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Posts Tagged ‘Gene Wilder’

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This week we lost Gene Wilder, one of the iconic comedic actors that my generation watched in movies we consider as classics. I can trace my maturing from adolescence to college to adulthood via Gene Wilder movies. I like pretty much all of his work from the late 1960’s through the 1980’s. Everyone, of course, has their favorites. And I suppose that mine should be “The Frisco Kid,” the hilarious story of a rabbi from Poland trying to find his way across the wild west – it has so many funny Jewish references and insights. However, my very favorites are two of the ones he did with Mel Brooks: “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.”

Both films met with controversy during their development as well as their initial releases. Both tread ground no one dared to walk, showing disdain for the political correctness of their day. Both have moments where I still laugh so hard that I cry – even though I have seen them multiple times.

Brooks always wanted Zero Mostel to play Max Bialystock, but it took Mostel’s wife to convince him to take the role. The original Leo Bloom was supposed to be Peter Sellers, but that did not work out. Brooks then remembered he had spoken to Wilder about the role a few years earlier and cast him. “The Producers” was originally titled “Springtime for Hitler.” It was an idea Mel Brooks had been developing for years before he actually produced it. Major studios rejected the movie “Springtime for Hitler,” saying the idea of using Adolf Hitler for comedy was over the top tasteless. Brooks would say in numerous interviews that the best way to degrade the most vile dictator of the 20th century was to mock him, to make him the butt of jokes. His script for the 1968 film won an academy award. In 2001 he converted it to a musical play that won 12 Tony’s. Yet, even in 2015, some folks protested the play and the film’s mocking of Hitler, saying having Nazi’s parade around the stage in musical numbers is in bad taste, an insult to those who suffered through the Holocaust.

The premier of “The Producers” in Pittsburg, November 1967 was a disaster. The movie studio was ready to shelve it. But Sellers saw it privately and supported its general release. Reviews were mixed. But what do reviewers know? To me the movie is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. It is brilliant in its absurdity.

“Blazing Saddles” also morphed a lot through its production. The original title was supposed to be “Tex X,” a kind of spoof on Malcolm X. Richard Pryor, who was one of the co-writers, was supposed to play Sheriff Bart, but apparently the studio would not issue insurance on him. So the part went to Cleavon Little. Brooks offered the part of the Waco Kid to John Wayne, who turned it down but promised to be first in line to see the movie. It was then given to Gig Young, who collapsed on the set early in the shooting. So it went to Wilder.

Reaction to “Blazing Saddles” was as mixed as the reaction to “The Producers.” Many thought it was hilarious, and indeed it was a box office hit. Others were offended by the frequent use of the “n” word. Brooks pointed out those protests were mostly from whites. However, the movie was incredibly politically incorrect even beyond the language, such as when former NFL star Alax Karras, in his role as Mongo, punched and decked a horse. Or when Madeline Kahn, as Lily von Schtupp, seduces sheriff Bart. One of my favorite moments is when Mel Brooks, as the Indian chief, is shocked at seeing black people and says in Yiddish, “Hast du gesehen deine leiben (have you seen anything like this in your life)? They’re darker than we are!”

Both movies challenge our sense of propriety. Both make us uncomfortable while at the same moment trying to make us laugh. Do we dare see Hitler as funny? Is he being mocked or trivialized? Do we dare laugh at the raw racism depicted by the language and attitudes in “Blazing Saddles?” I think Brooks is correct when he states this movie could never be made in today’s politically correct culture.

To put these questions in the context of this week’s Torah portion; do we see these movies as a blessing or a curse? Are they just crude attempts at humor or insights into our cultural foibles? The very first word of the portion is re’eh, the imperative form of the verb “ to see.” God commands the Israelites to “see” that the existence of blessing and curse if before us. In Nitzavim we are told to choose blessing and live or to choose curse and die. Here we are told that if we follow God’s commands given that day, we will be blessed and if not we will be cursed. We are then to pronounce the blessing from Mount Gerizim and the curse from Mount Ebal. So what are the commands given that day? Well actually, just one, to “see.” If we combine the references to blessing and curse from this week’s parashah and Nitzavim, we can understand that we are commanded to see the existence of blessing and curse; to acknowledge them and to choose our path.

Traditionally, we look at this under the mitzvah system. If we obey we get blessed. If we do not we get cursed. But I would “see” this a bit differently. We are commanded to look at things and to judge if they are blessing or curse. We are to make the choices based on what we see and from our choices we can build a life of blessing or a life of curse. Even more, can we see that the potential for blessing AND curse exists in each thing, and how we choose to react or to handle each thing determines the degree of each in our lives. While we are told to declare blessing from one mountain and curse from another, the truth is we do not live on either mountain, but at some point in between. How close we move to one mountain or the other depends on the choices we make and the attitudes we choose to embrace.

That is why I am so intrigued by “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.” Each represents a life puzzle. Each can be seen as funny and insightful or as awfully insulting. If we follow God’s command and “see” them in the context of life’s choices, how we choose to frame life, we will learn something about ourselves. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will better understand why we feel blessed or cursed. Our reactions to these movies can teach us a lot about who we are. And we can laugh a lot while we learn.

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