Tag Archives: Cleavon Little

Blazing Saddles (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Black man becomes sheriff.

Classic western parody centers on a new railroad being built during the 1870’s and how an attorney general named Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) connives to have it run through a town called Rock Ridge, but in so doing devises a plan to have the residents run out, so the railroad can be put in. He hires a bunch of outlaws to ride into the town and terrorize the people hoping they’ll be scared off and move, but instead they put in a request to the state’s governor (Mel Brooks) for a sheriff. The inept governor gets tricked into hiring a black man named Bart (Cleavon Little) to act as the sheriff, which sends the racist residents of Rock Ridge into an outrage.

The film was known at the time for its outlandish humor, which thanks to political correctness is now considered even more outrageous and would most likely have no chance of being made today. The film’s biggest sticking point deals with its excessive use of the N-word, which writer/director Brooks was pressured to take out by the studio executives (along with many other things), but he resisted insisting that co-writer Richard Pryor and star Little had their blessing to keep it in and that most of the letters he received that were critical of the word being used were from white people. Personally I felt that it was realistic for its setting, which was supposed to be 1874, so in that regard it worked.

The stuff that got on my nerves was the constant anachronistic jokes dealing with people that weren’t even alive when the film’s setting took place. This type of humor gives the film too much of a campy feel and should’ve been scrapped. I was also disappointed when Gene Wilder talks to Little about his past and how he was accosted by a gun-toting 6-year-old, but the film doesn’t cut away to a reenactment of this, which would’ve been hilarious to see, even though it does do this when Little talks about his own past.

The funniest bits that I did find myself laughing-out-loud to where the ones involving Brooks as the cross-eyed governor, but I was frustrated that the streaming video that I watched did not have the scene where Brooks goes to the town of Rock Ridge and mistakes the wooden dummies that are there as being real-people. I remember this scene vividly when I watched it on network TV back in the 80’s and thought it was hilarious, but apparently this segment is only available on the Blu-ray version.

The acting by the supporting cast is great with Korman getting the best film role of his career. Liam Dunn is memorable as the town’s pastor and I got a kick out of Jessamine Milner as a racist old lady who later tries to make amends with Bart, but only under certain conditions. Madeline Kahn is quite good too in a send-up of Marlene Dietrich and rumor has it that she intentionally gave a bad performance in Mame, which was filming at the same time, just so the director would fire her, so she could then get the part here, but still be paid for that one as her contract stipulated guaranteed pay as long as she was terminated and didn’t quit.

The only bad performance comes from Little, who is just too serene and laid back almost like he’s treating the whole thing as a joke and doesn’t get into his part at all. I would’ve expected to see some anger from his character over the way he had been treated by white folks, but none is conveyed and instead he comes off like some guy picked off the street who mouths his lines and that’s about it. The part was intended for Richard Pryor who would’ve given the role the extra edge that it needed.

Spoiler Alert!

As controversial as the film is it’s the bizarre ending that has always had me the most baffled as it breaks the fourth wall and has the characters without warning go from the western time period into the modern-day. When I first saw this years ago I thought it was the weirdest thing I had ever seen and didn’t like it as I felt it ruined the story as I was enjoying seeing the town’s residents take matters into their own hands by literally beating up the bad guys as well as realizing that their racist ways were wrong. Having them suddenly thrown onto a Hollywood backlot made it too gimmicky and took away any possibility for some minor depth/message that the story might otherwise have had.

In retrospect I can only conclude that Brooks did this to show that these characters were never meant to be a part of the true west. In fact the whole reason that attracted him to the project, which was based off of an idea by Andrew Bergman, was because of its so-called ‘hip-talk’, which had 1974 expressions done in an 1874 setting.

If this was the case then the film should’ve started out with the characters in the modern day and then transported them via a time machine into the old west. The movie is so goofy anyways that I can’t see how this funky added element could’ve hurt it and then at the end when they return to the present it would’ve seemed more fluid and less like a cop-out where the writer’s ran out of ideas, so they decided to just go weird.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 7, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Director: Mel Brooks

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Vanishing Point (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Racing to San Francisco.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a car delivery driver whose next assignment has him driving a white Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum from Denver to San Francisco. He is a former cop who seems disillusioned and detached from the world around him. To give his existence some meaning he decides to ‘challenge’ himself by making the delivery in record time and even makes a bet with a local drug dealer while purchasing some ‘uppers’ that he can get to San Francisco by 3:00 the next day. As his record drive proceeds he gets the attention of the local law enforcement from every state that he drives through, but none of them are able to stop him despite all efforts. He also attracts the attention of a local blind, black DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little) who has access to the police radio frequency and able to help Kowalski with his goal.

Richard C. Sarafain’s direction and John Alonzo’s cinematography are the real winners here. In fact my favorite scenes from this film are the long distance shots capturing the car driving along the lonely highways to the backdrop of the stunning western skies and its rugged, sandy landscape. This is a movie that will appeal to one’s emotional senses and bypass the need for logic. Certain things aren’t fully explained particularly Kowalski’s past, but the fact that it isn’t makes it more enjoyable. It’s the connection with his need for speed, escape and non-conformity that attracts us and it’s the adrenaline that propels the movie and viewer’s interest forward thus making this one of the quintessential road movies from its era or any other.

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Newman seems an unusual casting choice as he really doesn’t have the dynamic star power or all that many lines of dialogue. He is also clearly in his mid-30’s for a part that seems better suited for some renegade, long haired 20-year-old, but in some ways his presence makes the movie more intriguing and distinctive by showing middle-aged people can have a dormant desire to rebel as well and sometimes even more so.

Little is terrific in what is probably the best performance of his career even though it seemed highly improbable and even ridiculous for a black DJ playing soul tunes at a radio station located in a small, isolated town inhabited by conservative, white, racist people. Severn Darden is edgy as a traveling evangelist and Dean Jagger is appealing as an old-time snake hunter. On the flip side of the 20th Century Fox DVD you can see the extended U.K. release that features a brief scene with Charlotte Rampling as a hitch-hiker. This sequence was intended to be allegorical, but really isn’t that impressive even though Rampling is quite attractive with her hair highlighted with blonde streaks.

Spoiler Warning!

The ending, which features Kowalski intentionally driving into some bulldozers parked in the middle of the road, which kills him instantly in a ball of flames, has proved through the years to be quite controversial and filled with many interpretations. I found it to symbolize Kowalski’s ultimate need for escape as he realized that he could never achieve the true freedom that he wanted, so he decided in a way to become a martyr and take his chances in another world beyond this one. The wry smile seen on his face just before he does it signifies the ‘fuck you’ that he gives to the authorities who are convinced that they finally have him cornered but really don’t. It also connects to the death of the counter-culture movement who by that time had realized that their dream of a utopian society filled with complete individual freedom and outside of mainstream control was never going to happen.

End of Spoiler Warning!

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: January 15, 1971

Runtime:  1Hour 45Minutes (U.K. Version) 1Hour 39Minutes (U.S. Version)

Rated R

Director: Richard C. Sarafain

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

FM (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: No static at all!

Q-SKY is the number one radio station in Los Angeles and this is mainly due to program director Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon) who has lined up a good rock playlist as well as an eclectic bunch of on-air personalities. However, Regis Lamar (Tom Tarpey) the sales manager wants to play some army recruitment commercials, which Jeff refuses to do and when he gets into a fight with management over it he quits. The rest of the staff decides to come to his rescue by staging an on-air sit-in where they lock themselves inside the station and refuse to play any commercials until management agrees to hire Jeff back, which soon attracts the attention of hundreds of listeners that pack the streets of L.A. until it becomes a mob scene.

If this movie succeeds at anything it is in its ability at bringing the ‘70s back to life. In fact if you ever wanted to get into a time machine and travel back to that decade to see what things were really like this film does it better than just about any other from that era. The sights, sounds and attitudes from that crazy decade literally ooze from every frame until you feel like you are living it yourself.

The film also manages to recreate the behind-the-scenes life at a radio station in a realistic way. Back in the ‘90s I worked in radio and even had my own weekend overnight show called ‘After Hours’ at a FM station in Chicago and the atmosphere shown here is on-target and enough to make me long to go back to it if it just paid more.

The characterizations are fun. Eileen Brennan takes a rare dramatic turn and does quite well playing an older D.J. named Mother who is burnt out from the business and wants to quit, but can’t quite pull herself completely away from it. Martin Mull is amusing as the narcissist Eric Swan who considers his on-air persona to be an ‘art form’ and he even traps himself inside the radio booth when he breaks up with his girlfriend and refuses to leave until one of his many female listeners agrees to take her place. Ironically both Mull and Cleavon Little who plays Prince the overnight jock also played D.J.’s in two other movies. Mull was in Jingle All the Way while Little was in Vanishing Point.

The film also has a strong ‘70s soundtrack. Not only does it open with a great stereo version of Steely Dan’s title hit, but just about every rock hit from 1978 can be heard playing in the background at some point. There is also excellent concert footage of Jimmy Buffet as well as Linda Ronstadt who those live versions of ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘Poor, Poor Pitiful Me’, and ‘Love Me Tender’.

The film unfortunately falls apart at the end with a sit-in segment that proves unrealistic and exaggerated. Radio personal are hired and fired every day. It’s the nature of the business and one knows that going in and prepares for it. It is highly unlikely that any of the other employees would stage a sit-in like the one shown here simply because it would put not only their job, but careers in complete jeopardy. Dugan with his strong resume could easily find himself a job at another station pretty quickly, so their efforts seemed unnecessary. The idea that hundreds of people would come out onto the street to protest and even overturn cars is ridiculous and what’s worse is that the crowd scenes were clearly done on an inside soundstage making the entire segment look staged and fake.

I loved the first half and had it stayed on that slice-of-life level this could’ve been an interesting time capsule. In some ways it still is, but the ending gets so stupid that it pretty much ruins the whole thing.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: April 20, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John A. Alonzo

Studio: Universal Pictures

Available: VHS

Surf II (1984)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Surfers turn into zombies.

When compared to other low grade teen comedies of the 80’s this one fares a bit better. The story is about a nerd (Eddie Deezen) who decides to take revenge on all the ‘cool’ surfers by forcing them to drink a cola that will turn them into zombies.

The idea of mixing the crude humor of the 80’s with the zany surfer themed films of the 60’s is not a bad one. The film initially avoids the sterility that the other teen comedies usually have. The first fifteen minutes are fresh and inventive and there’s even a chuckle or two. It’s nice how it mixes old B-list actors with up and coming young stars like Eric Stoltz, Corinne Bohrer, and the late and underappreciated Tom Villard. The film also shows definite venom towards the surfers and some of which is accurate while taking some fun shots at the adults particularly two of the dads of the surfers who seem very much like what happens when ‘surfer dudes’ have to grow up and actually start earning a living. There is also a garbage eating contest between one of the zombies and a fat guy that has to set some sort of gross out precedent.

The problem comes with the fact that the story has no direction and eventually loses all momentum. There are too many absurd elements thrown in that have no connection to the main plot. The film comes off as derivative and convoluted and the manufactured calamity filled finale is incoherent.

Star Deezen looks and acts so much like a nerd you wonder if he was bred in some sort of laboratory. It is almost hard to believe how scrawny his arms are. Initially it is kind of funny and diverting to hear him say such megalomaniac statements with his high pitched voice, but his act is one-dimensional and eventually becomes annoying. Lyle Waggoner is another bad actor whose only claim to fame is his chiseled good looks. However, his bumbling police sergeant character Chief Boyardee is funny and he does get the film’s best line, which he says to a group of mouthy teens. “If I need any shit out of you kids I’ll squeeze your heads.” Ron Palillo who is best known for playing Horshak on ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ plays his deputy named Lt. Underwear and even sports gray hair! Cleavon Little though is wasted in a meaningless role of ‘Daddy-O’.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: January 14, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated R

Director: Randall M. Badat

Studio: International Film Marketing

Available: VHS