But 'The Producers' was a cult film that never made it to Main Street and needed the second act of a Broadway musical to give it a place in popular culture. 'Blazing Saddles' could never open again as big as it did in 1974. In the summer of Watergate and Patty Hearst, here was one bit of madness people could enjoy. And it wasn't just random kookiness, but a film that broke barriers and courted controversy like no other major-release film of its time. No other movie had characters that were basically likable if stupid throwing around the 'N' word before. In fact, it hasn't happened since (and I doubt it would on Broadway today.) The whole notion of white people and black people living together was not new, but the approach of 'Blazing Saddles' was certainly new. In order to live together, we have to laugh together first. The only way this film was not a trailblazer was in that it blazed trails untaken by any film that came after.
Was Cleavon Little then a civil rights pioneer for the 1970s, in a way Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were the decade before? He's very good, bringing a lightness to the role that's equal parts Shaft and Bugs Bunny. Richard Pryor was one of the film's writers and Brooks' first choice for Sheriff Bart, but Pryor wouldn't have played the role in the same smooth way. Little is an amiable actor, one step ahead but never cocky about it. He makes for a sympathetic center, and he is flash in those corduroy threads.
Little didn't work much after 'Blazing Saddles,' which makes no sense. It was only the highest-grossing Western of all time, and Little was the lead actor in it. Maybe institutional racism wasn't the sole cause. After all, he had a distractingly rock-solid cast around him, particularly Harvey Korman as Attorney General Hedley Lamarr. Growing up in the '70s, it was a shock the first time I saw the unedited 'Blazing Saddles' with all the casual vulgarity spewing from the mouth of Tim Conway's slapstick buddy on the ultra G-rated 'Carol Burnett Show.' 'You will be only risking your lives, whilst I will be risking an almost-certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor,' he tells his gang before they ride off to pillage Rock Ridge. If only the Academy didn't penalize comedies so, that might have been true.
Madeline Kahn did get nominated for Lili Von Shtupp, and deserved her Laurel and Hardy handshake for sure. Her Baba Wawa meets Marlene Dietrich performance is a comic masterpiece, and it takes guts to wear that dead-weed lingerie in which she performs 'I'm So Tired.' Slim Pickens (Taggart), Burton Gilliam (Lyle), Dom DeLuise (Buddy), and Brooks himself as 'the Gov' all shine, and the level of comic acting remains high all the way to the smallest roles, like the guy playing Hitler ('They lose me right after the bunker scene') and the cowboy who chews gum in line ('I didn't know there was gonna be so many people!')
Gene Wilder is a little young and ironic for the bitter ex-gunslinger known as the Waco Kid, but he grows into the role well enough. Certainly he was in tune with what Brooks was doing more than Gig Young or Dan Dailey would have been (Brooks' earlier choices for the part, with Young making it all the way to the first day's shooting before it was discovered he wasn't just acting the part of a hopeless drunk.)
'Blazing Saddles' doesn't make the IMDb top 250, but it's still one of the most significant video titles because it rewards repeat viewings so well. The wholeness of the film's comic spectacle is too dense to be absorbed in one viewing, especially when you are laughing too hard. It's a cultural landmark, yes, but it's even funnier now than it was 30 years ago, one of the funniest comedies that exist today. Making it into a musical now would almost be demeaning, but I suspect it will happen anyway.