|HD DVD Comedy|
|Written by Darren Gross|
|Saturday, 01 July 2006|
1874. A railroad expansion project is forced to change its route when the crew hits a patch of quicksand. Realizing the new route will bring the railroad through the quiet town of Rock Ridge, corrupt politico Hedley Lamarr (Korman) plots to drive the residents out and snatch the land for himself. When Lamarr’s railroad goons (lead by Pickens and Gilliam) launch several raids on the town’s residents, the simple folk turn to governor LePetomaine (Brooks) for help. The governor, who is in on the plot, sends them Bart (Little), a black railroad worker jailed for hitting Pickens with a shovel. While the townspeople’s reception for the new sheriff turns predictably violent, Bart proves a sharp and resourceful fellow and he makes a quick, unorthodox escape. Joining together with the town drunk and ex-gunfighter the Waco Kid (Wilder), Bart endeavors to save the town from the evil railroad men and hopefully gain some appreciation and acceptance along the way.
Mel Brooks’ third film (and his first legitimate hit) is an offbeat, frequently hilarious parody of the western film genre. “Blazing Saddles” broke new ground on its original release with its wall-to=wall profanity, lewdness and crude, low humor. In the decades since, the average screen comedy has descended to such depths for laughs and shock that Brooks’s film now seems quaint and charming. While sequences like the “bean eating” scene aren’t as gut-bustlingly funny as they once were, the rest of the film’s goofy and bizarre dialogue and sight gags are still uproarious and hysterical.
The cast is note-perfect, and the script so packed with gags, it provides each of these great character actors with several scenes to shine in. Cleavon Little is wonderful as Bart. He’s an incredibly likeable lead and gives the character a bit of heart without becoming precious. With Little as an emotional anchor, and seemingly in on the joke, it allows the script to bandy about the word “nigger” (usually said by the bad guys) without seeming offensive. The film’s point, made fairly subtly, is that we’re supposed to side with Little and by making him the audience surrogate, we adopt his point of view. It should be stated, though, that the movie’s primary goals are laughs, and its critical targets and objects of parody are many. There’s a message here, but it is woven into the fabric of the story.
The cast is on the same page and clearly all part of the same director’s vision, so it’s hard to single out specific performers, but Madeline Kahn’s delightfully game and her drowsy Marlene Dietrich impersonation as Lili Von Shtupp earned her an Oscar nomination (unusual for a comic role). Harvey Korman almost steals the show as the mustache-twisting, purple-prose spouting villain and Gene Wilder’s comic timing is perfection and he makes a sweet and believably gin-soaked Waco Kid. (Wilder was cast when Johnny Carson turned down the role.)
Mel Brooks’s style is much more loopy and anarchically haphazard than his previous films, and its one-gag-on-top-of-another style doesn’t suffer from the occasional dramatic or pacing lags which popped up in “The Producers” and “The Twelve Chairs.” Brooks apparently found his cinematic voice with this film, and with the same irreverent approach yielded the crowd-pleasing “Young Frankenstein,” “High Anxiety,” “History of the World Part I,” etc. The approach, established on “Blazing Saddles,” is a rule-breaking, anything-goes style, which has its antecedents in the Marx Brothers’ bits where they break the fourth wall, classic Warner Bros. cartoons and the off-the-wall films by Olson and Johnson (who get referenced in the Huddleston’s character name “Olson Johnson”), like “Hellzapoppin’.” Its style is derived from a vaudeville aesthetic. While that works for the lion’s share of the picture, the ending which explodes out into the movie studio and the surrounding environs is perhaps a little too self-reflexive. While there are several funny bits in this conclusion, it doesn’t feel a whole with the rest of the film. So much of the film takes place in an established location and story that you can’t help feel a little cheated that the film never fully ties up the story threads before the film goes berserk. One yearns for a nice final scene with Lili Von Shtupp as well. It’s not a big flaw, but it makes for a somewhat awkward finish.
Warner’s HD-DVD release is a stunner. The disc captures the razor-sharp, sun-soaked photography in crystal clarity and delivers a level of detail never-before-seen on a home video format. Sweat-soaked skin almost seems tangible, patches of multi-colored gravel are clearly defined (without the softening or digital shimmer from lower resolution formats), and several problematic shirts and vests are almost totally devoid of encoding difficulties. (A slight aliasing shimmer on one of Slim Pickens’s vests will most likely disappear once 1080P is operable.) The added resolution is suited to the widescreen Panavision imagery and makes the film a more involving and comedically effective experience than typically possible on video. A particular detail I’ve previously never noticed was in the conclusion. As our heroes set off the dynamite charges in the fake Rock Ridge, the HD DVD now allows you to clearly see the horses and bad guys exploding into the air. On previous releases, you intuited what you saw, but now it’s as clear as a June day, and funnier as a result. A few optical effects and dupe shots reveal a much grainier film stock, particularly a single dupey shot in the Lili Von Shtupp’s seduction scene, but these are aspects of the original film, and not transfer flaws.
The 5.1 surround track (DTS via Toslink) has excellent spatial presence. Off-screen dialogue and sound effects are perfectly located in the surrounds and side channels, without distracting and the music and title tune have a solid yet warm and pleasing punch. “Blazing Saddles” was presented in mono theatrically and the somewhat recent surround mix (made for the 30th anniversary DVD release) seems faithful to the original sound levels and effects, and never feel artificially enhanced or supplemented with any bogus new sound effects. In one or two instances I noticed some peak distortion from the center channel. These may be instances where a higher dynamic range is pushing the test equipment, but will require further testing to be sure. The original mono track is not included, though given the excellence of the remix, it’s not really missed.
“Back in the Saddle” is a 29min featurette, mostly talking heads and clips but it features interesting comments from Brooks, Wilder, Gilliam, DeLuise, writer Andrew Bergman and producer Michael Hertzberg. “Intimate Portrait: Madeline Kahn” is an under 4min excerpt of a 1-hr (with commercials) Lifetime TV special. It’s short but includes very warm tributes by Brooks and Wilder. The picture quality is standard definition and a bit soft, but this is all older video generated material and completely acceptable.
Also included are 10 minutes of “Additional Scenes” (all presented letterboxed at 2.40) added to the censored TV version which include the pointless fart-less “Bean” scene and an expanded song intro for Lili Von Shtupp. An additional couple of scenes of Mongo and Bart’s conflict are amusing, as is a silly, but funny scene of Brooks’ Governor mistaking the fake Rock Ridge for the real one and starts campaigning amongst the dummies. It’s fairly easy to see why these were cut, but they’re cute and pretty harmless.
“Black Bart” is a pilot for a proposed TV-series spinoff which Brooks had no involvement in. It stars Louis Gossett Jr. and Gerrit Graham and is downright awful. Unlike the feature film, the pilot’s attempts at racial social commentary comes off as racist and offensive, when it’s clearly trying not to be. It’s completely unfunny and the laugh track just underlines how lame it is. This 25min stinker was actually aired on CBS in 1975 as the “Friday Night Comedy Special.” The image quality of this is pristine, perfectly colored and extremely detailed.
Rounding out the disc is an audio commentary by Mel Brooks. It’s an informative and interesting commentary, but its not the riotous gag bag that some might be expecting. Instead, it’s a well-thought out and detailed monologue on the genesis, release and making of the film. It’s not scene-specific at all, and really plays better with no background image to distract. Brooks doesn’t start talking until the end of the main titles and finishes at the 55min mark, but there’s no sign-off or farewell to let you know its over. Despite these quibble, it’s well worth hearing for fans with an interest in film-making.