It was February of 1974, and Mel Brooks' new Western satire comedy was about to hit movie screens across America. Probably no one could have possibly imagined the stir, the controversy, the raised eyebrows -and the laughter- it would create, and does to the very day. Filmed on a skimpy budget of just $2.6 million, Mel Brooks was taking on one of American film's most revered staples- the classic American Western.
Satires of cowboys and the Old West was standard for the great comedians, much like being in the army or dressing in drag. Western satires had already been done by the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Martin and Lewis. But Mel Brooks, an indisputable comedic genius, was determined to really pull out all the stops with this one.
The film's original working title was Tex X, in honor of Civil Rights leader Malcolm X. It was changed to Black Bart, after the film's African-American character. Neither title sounded quite right. According to Mel, the title Blazing Saddles came to him as he was taking a shower one day. He immediately told his wife, Anne Bancroft, the title and she liked it. Blazing Saddles it was.
The film's title song "Blazing Saddles" was sung by popular fifties singer Frankie Laine. Brooks had taken out an ad in the show biz trade papers looking for "a Frankie Laine type." He was happily surprised when, two days later, Frankie Laine himself showed up in his casting office at Warner Brothers. Brooks hired Laine on the spot, but he never told him he was singing the title song of a comedy film, a parody. He was afraid that if he told Laine, he would lose the conviction in his singing voice.
Casting for the film was all over the map. Mel originally wanted Johnny Carson for the role of "Hedley Lamarr." Carson declined and Harvey Korman got the role. The famed movie actress Hedy Lamarr sued Brooks over the parody use of her name in the film. Brooks said he was flattered by the lawsuit and happily settled with Hedy out of court.
Richard Pryor was the original choice for the lead character "Black Bart," but because of Pryor's controversial reputation at the time as a standup comic, the financing for the film could not be obtained if he was the movie's star. Instead, Cleavon Little took on the role. Although he remained on as a head writer, Pryor was to never forget the slight. He played the lead role in another Western comedy in 1975, Adios, Amigo. That film was mediocre and is seldom remembered, even by movie aficionados.
The other leading role, "The Waco Kid," was originally played by Gig Young. But on the first day of shooting, in a scene where the character was supposed to be drunk, it was discovered that Young really was drunk and physically collapsed on the set (Young had a drinking problem for years). Brooks fired Young on the spot and paid to have Gene Wilder flown across the country to assume the leading role. Young later sued Brooks for breach of contract.
Madeline Kahn was supposed to have appeared in Mame with Lucille Ball, but was fired for giving a poor performance. (Lucille Ball always thought Kahn had deliberately blown her role so she could work on Blazing Saddles instead.) Kahn's audition for director Brooks surprised her. When she walked into the casting office, Brook simply told her to "raise her skirt." Hesitantly, Kahn did as instructed and Brooks checked out her legs.
Mel based her character "Lili von Shtupp" on Marlene Dietrich's sexy showgirl characters in The Blue Angel and the Destry Western film classics. Kahn passed the audition with flying colors and was so great in the role that she was actually nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.
"Shtupp" is a Yiddish word for the sex act, and because of this, many television stations censor Blazing Saddles and Kahn is referred to as "Lili von Shhhh…" instead, although the film's credits remain, calling her "Lili von Shtupp."
The film's most surreal scene, when Alex Karras as Mongo punches a horse and knocks him down, was taken from a real life incident. Brooks' friend Sid Caesar was horseback riding one day with his wife when her horse started acting up. According to Caesar, he actually punched the horse between the eyes and the horse reeled and went down.
Another scene, where Cleavon Little holds a gun on himself and keeps a mob at bay, was also based on a true incident. As a teenager, Mel Brooks was caught shoplifting some chewing gum and a water pistol. Incredibly, Brooks remembers pointing the water pistol at the shop owner and keeping him at bay.
Of course, Blazing Saddles' most celebrated scene is the cowboys around the campfire breaking wind.Although Brooks claims this is a movie first, farting was done in the movie Cold Turkey three years earlier. To simulate the required sounds, Mel and various passersby soaped up their hands in the Warner Brothers restroom and repeatedly stuck them under their armpits, raising and lowering their arms.
Because of the film's crudity and use of the taboo "n" word 17 times, Brooks was warned by a Warner Brothers executive that it was "too offensive" and he would have to change it. Brooks nodded politely and knew he wasn't going to change one frame -he knew he had "final cut" in his contract. Good thing -Blazing Saddles was a huge smash, becoming only the 10th movie in history to gross over $100 million at the box office. The movie grossed almost $120 million -a huge figure for the time.
Blazing Saddles, in spite of mixed reviews, remains a comedy classic, one of those truly great films that remains as fresh as the day it was made. In 2006, the Library of Congress declared Blazing Saddles to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Archives.
When Mel Brooks was honored at the Kennedy Center in 2009, President Obama spoke of remembering going to see Blazing Saddles at the age of 13 in 1974. When Brooks asked him how he got in, with the film having a ratings restriction, Obama replied, "I think I had a fake I.D." He added that "The state of limitations has passed."