How About A Juvenile Take On Race
By: Mark W Adams

So for the nine thousandth time I'm watching one of my favorite movies, finding it far better fair than anything else offered by the cable company I pay for the privilege of boring me to death.Free Image Hosting at allyoucanupload.com

The movie is the Mel Brooks classic, Blazing Saddles. I used to own an original theater poster from this movie, one of the first efforts in American cinema to treat race openly and honestly. I just love that movie.

And unless you rent the DVD, catch it on a premium cable network like HBO or Cinemax, or attend a midnight film fest screening, you'll never, ever get the full impact. Not until we as a nation grow up.

Lately, AMC has been playing it, deservedly so since it is undoubtedly a classic. But they cut it, bleep it, just plain screw it up.

As most such things, you know exactly what they are muting -- in this case it's usually a racial slur that simply has become unacceptable although it's ubiquitous throughout the film. The "N" word. They also cut a couple of sexual references, and the word "faggot."

What's interesting is that back in the day they cut it in different places. The TV censors found different things objectionable in the late 70's than they do today.

I remember specifically when it came to television, around the time the original Saturday Night Live gave America the Blues Brothers, Mel Brooks satire of life in the old west was "edited for television."

And what did they take out in the 70's? The fart joke.

The twenty or so casual uses of the word "nigger" were left intact back then, as was Dom Deluise commanding a male review at the end to, "Watch me, Faggots." I don't remember if they redubbed Madeline Kahn being called a "Teutonic Twat" by Harvey Corman to "Teutonic Twit" or not. In The Producers the Marlene Dietrich character is a "Twit" but AMC mutes the word in Blazing Saddles.

But they don't cut the fart joke anymore.

There was a time when farting around the campfire was so offensive it simply had to go, even though it was THE joke that gave the movie it's name. It was the never mentioned but so well understood reality that riding on a horse all day with nothing to eat but beans would lead to gastronomical effusions of legendary proportions. It was never hinted at in any western, ever. After Blazing Saddles, watching John Wayne movies was just never quite the same.

According to the Wiki, two years ago, the Library of Congress selected Blazing Saddles for preservation -- most likely because it is the first instance of a major Hollywood studio using a fart joke.

It was the funniest joke in the movie, and when I saw it for the first time (on TV) my dad who had seen it at the theater had to explain the joke to me. He was just laughing away at the campfire scene and I had no clue why, because they weren't doing anything and all the fart noises were cut.

That completely ruined the movie.

The word "nigger" is liberally used in Blazing Saddles, vulgarly so. Indeed the epithet is an essential ingredient in several jokes as well as an integral plot device. Clevon Little is edited nowadays on AMC when he uses it. It's not even broadcast, but basic cable for Pete's sake. He's even muted when referring to himself as he takes himself hostage. But back when I was a teenager, there was no doubt what he was saying because they left it intact.

In the 1970's farting was too much for TV, but calling someone a "nigger" was just fine. So was "faggot" for that matter.

I have to admit bleeping the word "nigger" doesn't hurt the movie for me at all, but I know the thing by heart. It just reminds me that we live in different times now. We still know what they're saying. I probably would only put two instances of it back in, merely for comic effect if I were bickering with the censors. When the sweet old lady looks at Sheriff Bart and says, "Screw you, nigger," and then cuts to the Sheriff's horrified reaction later, repeating it -- that would go back in.

It's a plot point, hardly as gratuitous as most of the other instances. But my teenager had to have her dad explain the joke even though it was quite obvious in most other situations exactly what was being said. The jokes just aren't as funny when you have to explain them.

But this wasn't even a joke. It was two full scenes where the insult was central. In fact, that was the pay off of an entire tableau of character development scenes where racial attitudes build to a turning point when the Sheriff faces the hard cold fact that he may never win these people over. It makes the contrast all the more poignant when the town is forced to ask him to rescue them and eventually he gets a sincere, but funny apology.

The incongruity of an elderly lady spitting out an unexpected insult resulting in devastating disillusionment for the Sheriff -- which his sidekick tells him he should have expected -- is not a simple one-liner but a commentary that goes to the heart of the essential conflict of the movie. Overcoming racial prejudice, to go from zero to hero is the journey of Sheriff Bart. The little old lady's attitude illustrates just what low esteem a black man moving into a position of power in a white community would be held, and must overcome.

I remember what it was like when they cut the fart joke. Without the fart joke they might as well have kept the original title, Black Bart -- the once aired pilot by that name is included in with the 30th anniversary version of the uncut movie.

That one joke, the fart joke made the irony of the title work. Likewise, that one instance where a gruff but otherwise endearing elderly woman could spit out such a vile sentiment makes the plot work because her coming around later, along with the whole town learning to respect and admire someone they treated with such despicable contempt is the whole point of the movie.

Not hearing the word doesn't make the casual prejudice represented by the word go away. It's there, it's real. Just as real today as it was in 1974 ... or 1874.

Maybe by the time my teenager has a teenager of her own, she won't have to explain the parts they cut out of this movie to her kid. Maybe. Four generations later and maybe we'll have grown as a society enough to have someone watch it without it being explained to them because we just can't have our sensitive ears assaulted with with the way things are, and the way things used to be.

Maybe by then we'll be able to deal with the fact that some people used to call other people such offensive names with a callous indifference to how badly it would make them feel, just like today we can finally deal with the fact that people fart -- and farting is funny.

UPDATE: Dave Dugan from zencomix makes the observation that the timing of seeing this movie on the air so much lately seems suspect.

There’s no coincidence. If it were Edwards instead of Obama fighting for the nomination, we’d be seeing The Candidate instead. “Blazing Saddles Obama” gives you 34,300 entries.

There’s a new sheriff in town.


shep said...

It's no Young Frankenstein but it has aged very well. It's got to be the only movie where the n-word is still that damned funny (mostly because the utterer always comes out looking like such a complete moron).

Little is awesome, Wilder is great as the alcoholic "Kid" and I love Brooks as the Yiddish-speaking Indian Chief. Even Alex Karris is funny.

The righties should be forced to watch it, unedited, in continuous loop until they weep.

danps said...

While we're on the subject - how about that episode of "The Jeffersons" where after the latest insult from George, Willis says "I'm tired of you calling me a honky all the time. How would you like it if I called you nigger?" George: (Incredulous, to Louise) He called me nigger! He called me nigger! That was prime time when there were 3 networks. In other words, more people probably saw that that the finale to American Idol.

Here's a proposition I believe even though I have no support for it: Our willingness to be juvenile on race implied a willingness to discuss it, and starting in the 80's both went off the table. Of course, I have no idea when the line is crossed from juvenile to racist. I suppose it's like the old definition of pornography.