Videophiled: ‘Blazing Saddles’ at 40 and ‘Thunderbirds’ are Blu!

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Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray)

Years ago, when singer Frankie Laine was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, he confessed that when he was engaged to record the theme song to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), he was not told that the film (and the song) was a spoof. He simply thought it was a bad song that he gave lines like “He rode a blazing saddle” a gravity that defies the painful lyric. Which was what Brooks wanted all along. It’s my favorite story behind one of the funniest movies ever made (it was in fact voted the sixth funniest movie of all time in an AFI poll) and one of the most audacious satires of racism to come out of Hollywood.

Mel Brooks came to Blazing Saddles on the success of The Producers, a film that also flirted with bad taste close to edge of offensiveness, but for this spoof he charged over the line with a brilliant staff of co-writers, including Andrew Bergman (The In-Laws), Norman Steinberg (My Favorite Year) and Richard Pryor (who was originally cast in the lead by Brooks but nixed by the studio, apparently nervous over the comedian’s reputation). They stirred racial humor into a broad parody of western movies with satirical lampooning, cartoon slapstick and bathroom humor. The sheer energy and anything-goes inventiveness of the film—quick costume changes, exploding candy boxes and a hulking brute named Mongo (Alex Karras)—suggests at times a live action Tex Avery cartoon. It was comic gold and a smash hit for Brooks.

Cleavon Little is a quick-witted railway worker saved from the gallows by corrupt governor’s aide Hedy (“That’s Hedley!”) Lamar (Harvey Korman) only to be offered up for a sure lynching as the sheriff of a conservative western town under siege from the Governor’s own gangsters. Madeline Kahn is a scream as a lisping Dietrich-like entertainer (she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance) and Gene Wilder provides amiable support and crack timing as the alcoholic ex-gunfighter who joins our stalwart hero. Brooks himself co-stars as the Governor and as a kvetching Indian chief in a brief flashback and Frankie Lane indeed sings the brilliant theme song without a trace of camp (it also received an Oscar nomination). Campfire meals have never been the same since. Watch it. You’d do it for Randolph Scott!

It’s been on both Blu-ray and DVD a number of times already but it turns 40 this year and that calls for an anniversary edition. New to this release is the half-hour featurette “Blaze of Glory: Mel Brooks’ Wild, Wild West,” built around a new interview the Brooks and featuring archival interview clips with Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn, and a collection of postcard-sized stills with comic-strip bubble lines from the film.

Carried over from previous releases is scene-specific commentary by director Mel Brooks, the 28-minute documentary “Back in the Saddle” (with new interviews with Brooks, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, writer Andrew Bergman and others, and plenty of clips from the alternate TV version), 1975 TV pilot Black Bart, inspired by the film and starring Lou Gossett Jr. and Steve Landesberg, ten minutes of deleted and alternate scenes (including the full versions of clips seen in the documentary), and the trailer.

Thunderbirds
Thunderbirds Are Go! / Thunderbird 6 (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series action series about a private rescue organization with really cool vehicles was an inspired mix of Japanese monster movie mayhem and British stiff upper lip cool. It brought new meaning to the term “wooden performance”; its stars were literally puppets, a rather bland and interchangeable marionette family of clean living Hardy Boys, or in this case the Tracy boys. But those high tech toys were like big kid fantasies come alive, magnificently designed vehicles rolled out as lovingly detailed miniatures with a sense of awe and wonder, and the success of the spawned two feature films that upped the ante on the spectacle.

Thunderbirds Are Go! (1966) opens on the trademark majesty that marked the special effects of the series: a jet-shaped rocket to Mars is reverentially rolled out of its hanger and fired to life, then the launch is sabotaged in a bout of James Bond cold war shenanigans. The Tracy boys don’t even make an appearance for the first 20 minutes, which is a telling admission about the real stars of the show: those fabulous vehicles and the awe of the miniature effects execution (which was a major influence on the work done on 2001: A Space Odyssey). This film, however, has another inspired highlight: a dream sequence that takes Alan Tracy to a nightclub in space where a marionette version of Cliff Richards performs in a crazy music video with a rocket-powered guitar. Almost makes up for a listless story and an abstract conflict of stalwart American good guys versus vaguely Eastern European bad guys.

Fans of the show all knew that there were only five Thunderbird crafts, but Thunderbird 6 (1968) promises a new vehicles… as soon as Brains thinks one up that passes muster with team leader and patriarch Jeff Tracy. Meanwhile Lady Penelope and Alan Tracy are caught up in an elaborate scheme to ambush the Tracy boys while aboard the inaugural flight of Skyship 1, which provides the film with a travelogue of puppets in exotic art project sets. Amazingly, this is the first and only outing where characters are actually murdered by a villain! Each of the films is packed with plot and light on story and personality. With no dramatic color and heroes as interchangeable as puppet heads, they make for fun exercises in nostalgia and delightful showcases in sixties state-of-the-art space age miniatures, but flat adventures.

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Both discs feature commentary by director David Lane and producer/voice actress Sylvia Anderson, originally recorded for the DVD releases a decade ago. Sylvia took the reins of the features while her husband and partner Gerry Anderson was spearheading the TV series. She’s not only more fun to listen to than Gerry (based on his TV show commentary tracks), but also full of amazing detail, including a Stanley Kubrick story almost worth the price of the disc (that story is also included in a very short featurette “A Call from Stanley Kubrick”).

New to this release is commentary by film historians Nick Redman and Jeff Bond, the 22-minute “Excitement is Go! Making Thunderbirds,” and the trademark isolated score track and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Carried over from the earlier DVD release are six short featurettes, test footage of Cliff Richards and the Shadows in performance, and other brief supplements. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More classic and cult releases on disc at Cinephiled

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