Silver Streak

MPW-57609

1976

20th Century Fox

Directed by Arthur Hiller

Produced by Thomas L. Miller/Edward K. Milkis

Written by Colin Higgins

Music by Henry Mancini

For most people “The” Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder Movie is “Stir Crazy.” But lemme ask you this: outside of the “Dat’s right, we bad, we bad” scene, how much of the movie’s plot or story do you actually remember? And let’s not even bring “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” and “Another You” into this conversation. Richard Pryor doesn’t enter SILVER STREAK until we’re a good hour into the plot but it’s a wise move. Because he gives the movie a huge burst of energy and unpredictability that carries us along for the other hour. He comes in the movie at exactly the right time he’s needed. And for me, that makes SILVER STREAK “The” Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder Movie. Put any of their other collaborations on the TV and I’ll most likely doze off thirty minutes in. Put SILVER STREAK on and I’ll be on the edge of my seat from start to finish. SILVER STREAK is a movie I’ve seen maybe fifteen times since I first saw in the theater way back in 1976 and I saw it again today on Netflix and laughed just as hard and enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time I saw it.

Before you continue with this review I feel it only fair to warn you that this is the movie with the “shoe polish” scene where Richard Pryor disguises Gene Wilder in blackface in order to get him past FBI agents looking for him. In the context of the movie their actions make perfect sense. However I know the hypersensitive among you don’t give a poobah’s pizzle for context so maybe you should just go to another movie review, okay? But you’ll be cheating yourself out of the scene where Richard Pryor is attempting teach Gene Wilder how to “be black” is among one of the most hilarious in movie history.

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Book editor George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) boards a train called The Silver Streak in Los Angeles to travel to his sister’s wedding in Chicago. Yeah, he could have flown but he’s looking forward to just getting some work done and being bored. His Pullman Porter Ralston (Scatman Crothers) assures him that boredom is exactly what he’ll get. He meets quite a few of his fellow passengers in the club car, including vitamin salesman Bobby Sweet (Ned Beatty) and ends up having dinner with the insanely hot Hildegarde “Hilly” Burns (Jill Clayburgh).

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Their late night rendezvous is interrupted by what George thinks is a dead body falling off the roof of the train past the window of Hilly’s compartment he sees while they’re in her bed. It’s complicated even more by George’s insistence that the man is her boss, Professor Scheriner (Stefan Gierasch) The next day George goes to check on the professor and instead runs into two shady characters, Whiney (Ray Walston) and Reese (Richard Kiel) who throw George off the train. They both work for Roger Deveraux (Patrick McGoohan) an international art dealer whose reputation will be destroyed if Professor Scheriner’s book about Rembrandt is published. Professor Scheriner has his possessesion “The Rembrandt Letters” ancient documents that will authenticate the claims Scheriner has made in public that Deveraux is a fraud.

George manages to get back on The Silver Streak with the help of eccentric crop duster Rita Babtree (Lucille Benson) who flies George to the next stop in her biplane and to his astonishment George sees that Professor Scheriner is not only alive and well but is ace boon coons with Deveraux. Hilly assures him that everything is okay. Well, George is ready to chalk up the whole thing to an alcoholic dream until Bob Sweet reveals that he’s actually FBI Agent Stevens and they’ve been after Deveraux for a year ever since he engineered a plane crash in Germany that killed 100 people just to cover his ass. Then Sweet/Stevens is killed and George is once more forced to jump off the train but when he seeks helps to get back on again it’s with the assistance of professional thief Grover T. Muldoon (Richard Pryor) and here’s where my plot synopsis stops because I cannot believe that after all I’ve told you, you wouldn’t want to see this movie.

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I mean, c’mon. Just look at the cast: Gene Wilder. Richard Pryor. Both at the height of their popularity and creative powers. Jill Clayburgh has never been sexier than she is in this movie. The bad guy is fargin Patrick McGoohan and his henchmen are Ray Walston and Richard Kiel. Ned Beatty. Scatman Crothers. Valarie Curtin, Fred Willard, Lucille Benson, Len Birmen and Clifton James (in a role that just as well might be a cousin to J.W. Pepper from the James Bond movies) all have major and significant supporting roles.

SILVER STREAK is essentially a riff on the Alfred Hitchcock notion of an innocent man getting caught up in a situation way above his head but discovering that he’s got talents and gifts he never knew he had to help him. And Gene Wilder does a really good job of being Cary Grant. While watching this movie today I was struck by two things: I never before noticed how handsome Gene Wilder truly was and how well he wore his clothes. He’s at the center of SILVER STREAK and he makes the movie work by never elevating George Caldwell to to status of superhero. George is a ordinary guy but he rises to whatever challenge he has to meet with strengths he didn’t know he possessed until he had to use them.

As for Richard Pryor…what can I say about Richard Pryor in this movie other than in my list of Top Ten Favorite Richard Pryor Movies SILVER STREAK would be in the Top Five. Just for a scene that he and Gene Wilder have. They’ve stolen a fire-engine red Jaguar and are racing to Kansas City to save Jill Clayburgh from the bad guys. Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor simply talk about the situation they’re in and what they have to do to save her and beat the bad guy while that magnificent Henry Mancini music quietly plays behind their dialog. That scene right there to me is what the magic of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in their movie collaboration was. SILVER STREAK is currently available for streaming on Netflix. Stop reading this review and go watch it.

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114 Minutes

Rated PG

Back To School

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1986

Orion Pictures

Directed by Alan Metter

Produced by Chuck Russell

Screenplay by Steven Kampmann, Will Porter, Peter Torokvei and Harold Ramis

Story by Rodney Dangerfield, Greg Fields and Greg Snee

Rodney Dangerfield will always be renowned as one of the true legends of stand-up comedy. He’s one of the few comedians who could make an entire concert hall full of paying customers collapse into hysterical fits of laughter simply by saying one line; “I don’t get no respect!” As a kid I used to see him all the time on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show” but I really didn’t understand his style of comedy until I was older. And certainly by the time he began making it big in movies like “Easy Money” and “Caddyshack” I was able to properly appreciate his humor and his jokes. Now most people hold up “Caddyshack” as the height of his movie career but for me it’s BACK TO SCHOOL. It’s one of the few comedies that I’ve seen multiple times but laugh every single time I see it as if I’m watching it for the first time. It’s got a great eclectic supporting cast; Sally Kellerman, Keith Gordon, Paxton Whitehead, Ned Beatty, Sam Kinison, Terry Farrell, M. Emmet Walsh, Burt Young, Adrienne Barbeau and Robert Downey, Jr. But for me the main attraction is Rodney Dangerfield front and center playing a really great, larger than life character as he breezes through the movie throwing off one-liners with a speed and delivery that would make Groucho Marx dizzy with envy.

Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) is the poster boy for self-made millionaires. He’s taken his immigrant father’s humble tailor shop and turned it into an national chain of Tall & Fat Shops. He went on from there to diversify until now he owns Melon Enterprises, a worldwide corporation. Thornton Melon is far from being a stupid man and in fact is quite intelligent and street smart, despite his boorish, rude and crude manner. But his one great regret is that he never got a proper education. He’s determined that his beloved son Jason (Keith Gordon) will get one at the prestigious Grand Lakes University.

After getting rid of his gold-digger of a wife (Adrienne Barbeau) Thornton heads to Jason’s college to surprise him along with his best friend/bodyguard Lou (Burt Young) and gets a surprise of his own: Jason had been telling his father he’s a straight A student and a star on the university diving team. Turns out that Jason is the team’s towel boy and a lousy student. Jason wants to drop out but Thornton hits on a novel idea to motivate his son: he and Jason will go to college together and both of them will get a proper education.

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The fun of BACK TO SCHOOL comes from seeing Rodney Dangerfield’s Thornton Melon effortlessly cause utter and total havoc while navigating his way around every obstacle with either his street smarts or his money. Upon being told he’s too old and too unqualified to attend the university, he promptly donates funds for the new Thornton Melon School of Business and before you can say ‘holla’ he’s registered. He turns his cramped dorm room into a luxury condo complete with hot tub. When he has problems writing a paper on the works of Kurt Vonnegut he calls up Kurt Vonnegut and has the writer flown in to the college for a session with Thornton so that Vonnegut can personally explain the meaning of “Breakfast of Champions” to him. When he throws a party he hires Oingo Boingo to play and has the campus cops deliver his booze and beer.

But the story takes a nice turn in that Thornton’s plans actually inspire his son to genuinely want to do better and become a good student while his dad lives out his college life fantasies partying and having fun instead of studying and doing the work. It’s a lot of fun to see the father and son reverse roles as they help each other grow up. There’s a subplot with Thornton romancing his English professor (Sally Kellerman) that really goes nowhere but it’s always fun for me to watch Sally work. And it may seem unusual to have Thornton be a former champion acrobatic diver until you do your research and find that before he became a successful comedian, Rodney Dangerfield actually was a performing acrobatic diver.

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What else can I tell you about BACK TO SCHOOL to get you to see it? The scene in the college bar where Thornton sings “Twist and Shout.” The diving competition where Thornton performs ‘The Triple Lindy’ a dive so dangerous it can kill if not executed perfectly. Thornton’s final exam where he has to recite Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night” The movie gets a lot more mileage out of Ned Beatty’s character being named ‘Dean’ Martin than you would think.

And the best thing I can tell you about BACK TO SCHOOL is that it’s simply a whole lot of fun to watch. The humor is fast, quick and the father/son story itself to me is quite heartwarming. Dangerfield and Gordon look nothing alike but they do have great chemistry together and they did convince me of their relationship. The entire cast looks as if they had nothing but fun making this movie. I know you’re going to have a good time watching it if you’ve never seen it. And if you have seen it before, it’s high time you watched it again. BACK TO SCHOOL is available on Netflix Instant. Put it on your Instant Queue right now.

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96 Minutes

PG-13