Thank god it’s Friday! Um, er, I mean Tuesday. Sorry, with Labor Day Weekend I was away from the site for a bit, though I did start working on a post last Thursday. Seems like a shame to let it go to waste, so here it is.
It’s rare that an actor can be so beloved for multiple roles. Some people will remember Gene Wilder as cynical chocolatier Willy Wonka, others—such as myself—as Mel Brook’s most treasured madcap pawn. Yet Gene had a third on-screen life as one half of cinema’s most underrated comedy team. I’m not sure who decided to pair the sweet Gene Wilder with Richard Pryor, one of the edgiest comics who will ever walk this Earth, but it worked, particularly in Arthur Hiller’s 1976 classic Silver Streak.
Though Wilder and Pryor collaborated on a total of four films, their first collaboration felt the most appropriate. Not only that but Silver Streak was directed by Arthur Hiller, who also died this month, so it felt like an appropriate tribute.
To start, let me clear something up that I wish someone had told for me before watching this movie. Richard Pryor doesn’t show up until 63 minutes into the film. That’s crazy! He has third billing. Maybe they didn’t know what kind of untapped comedy magic they had at their fingertips? Regardless, the Pryor-less portion of Silver Streak is still enjoyable.
The film follows George Caldwell (Gene Wilder), a timid book editor on a business trip from Los Angeles to Chicago via a train known as the “Silver Streak.” Aboard the train, George befriends Bob Sweet, a horny vitamin salesman (Ned Beatty), who tells him trains are great for gettin’ tail. George is reluctant but surprised when he finds chemistry with Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh) a sharp-witted secretary for a well-known art historian also aboard the train. The two retire to George’s quarters for some hanky-panky when George witnesses a dead body dangling from outside his window. Of course, the body falls before Hilly can see it but George swears it was the body of Professor Schreiber.
George attempts to investigate the professor’s quarters but is confronted by two henchman played by Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Ray Walston) and everyone’s favorite Bond goon Jaws (Richard Kiel), who has gold teeth in this film—Why does he always need weird teeth? Is being 7’2″ not intimidating enough? George gets roughed up and tossed off the train. Which will be a recurring gag. Also, it’s a great way to break up the film’s three acts.
On the train, we are introduced to a rich art dealer, Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan), who has plotted to kill the professor for proving Devereau authenticated forged paintings as Rembrandt’s for personal gain. Seems a little excessive to kill him. After George gets help from a backwoods woman farmer with a plane, George is back on the train. This time George learns Bob Sweet is actually an undercover FBI agent investigating Devereau for numerous crimes. Sweet aka Agent Stevens is shot only to have George caught with the gun by the train’s porter (Scatman Crothers), leading him to flee the scene. George encounters Jaws and almost gets shot when George finds a FUCKING SPEAR GUN AND KILLS HIM! Now, this is EXACTLY LIKE A BOND FILM…. Minus the inappropriate one-liners and sexual innuendo.
George escapes the train where this time he encounters a bumbling sheriff played none other by Clifton James aka Sheriff J.W. Pepper from Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. YES, SO MUCH YES! Although James’ wacky Yosemite Sam shtick may have been the best/worst point in all of Bond history, it works well here because this film is actually a comedy. The Sheriff is obsessed with action heroes on TV and wants to help George after he explains what he saw. But the sheriff gets a call informing him that George is a murderer and he decides its time to take action. George escapes and steals a police car where he finds a thief, Grover T. Muldoon (Richard Pryor), handcuffed in the back. Finally.
It’s a shame it takes so long to get to Richard Pryor when he’s the funniest character in the film. His off-color comments and jabs at George’s wimpiness and whiteness prove a nice contrast to our nebbish protagonist. The pairing is inspired. In exchange for helping him escape, Grover gets George back onto the train where they confront Devereau only to be thrown off again. You think this bit would get old but it’s always funny and keeps the story moving.
Skipping ahead, we learn that George is wanted by the police so they can get him into custody and aid the FBI in their capture of Devereau. George complies and finds himself on the train once more to save Hilly. Devereau and his men are killed but cut the brakes, leaving George, Grover, Hilly and the porter stuck on a speeding train. Luckily, George manages to uncouple the train cars and detach themselves from the engine which eventually crashes. Fin.
I was surprised by the amount of plot for a screwball comedy. I’ve heard criticism over the film’s tonal shifts but I enjoyed the story, which has an Alfred Hitchcock vibe. Plots are so often neglected in comedy films and I enjoyed the attention to raising the stakes. This film could even work as a drama. Can’t you picture Harrison Ford yelling, “Get off my train!”
My only problem, which I’m sure many viewers have today, is the film’s notorious blackface scene. While George is wanted, Grover dresses him up in “hip” clothes, gives him a radio, sunglasses, and covers his face in brown shoe polish. George then proceeds to “act black” in the mirror of a men’s restroom and it’s painful. I understand it’s a dated joke from a less sensitive era but it isn’t funny or clever by any means.
Overall, I enjoyed this film and I do plan on watching Wilder and Pryor’s 1980 collaboration Stir Crazy someday. It’s a shame both of these iconic performers are no longer with us. Though the laughs will always remain.