10-15-2003, 07:14 PM
Mel Brooks’ spoof of the Western ushered in a new style of film comedy, a freewheeling, wacked-out, referential genre parody with a fair amount of sass; it would later be refined by the Zucker/Abrahams team (“Airplane!”, “Top Secret!”) and given multi-dimensional characters by the Farrelly Brothers (“Kingpin”, “There’s Something About Mary”). Surprisingly, it holds up because the quality of the writing is a cut above (the writers include Brooks, Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman) and because it has something to say about racism in a very liberating, yet gentle, way—it’s never offensive but still has a bite. (It’s hard today to justify its “R” rating.) Brooks would later begin to take his film parodies far too seriously and, with the exception of his follow-up, “Young Frankenstein”, delivered labored and flat comedies such as “Silent Movie” and “High Anxiety”. Here, however, his inspiration and passion for movies seem fresh, smart and fearless. With Cleavon Little as the African-American sheriff sent by dastardly Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (the delightful Harvey Korman) to throw the town of Rock Ridge into chaos so he can run the railroad through it; the likable Gene Wilder also stars as the Waco Kid and the cast is populated with familiar supporting actors such as Slim Pickens, Liam Dunn, John Hillerman and David Huddleston; Brooks appears in several roles, drawing heavily on his Borscht Belt persona. But it’s Madeline Kahn who very nearly steals the show mocking Marlene Dietrich as chanteuse Lily Von Shtupp: her hilarious musical interlude (“I’m Tired”) is near-perfect comic timing and in itself a reason to watch.