In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.
Over the weekend a friend of mine yelled at me for liking Wayne’s World but not Animal House. I didn’t know what to tell him. I’ll be the first to admit that the two aren’t really comparable - one is a critically acclaimed, groundbreaking film that spawned a genre and made a splash in the comedy world, and the other is a silly movie that makes me giggle alone in my apartment. Is Animal House the more important movie? Probably. Is Wayne’s World revolutionary in the same way Animal House was? I doubt it. But I think there’s something both sad and reassuring about not being able to see these movies through the eyes of the millions of people who already love them. Sad because I wish I could see what they see. Reassuring because Animal House blows pony cocks and I’m sane and objective enough to realize that.
I’ll be interested to see what he yells at me when he finds out I liked Blazing Saddles.
It’s not the best comedy I’ve watched for this column. It’s not even the best Mel Brooks movie, as some of my friends prepared me to discover. But it’s a great comedy, a good showcase of great talent, and, unlike certain films I’ve watched recently, tempers its silly, shock-y, topical jokes with actual satire and some sense of connection to its two lead characters.
Gene Wilder is awesome. I’m ashamed to say I don’t have a ton of experience watching him - I’ve seen Young Frankenstein, The Producers and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (although I haven’t seen the latter since I was a kid), but I haven’t seen many of his other movies, notably his stuff with Richard Pryor. I know, I know. But he’s great in this. I’m sure it isn’t easy to be any kind of convincing straight man in a Mel Brooks movie, but Wilder pulls it off effortlessly - there’s something about his playful, knowing composure that fits right into the film while hovering just a few feet above it. It’s an element missing from most Brooks’ movies, and obviously a contributing factor to its being one of Brooks’ best. It makes me want to watch Willy Wonka again. I imagine I’ll get a lot more out of it as an adult.
Cleavon Little is great, too - it’s strange to see someone so charismatic and talented in the lead role of a great movie and know that it was basically the single highlight of his comedy film career. Regardless, Bart is a great role for him, and he complements Wilder’s child-like amiability with a more energetic savvy.
It’s clear that Brooks was more concerned with telling a cohesive story in the 70s than the 80s, which I guess is both good and bad. I’ve seen Spaceballs half a dozen times but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what the hell it’s about - not because it’s complex, but because it doesn’t matter. Brooks’ later stuff, to me, starts to blend with David Zucker’s work in its punch and topicality – Brooks even cast Leslie Nielsen in Dracula: Dead and Loving It, for crying out loud – and as the 80s came and went Brooks became more interested in making 90-minute vessels for two-line gags and genre parodies. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but personally I prefer the 70s Mel Brooks. While the best jokes in his later, sillier films are at least as good as the best jokes in his early ones (“We ain’t found shit” is one of my all-time favorite movie punchlines), I’m willing to sacrifice a few good jokes for a movie that tries, a little, to do something. The Producers and Blazing Saddles were a little edgy in the 70s, and as silly as they are now, I think they had, and still have, a little truthy nugget hidden inside. Even now I’d label both those movies as legit satire as opposed to parody and topical humor. And for those of you who think I’m splitting hairs, watch Men in Tights again and tell me how hard all those Prince of Thieves references hit in 2010.
The dedication to weaving in an actual plot is not all to Brooks’ benefit, though - there’s some heavy exposition sprinkled through some flat sketch scenes (the bathtub scene jumps to mind), and only Wilder and Little earn the moments of sympathy Brooks tries to elicit for the townspeople of Rock Ridge. But because of those touches (hit-or-miss though they are), the movie feels more like the material it’s parodying than any of Brooks’ other movies, which makes the meta jokes (and the WB lot scene at the end) pay off nicely.
Blazing Saddles holds up pretty well. It’s a solid movie, and a lot of the jokes still work. (“Have you ever seen such cruelty?” “Somebody’s gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes!” and “Where all the white women at?” are pretty classic lines.) It’s got the solid foundation and concept of Brooks’ best early work and a glimpse of the irreverent, edgy craziness he’d move towards later on. It’s not as good as The Producers, but it’s close.
Caddyshack is on deck for next week. I can’t wait.
Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.