How Blazing Saddles Deflated Western and Gentile Notions of Masculinity
On the Political Context and Playfulness of Mel Brooks’s 1974 Parody
Mel Brooks had grown up in the golden age of the Western, watching those wide open landscapes and those tough-talking men stride their way across the screen. On Your Show of Shows, he and others had parodied the Westerns of the 1950s—most notably Shane, featuring the man who strides in, and out, of town, totally alone. (“Come back, Shane!” moviegoers—and parodists—of a certain age can hear. “Come back!”) As a television producer, Brooks understood the power of the Western mythos: with shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza seemingly slated to never go off the air, it was a versatile idea that seemed to work in any medium.
In some ways, this sense of the Western as a myth calling for its own deconstruction had been made more pronounced by the surge in European interest in the genre that, thanks to the Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, became generally known, at first pejoratively, as the “spaghetti western.” In postwar Europe, inundated by American mass culture in the wake of rebuilding sponsored by the Marshall Plan, American imagination became the wall European artists bounced their creative impetus off.
A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, came out in 1964, around the same time Brooks was taking on the icon of Cold War masculinity known as the super-spy, and came to America three years later, bringing new approaches and perspectives to the genre along with it. It may not be surprising that the leading trope of the spaghetti western—mysterious stranger comes into town where people are fighting, takes control of things, and cleans it up/plays boss—can in some sense be seen as a central metaphor for American postwar intervention and its generally positive but also warily concerning aspect. Right is on their side, but at what cost? And what does it say about the character?
For Brooks, the Western myth similarly yielded questions of morality and rectitude: but, ever the outsider, he thought of them not by who was anchoring the picture but by who wasn’t in it. For him, that was Jews. (As we already saw, on Your Show of Shows the secret tell of Shane was that he ate herring.) But for America as a whole, there were others who were absent. It’s in this sense we might think of Blazing Saddles—which was first announced to the public under the title Black Bart—as a Guess Who’s Coming to the Campfire Dinner?
The earlier film, released the year before The Producers (and, not incidentally, winning the Oscar in the same category Brooks did, best original screenplay, that previous year), is also a version of the spaghetti western, but conceived in the crucible of the civil rights movement: someone unexpected walks into an all-white space and discomfort ensues. But instead of using the framework to preach an object lesson in a creaky melodrama, Brooks plays the chaos for comedy: in many ways giving a much more insightful view of a certain kind of racism endemic to the American imagination about itself, and showing characters who, even on the side of the angels, are more complicated than the plaster saint played by Sidney Poitier, or even the fragile (in all senses) liberalism of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
This focus on something other than Jewishness as the outsider lens came in no small part from the fact that the project didn’t originate with Brooks. The first draft of the screenplay—then titled Tex X—was by Andrew Bergman, who’d written a doctorate on films of the Depression before turning his hand to fiction writing. Tex X had started life as a novella, but became a screenplay while Bergman worked as a film publicist for United Artists. As material in Hollywood does, it attracted heat—Alan Arkin was going to direct, James Earl Jones was going to play the sheriff—then fell apart; and so the script was available.
Brooks was told about it by his agent David Begelman (soon to become head of film production at Columbia Pictures). As Brooks retells the conversation, he didn’t want to do it, but Begelman told him he had to: “Because you owe a fortune in alimony, because you are in debt, and because you have no choice.” Brooks didn’t disagree. He picked it up and hired a team of writers for rewrites. “Write from the gut,” he told them. “Write from the heart. Write the craziest shit.” Now, unlike in the Your Show of Shows’ writers room, he was the king. Everyone was pitching to him. He got to decide what was in and what was out. And like Caesar, he wasn’t afraid of talent, or of yelling; and in Richard Pryor, he got both.
Brooks had felt they needed a Black voice in the room along with himself and the three other Jewish writers. He’d tried for Dick Gregory, who said no; then Norman Steinberg, who knew Pryor from the Flip Wilson show, suggested the prodigiously gifted and notoriously volatile comic. (Pryor offered cocaine to the four Jewish writers the first day. “Never before lunch,” Brooks responded.) Although Pryor left after the first revised draft, his imprint was unquestionably on the final product.
One can imagine the road not taken if Warner Brothers, which eventually took on the film, hadn’t refused to approve Pryor for the lead. (In protest, Brooks quit the picture for three days.) Pryor’s volcanic talent, his ability to create comedy based on simmering and seething anger, would have taken the movie in a very different direction—less toward parody and more toward, perhaps, contemporary satire and allegory.
The eventual title change from Black Bart to Blazing Saddles was because the studio “thought ‘Black Bart’ would be confused with the black-action pictures being produced these days, and that people wouldn’t understand that it was a Western,” according to Brooks, who didn’t seem particularly displeased with the change. There was something new in the air, something volatile and angry and radical, in the Blaxploitation pictures of the era. This would be subversive, and even revolutionary, but not like that.
The shift to a more conservative, more Brooksian approach was effectuated by casting the Juilliard-trained and Tony-winning television star Cleavon Little. Little took, under Brooks’s direction, a much more laid-back, I Spy–like approach to the material, which allowed the other characters to overact in Brooks’s rule number one of ridicule: let the shmucks show themselves. Take, for example, Bart’s opening ride into town, where he greets an elderly woman sweetly with a typical “Morning, ma’am. And isn’t it a lovely morning?” The reply: “Up yours,” with an N-word thrown in to boot.
The audience would have held their breath waiting for Pryor to jump off his horse and pound the wrinkled little racist into powder. With Little, detached and sardonic bemusement—wry disappointment, but not surprise—is his way. It’s both cool and, in its own way, more congruent with a Jewish response to such displays. Of course that’s how it is, Little’s look—and Brooks’s direction—say. Who would have expected Goytown, Population Whitebread to be any different? Not us. We’re not shmucks. Or, as the movie pungently puts it: “You gotta remember that these are just simple farmers . . . These are people of the land. The common clay of the New West. . . . You know—morons.”
Of course, their leader—the leading shmuck in the film—is played by Brooks. Once more making himself the butt of the joke so no one else can, the director presents himself as “the silver-tongued moron who’s the governor of the territory.” Adopting an odd, herky-jerky style that reminded one British reviewer of “all the Jewish comedians one has ever seen who work noticeably hard for their effects,” he presents himself as the clueless man in charge, catalyzing some of the chaos around him but by no means in control—a remarkable difference from the paternal image of Caesar.
Nobody here but us loons and idiots, goes the message. His character, Governor Le Pétomane, was not just a repeat habitual user of the N-word, though; he symbolizes another ethos of the production, too, his name taken as it was from a “celebrated French flatulist, whose Moulin Rouge act consisted of farting out cannon fire, musical notes, and animal noises (pétomane translates roughly as ‘fartomaniac’).” Brooks’s choice for the movie’s new title, Blazing Saddles, was yet another reference to flatulence, maybe part of the reason he was all right with it; and the movie’s most infamous scene, the roaring (sorry) return of Brooks as a poète maudit of bad taste, comes when a bunch of cowboys are eating baked beans and passing gas around a fire.
Brooks defended and explained the scene variously in interviews over the years. “As long as I am on the soapbox, farts will be heard!” he would say. Part of this, of course, a large part, was the same sense of parody that had served him well since the Caesar days. “Basically,” he said, “it’s me taking a look at the West based on all the cowboy movies I’ve seen in my life. Maybe 6,000.”
An ad for the movie suggested that one should “Never give a saga an even break,” and well before the movie was filming he was using that line about including every Western cliché in the hope of killing them off in the process. And the campfire bean-eating scene, a cliché if there ever was one, led naturally, in Brooks’s fertile and febrile imagination, to what came naturally: “I mean, you can’t eat so many beans without some noise happening there.”
And the fact, for Brooks, that this had never appeared on screen—had never been allowed to appear—stood in, in its ridiculous way, for the sometimes unconsidered, often tepidly pusillanimous nature of the Hollywood establishment. “For 75 years, these big hairy brutes have been smashing their fists into each other’s faces and blasting each other full of holes with six-guns, but in all that time, not one has had the courage to produce a fart. I think that’s funny.”
And also perhaps dangerous, in its own way: a danger to the system no less pronounced—possibly more—than a Nazi kickline, which was so much more obviously out of bounds that it was easily marginalized. And Blazing Saddles turned out to be more dangerous than that, as its solution to an inherent structural problem—how do you end the thing?—produced a deeper, more subversive point: not just pointing out the gaps and holes in the Western myth as it had been transmitted to film and television, racism foremost among them, but giving the sense it was all artifice, from top to bottom.
Which explains the movie’s ending, puzzling to some, in which the entire thing is revealed to be a Hollywood movie shooting on a backlot, as the big final fight crashes through and engulfs another movie being made, a big, splashy Busby Berkeley–type musical with dozens of male dancers in tuxedoes and top hats. It may not be coincidence that the first screening for Warner’s studio executives went catastrophically, while the same cut run that night for non-exec studio employees—not stakeholders in the system—was a huge success.
Instead of using the framework to preach an object lesson in a creaky melodrama, Brooks plays the chaos for comedy.
“Piss on you, I’m workin’ for Mel Brooks!” says one grizzled cowboy as he punches yet another of Brooks’s fey directors in the stomach (after the man begs him: “Please! Not in the face!”). The scene redoubles the violation of the parodic tension between fidelity and exaggeration he’s tried to establish through the movie in almost every previous moment. But for Brooks it was crucial, an artistic step forward. As he put it: “What I did when the gunfight spilled over onto the Busby Berkeley set with the 50 dancers was what Picasso did when he painted two eyes on the same side of the head.” And all the writers, despite much discussion about who originated what with regard to other aspects of the film, agree this ending was Brooks’s idea.
What Brooks and Blazing Saddles do here, in an awful Western-flavored pun I apologize for herewith, is to strike camp; to deflate Western and, not coincidentally, Gentile notions of masculinity by juxtaposing them with the most over-exaggerated, hyper-effeminate, unmanly sensibility possible—certainly according to the norms of the time. The dancers are rehearsing a musical number called “The French Mistake,” which, with its title—the term refers to a heterosexual man having a gay encounter he later regrets—and, well, suggestive lyrics and motions (“Throw out your hands, stick out your tush, hands on your hips, give them a push, you’ll be surprised—you’re doing the French mistake”), winkingly suggests the foundations of the whole system are built on sand. In one brief moment, a cowboy punches a dancer off-camera through a doorway; they return through another doorway immediately, and the cowboy, arm around the dancer, tells him, “I’m parked over near the commissary.”
But the scene is also simultaneously a key to Brooks’s structural foundations in his filmmaking. Brooks mused in an interview in 1977 that every one of his movies from The Producers to Silent Movie was also about “the love story between two men . . . which seems to be one of my motifs. Maybe my heaviest. I mean, I do love the fellowship of men . . . I don’t know. Maybe I’m really a fag. But, seriously, I do love men; and I do love my men friends.” Bancroft, in an interview the next year, made the same point, saying: “Mel really loves men, he has a terrific sense of male camaraderie . . . His attitude towards women can be really primitive. When we have big rows, he yells, ‘No more monogamy for me! Next time it’ll be with a man!’ He actually threatens me with Dom DeLuise!”
Brooks himself, around the same time, suggested that this longing for male companionship and comfort “goes back a lot further than sex. All the way to my father, whom I never really knew and can’t remember.” The varying weights of homoerotic or homosocial fascination and autobiographical longing are certainly debatable, but both are undoubtedly present throughout Brooks’s oeuvre.
This sense of performance, of code and disguise, of relationships obscured and blazing forth, is connected once more to a third striking moment of conscious artifice in Blazing Saddles. Unsurprisingly, it’s another scene in which Brooks appears; this time playing a Yiddish-speaking Native American. “Shvartzes!” he exclaims, seeing a young Sheriff Bart with his parents. He then waves off a young brave brandishing a tomahawk: “Na, na, zayt nisht meshuge [Don’t be crazy.]” Letting them go in Ying-lish—“khap a walk!”—he then adds, in a mixture of Yiddish and English, “Have you ever seen anything like it in your life? They darker than us!” punctuating his line with a brief whoop.“As long as I am on the soapbox, farts will be heard!” Brooks would say.
The scene works on a dazzling variety of levels, a few of which are worth unpacking. The first, of course, plays with a historical legend—one perhaps particularly intriguing in the post-1967 days of Jewish triumphal historicism—that Native Americans were related to, or indeed were, the Ten Lost Tribes. Put aside the obvious point that even were they Jewish descendants they wouldn’t be speaking Yiddish: they were Americans all along, was the point. They were there first.
In this sense, also, Brooks suggests a kind of racial solidarity, in an era of attempts at Black-Jewish liberal partnership, with his line suggesting both community of and hierarchy among the oppressed. (Is it just coincidence, or costumer’s initiative, or directorial symbolic intent, that Brooks’s war paint is red, white, and blue?)
That suggestion, of course, is spoken in a mixture of Yiddish and English, meaning that half of what Brooks is saying in the scene—though not the line “they darker than us”—is incomprehensible to most people watching Blazing Saddles, in precisely the same way that Native American speech in Westerns remains so to most observers. Or not precisely: because in many cases in classic Hollywood, “Native American speech” was just gibberish, composed as an act of artificiality by studios uninterested in hearing enough of the story to hear the story. (Which was brought home when John Wayne actually hired someone to provide “authentic” speech, and another private joke was born, there at Wayne’s expense.)
Because in speaking Yiddish, Brooks was also playing, with cognoscenti and movie fans with long memories, on the fact that Jews had been playing Native Americans on stage and screen all the time. One of the most famous was Brooks’s early employer and contact Eddie Cantor, who did it in the movie Whoopee, but Sophie Tucker did it, too, and his wife’s most famous co-star, Dustin Hoffman, was doing it at that very moment, albeit in a dramatic key, in the film Little Big Man. In other words, to look at a Native American and see a Jew was not, or at least not only, an act of shared metaphorical alienation, or, for that matter, a case of cultural appropriation. That wasn’t even primarily it, certainly not at the time. What you were looking at was a show business professional.
Excerpted from Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew. Copyright © 2023 by Jeremy Dauber. Used with permission of the publisher, Yale University Press. All rights reserved.