That Thing They Do
A few years ago, on the day my older daughter graduated from elementary school, her teacher had a picnic for the students and their families. There were a couple of days of fifth grade left still, but the year’s lessons had clearly come to an end, and during the picnic the teacher asked for suggestions for movies he might watch with the kids the next day. I mentioned Blazing Saddles, and he took me up on it. I don’t know what the other kids thought of that movie, but my daughter became an instant fan; she has seen it several times since.
I still have much affection for Blazing Saddles. Directed by Mel Brooks, it is frequently, by definition, just plain silly, but for a comedy about race made in the 1970s, it is amazingly hip. (It never hurt to have Richard Pryor work on your screenplay.) Gene Wilder is wonderful, Madeline Kahn has a ball, and there are immortal moments. (Such as: “Are we awake?” “We’re not sure. Are we . . . black?” “Yes, we are.” “Then we’re awake . . . but we’re very puzzled.”)
What I love most about the movie, though, is the presence of the late Cleavon Little. As the “dazzling urbanite” who shows up — for a predictable greeting — as the new sheriff in an all-white town in the Old West, Little gives a very rare type of performance. I’m not sure I have the words to describe what I mean, but I will try. It’s not inacurrate to say that he plays a likeable character you can identify with, but it’s too easy, and it doesn’t do the whole job. Yes, Sheriff Bart’s easygoing manner, gentle humor, and sly way of getting out of trouble he never went looking for are hard to resist, but there’s another element, too. He projects the confidence that you’re with him, that if you were in the movie you would be on his side and react as he does, if only you could. It’s not just that you trust him; he seems to trust you.
A few other people have projected this quality. Bill Cosby did it in The Bill Cosby Show of the late 1960s (not to be confused with The Cosby Show of the 1980s). In his heyday Andy Griffith had a touch of it, as did Alan Arkin, whom I mentioned in another recent post — though the situations Arkin’s characters found themselves in were so outrageous that identifying with him proved only that you were both sane. What Cleavon Little projected was a gentler, warmer thing. I’m sure you know what I mean. I trust you.