Anything goes in Mel Brooks’s 1974 Western spoof comedy classic. The residents of the little Western town of Rock Ridge find themselves the pathetic victims of its corrupt political boss, the exceptionally rotten bad guy Hedley Lamarr (boo, hiss!), and his wicked henchmen. Everyone in town seems to be called Johnson, one even Van Johnson, after the actor.
The old town sheriff is killed and Lamarr persuades the Governor to appoint the West’s first black sheriff. The Governor sends in a sophisticated townie as a new sheriff nobody will like, but this idea backfires when the new lawman unexpectedly becomes Lamarr’s number one adversary.
So now help is at hand for the oppressed townsfolk in the form of Sheriff Bart and a hard-drinking gunslinger called the Waco Kid, who rides into town. And the duo go into action against the prejudice, trickery and deception threatening the town’s law and order.
Mel Brooks’s brilliant, big, brash, bawdy, good-natured Western satire was his box-office breakthrough after the cult successes of The Producers (1967) and The Twelve Chairs (1970). Made in the same year as his other masterwork Young Frankenstein, it’s still one of his funniest films, with a witty screwball screenplay and a hand-picked cast on tremendous comic form. Some even say it’s Brooks’s most hilarious movie, though it’s a close thing with and Young Frankenstein and The Producers, and they are arguably more sophisticated and cleverer.
The movie boasts glorious turns from Cleavon Little as black sheriff Bart, Gene Wilder as his drunken sidekick, the Waco Kid, and Harvey Korman as wicked lawyer Hedley Lamarr. Madeline Kahn is a knockout, in her sustained impersonation of Marlene Dietrich as the vamping, singing showgirl Lili von Schtupp (a surname that raised a few eyebrows at the time). And there’s room for Slim Pickens (Taggart), Alex Karras (Mongo), David Huddleston, John Hillerman and Dom DeLuise to shine, and even a cameo from Count Basie, leader of the jazz band in the desert playing April in Paris.
The oft-times bad-taste gags run the gamut from the corny to the dodgy to the vulgar to the childish to the offensive to the hilarious to the hysterical. It’s called scattergun comedy and that’s sometimes a recipe for disaster. But here the hit-and-miss gags land so thick and fast, with way more hits than misses, that it’s 93 minutes of non-stop laughs.
Expect crude and rough-hewn humour with language that many may find offensive, especially the racial and sexual abuse, which (hopefully) no one would use in a movie today. The use of derogatory terms for black people, Asians and gays is a tiny stain on an otherwise great comedy.
Nervous television executives might use the American TV version that swaps some of Brooks’s unused footage for the rudest bits and the verbal abuse. The five credited writers include Richard Pryor, as well as Brooks of course. The sheriff role was written for controversial stand-up comic Pryor, but Brooks couldn’t get finance for the film with him starring. Hence Cleavon Little.
Among all the shambolic, outrageously non-PC comedy, there’s lots of great, brilliant stuff, but the baked-bean routine, the assault on an old lady, the horse-punching, the huge climactic pie fight and above all the post-modern ending on the Warner Bros lot all help to give this comic milestone edge and class. It’s ironic then that Brooks is advertising Warners there when they were so dubious about even releasing this project.
A hilarious Brooks himself pops in for two wacky cameos as both the Indian Chief and Governor Lepetomane (known for his stage farting act). He also appears in the outlaw recruitment queue, wearing an aviator’s outfit.
Gig Young started filming as the drunken Waco Kid, but was actually drunk and collapsed on set on the first day, and Wilder flew in to take over.
Humourless actress Hedy Lamarr sued over the use of Hedley Lamarr and won an out-of-court settlement.
Frankie Laine sings the theme song – no one dared tell him it was a comedy.
Brooks showed the script to John Wayne, who told him: ‘Naw, I can’t do a movie like that but I’ll be the first in line to see it.’
Allegedly, it is the first movie where the sound of farting is heard – it’s that classy!
RIP David Huddleston (1930–2016), known also for The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Producers (2005).
© Derek Winnert 2013 Classic Movie Review 215
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