Thursday, September 08, 2016
In this Gene Wilder memorial period I watched it again the other night and enjoyed myself. It does have an ending, and a rather clever meta-one, with Wilder and Cleavon Little going into the Chinese Theater to watch how the movie ends, and then Little telling Wilder he's going "nowhere special," and Wilder saying he's always wanted to go there. Also, I've come to grips with the racist parody--Brooks did the same thing with Hitler. When you make fun of something, it lessens its power.
For those too young to have seen it, it's a send-up of Western movies, using anachronisms, much like a Mad Magazine parody. Harvey Korman, as an oily government official, wants to buy up land in a town the railroad is going through. He contrives to make everyone leave by sending the all-white town (everyone's name is Johnson) a black sheriff (Little). Of course, Little outsmarts everyone. It is a Warner Brothers picture, and Little is like Bugs Bunny (he even does a Bugs Bunny gag at one point, delivering a candy-gram with a bomb in it).
Wilder plays his sidekick, the Waco Kid, a former gunfighter turned alcoholic who is still fast on the draw. There's not much for Wilder to do, other than to be a straight man, which is so unlike his usual madcap roles. I was interested to read that Brooks offered the part first to John Wayne, who politely declined because it was too "blue." Gig Young was then cast, but was going through actual alcohol withdrawal, and Wilder was brought in. As I've mentioned before, the rumor is that Wilder agreed provided Brooks direct Young Frankenstein.
The part of Bart was originally to be played by Richard Pryor, who was also a writer on the film, but no one would insure him. Korman's part was offered to Johnny Carson and also Wilder. The actor who steals a good chunk of the film is Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp, the "Teutonic Titwillow," a Marlene Dietrich pastiche that earned Kahn an Oscar nomination. Her song, "I'm Tired," done in a German Elmer Fudd voice, is one of the highlights of the film.
Most of the film is very crass, though it seems tame today. One of the most famous scenes is when some cowboys eat beans and then fart, maybe the first time gas was passed in a major Hollywood release (a related inside joke is that Brooks plays Governor Le Petomane--the name comes from a long-ago entertainer who could fart tunes). There's also the scene in which Mongo, the huge man played by ex-football player Alex Karras, cold cocks a horse. He later says, in stupidese, "Mongo is pawn in the game of life."
But there are also some other, off the wall lines that hit me rather funny. I laughed when Wilder said he "killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille." Or when Sam Pickens, as Korman's henchman, says, "What in the Wide World of Sports?" Sight gags abound, such as Klansmen having "Have a Nice Day" logos on the back of their hoods, or when Brooks is trying to put a pen back in its holder, Korman says helpfully, "Think of your secretary," and the pen slides right in.
The film may be the end of the era before political correctness took over. They actually made a TV show out of it; the pilot can be scene on the DVD. It's amazing to watch a network show that makes liberal use of the "N" word. Despite that, I have come to agree that it is one of the best comedies ever made, just not as good as either The Producers or Young Frankenstein.