with repeated use of slurs) is there to also expose redneck prejudice or whether it’s simply another dismal example of a vile pejorative from a backward time.

Right up to the final editing process, Brooks played with the title. After rejecting Tex-X, he proposed Black Bart and then The Purple Sage (Warners thought it was “too arcane”) before having a “Eureka!” moment in the shower and coming up with Blazing Saddles. Bancroft told him “it doesn’t make any sense”, but Brooks insisted, “It says western and it says crazy.”

After the infamous screening for Warner executives, Ashley told Brooks to axe 26 scenes, ordering him to write on a legal pad: “The farting scene has to go. You can’t punch a horse. You can’t hit an old lady. And you can’t use the ‘N’ word.” “If I cut those we’d have a 15-minute film,” Brooks later said. “I wrote it all down and then, after he walked out, I crumpled up the pages and tossed them in the wastepaper bin.” Co-writer Steinberg had an even starker memory of the clash, telling AV Club: “We showed the film to the Warner office workers. And they went bats***. People were falling on the floor – because it was so outrageous at the time. And Mel said, ‘F*** ’em, this is our film,’ and that was the film that was released.”

Blazing Saddles had its world premiere on 7 February 1974, at the Pickwick Drive-In Theatre in Burbank, and the 250 guests – including Little and Wilder – arrived on horseback. The movie became Warner’s top moneymaker that summer, grossing $16,500,000. Brooks received $50,000 “for all the writing, directing and sweeping up”. The film received three Oscar nominations: for film editing, best song (“Blazing Saddles” was written by Brooks and John Morris and sung by Frankie Laine, who had sung on the classic Gunfight at the OK Corral) and for Kahn as Best Supporting Actress (playing Lili Von Shtüpp).

The film is not available on streaming outlets and rare television showings are usually the bowdlerised version that Brooks decries as having been “cut by prudes”. Seek out the original. Half a century on, Blazing Saddles stands as a remarkable comedy. “The film allowed me to be the lovely Rabelaisian vulgarian that I am,” Brooks said proudly.

Country music world mourns loss of musician Toby Keith

Tributes are pouring in for country music star Toby Keith, who has died aged 62.

Keith died of stomanch cancer on Monday (5 February) surrounded by his family, who said in a statement: “He fought his fight with grace and courage. Please respect the privacy of his family at this time.”

The musician, who sold more than 40 million records throughout his career, was best known for the songs “Red Solo Cup”, “I Don’t Wanna Talk About Me” and the controversial “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”.

He performed for US presidents including George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and was as much known for his public sparring with fellow celebrities as he was for his distinctly patriotic songs.

His final shows took place over the weekend, with Keith sharing video footage to his official Instagram page.

“And that’s a wrap on the weekend, y’all,” he wrote. “Back to it.”

Follow along with all the tributes to Keith as they roll in below

UK ship hit in Red Sea as US destroys Houthi drones

A British-owned cargo ship has been attacked in the Red Sea this morning, just days after the UK and the US jointly launched a fresh bout of airstrikes targeting Houthis in Yemen.

The ship suffered minor damage after being hit by a projectile while scaling off the coast of Yemen’s Hodeidah, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) said.

The US military, just hours before, conducted a strike in self-defence against two Houthi drones in Yemen after a drone attack hit a base housing US troops in Syria.

“US forces identified the explosive USVs in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen and determined they presented an imminent threat to US navy ships and merchant vessels in the region,” US Central Command said in a post on X.

Earlier, six Kurdish fighters were killed in a drone attack that hit the training ground at al-Omar base in Syria’s eastern province of Deir el-Zour, the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said.

It accused “Syrian regime-backed mercenaries” of carrying out the attack. No casualties were reported among US troops.

Police claim to have solved London ‘spy in the bag’ mystery

A review into the death of a British spy, whose naked, decomposing body was found padlocked in a bag in his bathtub, has finished, Londonpolice said on Monday.

The announcement brings an end to one of the city’s greatest mysteries of recent years.

Gareth Williams, 31, was working for Britain’s external intelligence service MI6 when he was found dead at his home in August 2010, and the nature of his job and his death provoked a wide range of what police later called “weird and wonderful” conspiracy theories.

Although a coroner concluded in 2012 that Williams was probably killed unlawfully by another person, a police investigation found he had probably died accidentally on his own, rejecting suspicions that the unusual death had involved foreign spies.

A further forensic review was commissioned in 2021 and its findings, delivered last November, had not thrown further light on the case, Detective Chief Inspector Neil John, the senior investigating officer.

“No new DNA evidence was found and no further lines of enquiry were identified,” John said in a statement.

Williams, worked as a code breaker at the Government Communications Headquarters in western England but was on a three-year secondment to MI6, which deals with foreign espionage matters at the time of his death.

The remains of the maths prodigy were found curled up inside a zipped and padlocked red hold-all at the London flat – an intelligence service “safe house” – close to MI6’s headquarters.

His body was badly decomposed after remaining in the bag in the August heat for a full week until he was discovered. Tests found no traces of alcohol, drugs or poison in his body.

Police disclosed at the time of Williams’ death that he owned £15,000 worth of women’s designer clothing, a wig and make up. It had been suggested that Williams dressed as a woman outside of work, though a forensics expert has since said they believe the spy likely worked undercover as a woman.

Apple Vision Pro torn apart and experts find ‘achilles heel’

The Apple Vision Pro has already been torn to pieces – and experts believe it has shown its “achilles heel”.

The new augmented reality headset was released on 2 February, at $3,499 and after years of rumours. One of the first to buy one was iFixit, the website that tears technology apart in an attempt to understand how easy it is to fix.

The company’s experts noted that the “achilles heel” of repairing the headset might be the large display on the front, which sometimes shows a virtual version of the eyes of its wearer, to let people know that they can see into the real world.

That was just one of the many complications in attempting to break down the headset to understand how it was to repair, the company said. The teardown revealed that the Vision Pro is tightly packed with a huge array of different components, which likely mean that it is practically impossible to fix it from home.

Overall, the company’s experts seemed impress with the headset. It said that the vast array of the components meant that it was not great to repair but that “some of the connections are quite delightful”.

“The Vision Pro is insanely ambitious,” iFixit wrote. “Yes, it’s heavy, and the glass is fragile, and that tethered battery might get annoying. But Apple has managed to pack the power of a Mac, plus the performance of a new dedicated AR chip, into a computer that you can wear on your face.”

But it appeared concerned about the display on the front of the headset, and it had been added. It noted that the feature had proven controversial in reviews, with some suggesting it was creepy or useless – but also noted that it required lots of complex technology to work.

It uses a “lenticular display” which aims to produce a three-dimensional effect. That means that it is actually made up of three layers that together show many videos of the eyes.

But all of those videos still did not give the right effect, the company said. As such, it had added complexity without even providing much value.

“So why, when this thing clearly took years and years to create—and is Apple’s latest bet on the future of computing—did Apple fail to live up to their own standards with the EyeSight screen?” iFixit wrote.

“It’s dim, it’s low-resolution, and it adds a lot of bulk, weight, complexity, and expense to the most weight-sensitive part of the headset. Did they finally hit the drop dead date and miss their targeted performance? Could it be a late-stage manufacturing error? Regardless, we’re sure bringing it to market was a difficult decision.”

The company also suggested that it would provide more information on the headset in the days to come.

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Even the prime minister must see the Conservatives have failed the NHS

Whichever polling you look at, voters see the ailing state of the NHS as one of the country’s top priorities.

According to the latest “public opinions and social trends” survey from the Office for National Statistics, 89 per cent of people cited the health service as the most critical issue facing the country, behind only the cost of living (93 per cent), with the overall economy not far behind. YouGov consistently has “health” in the top two most important issues for Britons, and other polling companies show similar results.

It is obvious, then, why Rishi Sunak made “cutting NHS waiting lists” one of his five key pledges for his administration. But just over a year later, he has admitted that he has failed to meet his target, even if he did not put a timeframe on the initial pledge. “We have not made enough progress,” he said in an interview with Piers Morgan.

Could Labour’s loss of Muslim support be a problem at the election?

A newly published poll is said to show that Labour’s support among Muslims has halved since 2019.

The party has not done itself any favours in the weeks since Israel launched its assault on Gaza in response to Hamas’s 7 October terror attacks.

But the claim that Labour is now backed by only 43 per cent of Muslims, compared to 86 per cent in 2019, was quickly branded misleading. Survation, which carried out the survey for the Labour Muslim Network, clarified that backing for the party has actually fallen to 60 per cent.