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"Blazing Saddles," and Gene Wilder, 40 Years Later in Stamford

Aug 29, 2016

Editor's note: Gene Wilder died Sunday at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. In 2014, WNPR's Jeff Cohen reported on a screening of "Blazing Saddles" with Wilder in attendance, followed by a Q&A with the actor. This was first published on October 30, 2014.

"It's making fun of the idiots that are politically incorrect. It's not offensive, because you're joking about them."
Ria Scalish

It's been 40 years since the release of the Mel Brooks' movie Blazing Saddles. I recently went to an anniversary screening and in the audience was one of the movie's stars: Gene Wilder.

The Avon Theatre in Stamford was packed, and Ria Scalish was near the front of the line.

Scalish knows the movie by heart: the dialogue, and the music, too, like this one from actress Madeline Kahn, singing as the German stage actress Lili Von Shtupp: "I'm tired," Scalish sang. "You want me to go through the song? I can do the whole song." I told her she didn't have to do the whole song. She sang anyway, "Sick and tired of love..."

The mini-marquee at the Avon Theatre in Stamford.
Credit Jeff Cohen / WNPR

Scalish dragged her husband with her from Cleveland to see "Blazing Saddles" on the big screen, and to see Gene Wilder in the flesh.

"I was raised on it," Scalish said. "It sounds weird, but it's one of my kid's movies. I'm 35 years old, but I grew up on it. All through my life, I've been quoting lines through it. I remember sitting at my grampa's house and watching it, sitting at my uncle's house and going back and forth with him, and just having all the memories with him."

Gene Wilder, left, and Cleavon Little in a scene from "Blazing Saddles," made in 1974.
Credit Warner Brothers

Credit Jeff Cohen / WNPR

I remember it, too. When I was a kid, and we got our first VCR, we picked up three movies from the store. "Blazing Saddles" was one of them.

This was back when rental stores didn't exactly have strict policies about when you had to bring the tape back. We kept the movie for what seemed like months, and I watched it endlessly.

It was a great, if early, age to watch a movie about racist white people somewhere in the Old West and how they dealt with the arrival of a black sheriff, played by Cleavon Little. The answer: not well, at first, but over time, they came to appreciate him -- as he, and his white six-shooting friend, played by Gene Wilder, helped save the town from evildoers.   

The plot isn't what makes the movie memorable, though. It's not even the fart gags -- and ask my kids, I love a good fart gag. It's the wince-inducing, painful jokes; probing jokes the movie makes about us.

Brooks and his co-writers, including Richard Pryor, take shots at all of us -- the earnest, the dumb, the pious, the drunk, the greedy, the hopeful, the actors, and most of all, the racists.

In one scene, Wilder, playing Jim, tries along with Sherriff Bart to get the attention of two members of the Ku Klux Klan. "Hey, boys! Look what I got here!" Jim says tauntingly. "Hey, where the white women at?" Bart asks the Klan members.

Cleavon Little, left, and Gene Wilder in "Blazing Saddles."
Credit Warner Brothers

Then there's the scene when Bart is upset. The townsfolk don't like him because he's black. Jim counsels patience.

"What did you expect?" Jim asks. "Welcome, Sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers, these are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know. Morons."

Earlier this year, NPR's Code Switch blog called the movie the best interracial buddy comedy. Nadya Faulx wrote, "While Black Bart and Jim's interracial relationship wasn't the first such on-screen friendship, it was one of the first in which race wasn't treated as an obstacle."

Superfan Scalish granted that the film isn't exactly politically correct. "It's making fun of the idiots that are politically incorrect and think that way," she said. "So it's not offensive, because you're joking about them."

Kate Tobin, a high school English teacher, stopped saving a row of seats to talk to me. "This is a satirical piece," she said, "and the mirror that it's holding up isn't a mirror that we can look at and go, oh, yeah, absolutely. We're laughing at it because we're past that, and we think of it as funny that people ever thought that way. I laugh at it and think, wow, we're still there, and we don't really acknowledge that we're still there. Oh, we have a black president, everything is fine. Which is not at all the case."

Wilder came in just before the movie began. It was strange to see the young man I knew on film getting old in real life. He sat behind me and had popcorn and a drink as he watched.

Gene Wilder and his wife, Karen, after the film.
Credit Jeff Cohen / WNPR

When the film was done, Wilder answered a few questions with his wife, Karen, about how he got the role, about his love for Madeline Kahn, and about his friend Richard Pryor. Pryor was supposed to play Bart, but Wilder said the studio objected, and Little ended up playing the part.

"They found this fellow, who is wonderful." Wilder said.

"And gorgeous in the saddle," Karen Wilder added.

Wilder was honest. The whole movie wasn't funny, he said, like the part where a cross-eyed governor is making lewd comments to a sex-object secretary.

But take a black family going west in a wagon train under attack by the Sioux. The chief was played by Mel Brooks himself. "When he came out, and he was playing an Indian, but an Indian who was talking Yiddish," Wilder said. "That, I thought, was funny."

Forty years after "Blazing Saddles" was released, maybe he's got a point. Juvenile fart and sex jokes are fine. But laughing at ourselves -- especially when it's painful -- now, that's funny.