Safe space alert: Triggering comedy from the late, great Gene Wilder is a-nearer

Gene Wilder, star and writer of some of Hollywood’s greatest comedy classics, passed away this week at 83 years of age from complications of Alzheimer’s. He partnered with Mel Brooks for the best work both of them have done, including the original version of The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and one of my all-time favorite films, Blazing Saddles. Those films and others have long been in rotation on the movie channels and even on cable and broadcast outlets, albeit with heavy editing, but have been absent from the big screen for decades.

Those who never caught Blazing Saddles on the big screen will get their chance this weekend:

AMC Theaters nationwide are bringing a few of Gene Wilder’s most beloved films back to theaters this weekend.

The theater chain announced Thursday that audiences can catch “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Blazing Saddles” this Saturday and Sunday evening at 55 participating AMC locations.

The re-release of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory won’t cause any backlash from anyone, save perhaps the family of original author Roald Dahl, who reportedly hated it in part because of the casting of Wilder in the title role. It’s a classic children’s film, perhaps a bit too much of its time, but still has plenty of charm and no little moral instruction against the sins of gluttony, pride, sloth, and so on. If you haven’t seen it, and especially if all you’ve seen is the also-worthy Tim Burton remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with its headshaking subplots, try to catch it. Wilder is wonderful in the role, no matter what Dahl thought.

Blazing Saddles, however, is chock-full of language, portrayals, and scenes that will offend practically every convention in modern political correctness. Even in its time, it was considered a cutting-edge satire, edgy and risky, but it emerged in a time when freedom of speech was considered a much higher value than shying away from offense.

The makers of the new Ben-Hur got pilloried (unfairly, in my estimation) for remaking a classic, but it’s a very safe bet that Hollywood wouldn’t dare remake Blazing Saddles — and that reluctance has nothing to do with comparisons to the classic version. There is no way any comedy that included derogatory references to “n****rs” and “chinks” in the first five minutes would ever get green-lit today, let alone released — even for social satire from a small-L liberal point of view. Richard Pryor co-wrote the film (and was originally cast to play Sheriff Bart), but even if he was still alive to endorse the project today, it’s doubtful in the extreme that anyone would touch it.

Just how “triggering” will this get? Take a look at this scene, which is generally representative of the satirical humor throughout. Sheriff Bart (the late Cleavon Little) shows up for the first time in Rock Ridge, gives a good flavor of the film … and needless to say is Not Safe for Work:

AMC may need to keep a theater open in all 55 locations for “safe spaces” for all those triggered by some of the stronger material in the film. That’s what makes this re-release in honor of Wilder and his comic genius so ironic — and so necessary. Kudos to AMC for recognizing this and for taking a risk, even though it might be mitigated by the film’s 42-year-old status as a classic. Blazing Saddles skewers bigotry as well as political correctness, while operating at its most superficial level as a hilarious send-up of old westerns. It’s precisely the antidote we need to hyperventilation about “triggers” and heckler’s vetoes over bruised feelings.

If you get the opportunity, find an AMC participating in this retrospective. And just to hedge your bets, invest some of your retirement in the fainting-couch industry before Saturday.

In honor of Gene Wilder, here’s a classic clip of The Waco Kid and Sheriff Bart, along with Harvey Korman and Slim Pickens And yeah, this is Not Safe for Work either, and probably contains a social-justice warrior trigger or two:

RIP, Gene Wilder. Thanks for decades of laughs, and for the decades to come as well.