By Kyle Turner
Over the last couple of years, my friends have accused me of becoming more, shall we say, politically correct. Over dinner one night, my best friend told me, “You’re the most politically correct person I’ve ever met.” “Thanks!” I retorted. My mother called me the same a week later. I don’t like to really use being PC as a pejorative, but, yes, I’ve become increasingly more sensitive to the way things are said and portrayed in popular culture. As I explained to a friend back in December, I would rather be hyper sensitive to such material than completely desensitized to it. And while you could certainly argue that the culture as a whole has become increasingly more sensitive to the way things are portrayed in the media, from the representation of women and minorities to the effects of violence vs. sex, those barriers have ushered in slyer and smarter forms of comedy.
So, earlier this month during the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles, film historian Robert Osborne asked the legendary Mel Brooks, who was there to introduce his wildly popular western spoof on the big screen (ironically, at the Chinese Theater), “Do you think Blazing Saddles could be made today?” Brooks immediately said, “No” and went on to praise/justify the edgy comedy within the film. While I don’t doubt that making a film as button pushing as Blazing Saddles would be harder today, I don’t think it would be impossible, and so Mel Brooks’ answer, which came off as a little dismissive, bothered me a little.
Amongst the many things it posits itself as, Blazing Saddles is arguably primarily a satire on race relations. Your white men are racist buffoons, for the most part, and your only significant character of color is whip smart. SO far, so good. But given Brooks’ answer, which dwelled on using the N-word on the film and to what extent it would be appropriate, there was the implication that such comedy would not be acceptable in this day and age. In the film, it’s the white characters who use the racial slur, which, to illustrate their idiocy, is not inherently problematic (though, in mine own palette, it seemed a little cringe worthy). Only once does a character of color, Bart’s younger brother, use it as a form of reclamation and fraternity. Now, if Blazing Saddles were indeed to be made today, then what would probably change would be that the characters of color would use it more, to explicitly juxtapose the connotations of the word based on who used it and how.
So it isn’t the use of the N-word itself that would be a problem in a remake. Brooks went on to discuss when he brought the script to provocative comedian Richard Pryor, worried that the N-word was used to frequently in the script. But, as Brooks says, Pryor argued that the emotional payoff would be so great, in that the white townspeople of Rock Ridge would finally accept Bart as a hero, it completely justified the numerous uses. On paper, this sounds good, but in the film, due to the slightly scattershot, almost sketch-like structure of the film, the emotional arc needed to justify this doesn’t quite establish itself well enough. There are hints at it, but retrospectively speaking, perhaps not enough. Thus, were the film to be remade, that cathartic grounding would be critical to making the film work.
The gay jokes and the rape jokes, though, would have to go, or at least be changed. The problem with these jokes in the film that, as opposed to the comedy about race which subverts racial tension, the gay jokes just seem sort of lazy. As charming as Dom DeLuise is, “The French Mistake” is indeed just that. For most of the film, Brooks does a very good job at attacking stereotypes, revealing their ridiculousness. But with the gay jokes, he falls into what I like to think of as The Seth MacFarlane Trap: in his attempt to subvert lazily, he succumbs to that very bigotry. It may not be intentional, but it nevertheless stands as such. The sequence itself, used to juxtapose the hyper masculine genre of the western against the super feminine musical, seems to serve very little purpose in the film, beyond a strange transition into the film’s more meta and self-aware elements.
But for all of those problems with translating the film to a modern, and presumably newer, audience, not much else would actually need to change to retain the impact of the humor and what pathos the film tries to create. What Blazing Saddles does do well with regard to satire is a high wire balancing act, at once taking shots at racism and government politics, as well as satirizing and sending up the Western genre and the Hollywood industry, what would become a trademark of Brooks’ work (Spaceballs, anyone?) In many ways, it’s still an incredibly audacious work.
While Django Unchained and Manderlay exist as a deconstruction of the white savior film, only the former bothers for humor, and does so in Tarantino’s typically ludicrous fashion. He, too, has come under fire for using the N-word, but that seems like a different discussion for another time.
If anyone were to do Blazing Saddles again, it could not be Mel Brooks though. His answer implied that audiences would not be able to handle the content of the film today, and he would be at risk for playing it too safely. As evidence, Mel Brooks’ remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s black comedy masterpiece To Be or Not to Be is a perfect example of how to play a satire too safely. However good Anne Bancroft is in the film, To Be or Not to Be is almost totally devoid of the bite that such a film satirizing similar subject matter (intolerance, xenophobia, etc.) needs in order to successfully subvert what it is trying to point out. Instead, that film comes off as just a vaguely light film about a theater troupe that just happens to be set against the Third Reich. Though faithful to it source, it is so in a superficial way. Despite taking chunks of dialogue from Lubitsch’s film, it passes by without much significance.
So, I sound like a crotchety, PC censor, probably worthy of a feminist Jack Valenti. My point is that it’s not impossible that Blazing Saddles could be done today. With restraints, film has thrived and become a smarter medium. Look at the Production Code era, with such scintillating cinema as Some Like It Hot and Bringing Up Baby. These were films that demanded that cleverer ways to address sex and sin be created, thus enhancing the very language of film and even comedy. Confinements are exactly what inspire writers to be better writers (hi, Twitter) and for filmmakers to be better filmmakers.
So, sure, with the recent Colbert Report fiasco, this era is more aware of how language is used. But it is also evidenced that writers, such as those on that program, can do surgically precise satire, where context is everything, where language, perception, and some sociology is deconstructed in a few short lines. As long as those writers would be able to imbue a Blazing Saddles remake with that kind of intelligence, of course it could be remade.