lili von shtupp and white handkerchiefs -- 3/30/18

Today's selection -- from Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life by WIlliam V Madison.  Madeline Kahn got the role of Lili von Shtupp, a takeoff on Marlene Dietrich, in Mel Brooks' wildly successful comedy Blazing Saddles. Her performance of the song "I'm Tired" was perhaps the highlight of the film:

"Like [Marlene Dietrich's] Frenchie in Destry Rides Again, Lili von Shtupp falls for an unlikely sheriff and sings a suggestive song. ... It's 'probably the dirtiest song I ever wrote,' Brooks observes. And Lili isn't merely a saloon singer; she's a Wild West Mata Hari, paid to use sex for political ends. Enlisted by cor­rupt Gov. William J. Lepetomane (Brooks) and his nefarious henchman Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) to undermine the renegade sheriff and make way for a new railroad, Lili accedes readily. She arrives in the town of Rock Ridge with all her weapons: well-stocked corset, tapering legs, and mouth-watering moue. The only trouble is, she's tired. 'Tired of be­ing admired. Tired of love uninspired .... Let's face it, fellas, everything below the neck is kaputt.'

"Madeline gives her best-known performance as Lili, doing an uncan­ny imitation of Dietrich. Her peroxide rinse and bustier garnered her pin-up status with a couple of generations of fanboys, and with Blazing Saddles as with Paper Moon, a single scene sealed the deal on an Oscar nomination. In this case, it's the song, and much of the number is pure Madeline. Brooks told her to 'harmonize the way Dietrich would,' so she came up with the meandering 'Ah' in the middle of the song. 'in a
key that was just a little wrong. Ordinarily, she was always in the center of the note,' he says. The moment when Lili reaches out to lean on the set and misses was also Madeline's. Her most important contribution, however, was to point out that the song had only verses and a chorus. Brooks went home and, in one night, wrote the words and music to the introduction that begins 'Here I stand, the goddess of desire.' Madeline was thrilled, and so was Brooks, though it meant restaging the number. Summing up her performance, he recalls a moment that 'always makes me laugh and cry' at the end of the number. As the cowboys shoot up the saloon and the chorus of Prussian soldiers carries her off, she looks around as if to say, 'Oh, the hell with it all.' 'You gotta watch her all the time,' Brooks says, 'because she's always doing something unique and Madeline-esque.'

"During the filming of The Producers, Brooks despaired when takes were ruined because the crew cracked up at Zero Mostel's performance. The solution was to buy handkerchiefs and distribute them: 'If you feel like laughing, stick this in your mouth.' Brooks resorted to the same tactic for 'I'm Tired.' 'I knew I had a great scene when I looked around and the whole crew was standing there with white handkerchiefs in their mouths,' he says. 'I must have gone through a whole case of white handkerchiefs on that picture.' Between takes, he says, Madeline sang Weill songs and coloratura arias, sometimes bringing work to a halt as the crew listened to her. 'Trills for her, thrills for us .... We just marveled at her.' ...

"Premiering on February 7, 1974, Blazing Saddles was the top-grossing picture of the year, besting the disaster epics The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, The Godfather II, and a little picture called Young Frankenstein. Madeline earned excellent reviews for her 'marvelously unkind takeoff on Marlene Dietrich' and her second Oscar nomination in two years. She lost the Academy Award for best actress in a supporting role to In­grid Bergman for Murder on the Orient Express, but nevertheless, she was on a winning streak. She'd made three hits, and all of Hollywood knew who she was."



William V. Madison


Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life


The University Press of Mississippi


Copyright 2015 by William V. Madison


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