Comedy in cinema serves as a vehicle for the exploration of various taboo topics including race and social stratification. Comedy films "humorously [exaggerate] the situation, the language, action, and characters," and allows the viewer to understand the director's viewpoint and interpretation of these concepts (Dirks). In Race Consciousness and Class Invisibility in American Comedy," Kathryn Rice writes, "The power of good comedy rests in its ability to expose human foibles and to reveal the silliness of cultural norms that we seldom question."
Although Rice is commenting on comedy as a live performance -- stand up comedy, Rice's argument can be applied to cinema. The relationship between race, social stratification, humor and cinema can be examined through an analysis of how these concepts are depicted in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles and in Richard Donner's the Toy. Both of these films explore the constructs of race and social class to significantly varying success and allow audiences to see how these issues are depicted in film.
Blazing Saddles and the Toy represent two distinct subgenres of comedy film, satire and farce, respectively. Satirical films "are usually humorous or anarchic take-off that ridicules, impersonates, punctures, scoffs at, and/or imitates the style, conventions, formulas, characters, or motifs of a serious work, film, performer, or genre" (Dirks). Blazing Saddle is a satirical film because it not only comments on issues of race and social class and standing, but also provides commentary on the Western film genre and Hollywood. On the other hand, the Toy can be categorized as farce.
These types of films, "and farcical elements in films, may include fairly outrageous plots, unlikely and absurd circumstances, frantic-paced action, mistaken identities, a major transgression or hidden secret…sometimes based on a misunderstanding, and lots of verbal humor, absurdities and physical slapstick, often with a concluding chase of some kind" (Dirks). The Toy can be considered to be a farcical comedy film due to its outrageous, offensive, and nonsensical narrative and premise, which incorporates physical slapstick, social blunders, and a concluding chase.
Blazing Saddles is a successful comedic film for a number of reasons including its gags, contextual absurdity, approach to the deconstruction of stereotypes, race and social class, its hyperawareness, and its deconstruction and commentary on Western films and of Hollywood. Blazing Saddles is set in 1874, eleven years after the abolition of slavery and one hundred years before the film was made (the film was released in 1974), and is geographically set in a nondescript Western town typical of those represented in Western films.
The film begins with the construction of a railroad, which quickly establishes racial and social divides. During this opening scene, blacks are employed by the railroad company to build the railroad, whereas the whites in the scene are depicted as being overseers of the construction and do not contribute to the manual labor of building tracks (Blazing Saddles). It is through this division of labor that the distinction between blacks and whites, on a class and racial level, is made. It is also during this sequence that Brooks first makes fun of the racial stereotypes found in Western films by depicting the black workers as being more cultured, which is demonstrated as they sing their rendition of a Cole Porter song, which catches their white supervisors off-guard because they were expecting a more traditional Negro spiritual song such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" or "Camptown Races" (Blazing Saddles).
It is through the white supervisors' expectations of a stereotypical Negro spiritual that social and racial ignorance among whites is emphasized and parodied. It is through this characterization of blacks as intellectual and cultured, and whites as ignorant, that Brooks begins to redefine the constructs of race and class.
Through a more detailed analysis of Bart, who is introduced as the leader of the railroad construction team and who is later appointed as sheriff, can the constructs of race and class be understood. In the film, Bart is allowed to break away from stereotypical racial constructs of Western films through the assumption of the role of sheriff. Through the assumption of the role, Bart is not only breaking racial barriers, but also social ones. In the film, as in many Westerns, it is implied that only a white sheriff can establish and maintain peace within the community, which is one of the reasons Bart is appointed to the position. In the film, State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr appoints Bart as sheriff hoping that the people of Rock Ridge revolt and lynch Bart, or that they abandon the town, providing Lamarr the opportunity to purchase the land and increase his ever-expanding wealth (Blazing Saddles).
At the same time that Bart is appointed as sheriff, he is allowed social mobility as he moves up from being a black laborer at the bottom of the social class system to a position that provides him with equality with whites. Furthermore, while Lamarr expects Bart to fail as sheriff, Bart is able to unite and defeat the typical band of outlaws through intelligence and wit, thus proving that he is qualified to hold the position.
At the same time Brooks comments on the stereotypical depiction of blacks in Western films, he comments on Hollywood. In the film, the conflict between the citizens of Rock Ridge and Lamarr's henchmen spills onto other film sets and onto the streets of Hollywood by breaking the fourth wall. As such, Brooks is able to show that Westerns, and racial and social constructs in films are fabricated by studios that control what is film and shown to the public. Through this commentary, Brooks is able to redefine cinema and demonstrate that films have the power to not only establish and reinforce stereotypes, but that cinema also has the power to educate and redefine, if not work on eliminating, stereotypes.
On the other hand, the Toy, attempts to be humorous and provide commentary on race and social status, but ends up falling flat and failing to be revolutionary on any level. In the film, Jack Brown, an unemployed journalist, sells himself as a slave to Eric Bates, the son of U.S. who owns the Bugle, a newspaper, and is a prominent business man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after his father tells him he can have anything in the toy store Jack happens to be goofing off in (the Toy). Like Blazing Saddles, the Toy aims to demonstrate the racial and social divide between blacks and whites, however, instead of deconstructing and redefining stereotypes, the Toy reinforces stereotypes and embraces slavery and the degradation of individuals based on their race and social status.
In "Race Consciousness and Class Invisibility in American Comedy," Rice comments, "It is striking to me that while American comedy and pop culture remain obsesswed with the topic of race, the subject of class prejudice is largely invisible in [stand up and television]," which is not the case in the Toy. In the Toy, there is a clear distinction between blacks and white in almost every aspect. For instance, Jack Brown comes from a poverty stricken neighborhood and is about to lose his home until he weasels his way into a job as a cleaning lady.
In the film, the majority of blacks are depicted as being poor or unemployed, and are either servants, or in Jack's case, a slave (the Toy). On the other hand, whites are depicted as being gainfully employed or rich businessmen who do not respect people that they do not consider their equals. Furthermore, these white individuals are depicted as racist, entitled, and ignorant, especially U.S. Bates's son, Eric, who demands Jack be bought for him. Eric, who mistreats him, plays tricks on him, and further demeans him, continuously humiliates Jack.
The depiction of race in the Toy not only reinforces negative stereotypes, but also reverses any and all social advancements made by blacks in the past hundred years. Slavery was degrading to blacks and it is appalling that Jack Brown would voluntarily offer himself to be a slave for the sole opportunity of working for U.S. Bates and getting his foot in the door of Bates' publishing empire. By accepting the role of slave, Jack demonstrates that he has no self-worth and is willing to sell himself out for an employment opportunity that does not even exist, and that he later realizes he does not want.
Interestingly, the only other black people employed by U.S. Bates are servants. Through these divisions of labor, the Toy appears to insinuate that blacks are inferior to whites and that they are only qualified to perform menial work for them. Furthermore, while in Blazing Saddles Bart's assumption of the position of sheriff demonstrates upward social mobility, Jack's acceptance of slavery -- and insistence thereof, demonstrates extreme downward social mobility.
While the Toy set out to demonstrate how issues of race and social class can be overcome through education, and that friends and respect cannot be bought, the film fails to demonstrate…