11.12.2006

Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles (1974) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Most cinephiles tend to rank Young Frankenstein as the greatest masterpiece in the oeuvre of Mel Brooks, with Blazing Saddles the funniest. But for StinkyLulu, Blazing Saddles remains Brooks' most complex and sophisticated film. Yes, Blazing Saddles is basically a loony spoof of the Hollywood Western, tweaked by a giddily outré racialism and a poopoo/peenie puerility. (All of which converge in the legendary sequence that StinkyLulu's late father, Papa Stinky, considered the unrivaled apex of cinematic achievement.) But embedded within the "excuse me while I whip this out"-ness of the flick, Brooks' film presents a really smart, provocative, and nearly allegorical portrait (circa 1973) of the disintegration of Hollywood's dissembling genres, conventions and cliches. Simply put, StinkyLulu -- in all seriousness -- considers Blazing Saddles to be possibly the most important film of 1974 and Mel Brooks the savviest auteur of that year's directorial crop. And right there in the middle of Brooks' steaming pile of offensive genius, & reining in some of Brooks' worst tendencies toward banal misogyny, is the one, the only...

approximately 10 minutes and 57 seconds on-screen
8 scenes
roughly 12% of film's total screen time

1974 was a good year for Madeline Kahn. After being written out of several late 1960s Broadway musicals, a featured role in 1970's Danny Kaye vehicle Two by Two brought her to the attention of the two film directors who knew how to use her best, Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks. After working in essential supporting roles on two consecutive features for Bogdanovich (1972's What's Up Doc, in which Kahn's just buh-rilliant in her film debut as the uptight Eunice, and 1973's Paper Moon, for which Kahn scored her first Best Supporting Actress nomination.) It was her work in two films for Mel Brooks in 1974 (her nominated work in Blazing Saddles, released in February, and her nomination-worthy work in Young Frankenstein, released in December that same year) that Madeline Kahn secured her now legendary place in American cinematic and comedy history.

In Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn plays Lili von Shtupp, the teutonic spy/dance-hall-dame enlisted to ensnare the sheriff of a sleepy Western town in her "trap" of erotic intrigue. (Or, to mimic the von Shtupp vernacular, "hewr twap of ewotic intwigue.") In von Shtupp, Brooks and Kahn both pay clear parodic homage to the "painted ladies" of the Hollywood Western, including Mae West, Amanda Blake, Katy Jurado, and most obviously Marlene Dietrich (the character itself seems a direct riff on Dietrich's in Destry Rides Again, 1939). Lili von Shtupp is a simple gag of a character ("The Teutonic Titwillow") which Madeline Kahn delivers with an uncomplicated precision. Yet something about Kahn's performance in the role effects an unexpected, accumulating magic. As evidence, consider Kahn's now iconic performance of "I'm Tired" in which she sings her character's punny subtext/backstory and somehow makes it both interesting, human, and funny.


click image for video

As Blazing Saddles staggers its way along, and the character of Lili von Shtupp recedes from narrative prominence, Kahn's performance itself emerges as an emblematic example of the "they had no idea what they had" kind of work that actresses at the edges so often provide. Here, however, Kahn's charismatic and efficient performance of what couldashouldawoulda been a 1/2-note role has become one of the most beloved character performances in 20th century cinema. It's an astonishing, really, how much gold Madeline Kahn spun from this shallow sketch of a character. (Kahn deserves a medal for transforming the crassness of the "schnitzengruben" scene into a sweetly comic afterglow.) Kahn's memorable grace and humor in the role of Lili von Shtupp is testament not only to the marvels that manifest from actressing at the edges, but also to the huge loss wrought by Kahn's 1999 death (at 57) from ovarian cancer.

Quite simply, Madeline Kahn's work in Blazing Saddles twuly wemawkable. Should be vewy intewesting to see how Kahn holds up next to the diverse competition of 1974.

9 comments:

Sheepdog said...

A most enjoyable meditation, as always, Lu. Now, here's your test of [Ashkenazi] Jewish culture: do you know what "shtupp" means? Hint: it has multiple meanings.

Love, Sheepdog

StinkyLulu said...

The only meaning of which I am aware is shtupp as in "to f*ck" or "to screw over"...

But there're others? Do tell...

Raybee said...

I just want to say thanks for calculating the screentime totals. I find them interesting. For example, it did not seem like Kahn had only a measly 11 minutes of screentime. It felt longer.

PoliVamp said...

Went to the 100 greatest performances ever list you linked to. It starts off so well, but by the end it was horrid (PSH for Capote? Jamie Foxx for Ray?)

As for the total screentime. I can believe it was that shortm but what makes it so awesome a performance is that it feels much longer. I've always felt comedy is much harder than drama, and Madeline Khan played this perfectly. God bless her.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Ah, I feel wefreshed each time I watch Kahn show up to sing "I'm Tired" and waltz off with Saddles in the process. Kahn was equally original and unforgettable in Frankenstein- "Come here, you hot monster!" (and yes, I'm among the legions who choose the later 1974 Brooks' comedy as his masterpiece), although I've pick her as 1974's best based on either role. No one has done, or probably ever will do, mock seriousness onscreen more creatively or hilariously.

StinkyLulu said...

Thanks for the kind words about doing the screentime totals.

FYI - Most of Kahn's minutes are nearly continuous, so for about 10 minutes in the middle of the film it's all about Lili von Shtupp. Which is, I think, part of why it feels like she's in so much of the movie.

One thing that's interesting about both Ladd and Kahn in this cycle is their characters pop in, apparently out of nowhere, about 1/2 way through the film and provide the story with an essential jolt of energy.

The other interesting thing about
At some point, I'll start amassing a chart listing the screentime/s...

J.J. Gittes said...

Splendid. Even though my heart belongs to MK in Frankenstein ("I put a special hamper in the bathroom for your shirts. The other one is just for socks and poo-poo undies").

Raybee said...

This year's list of supporting actress nominees are all on screen very little. It's quite amazing actually.

I can't wait to see what you say about Valentina Cortese, because, as Bergman said in her speech, Cortese deserved the award that year.

Sheriff Bart said...

Thanks for the post. It's good to see that others recognize MK and Mel (and the whole Blazing Saddles entourage) for how revolutionary and crafty their work was, even if they couldn't have imagined it at the time. I've always thought is was the funniest movie, but it's great to see that I'm not alone in appreciating how clever it was beyond the laughs. Seriously. Funny.