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

The Richard Pryor Show

1977

National Broadcasting Company (Original Airing)

Directed by John Moffitt

Produced by Burt Sugarman

Written by Richard Pryor, Robert Altman, Sandra Bernhard, Vic Dunlop, Paul Mooney, Tim Reid, Marsha Warfield and Robin Williams

Most people would know the brilliant Richard Pryor from his movie work and mainly hit Netflix to relive his amazing talent in that medium but if you ask them about his TV work you would probably get a look of bafflement.  Richard Pryor did a TV special for NBC and on the strength of that was then was given a contract for ten shows. Production was shut down after only four episodes were aired.  Fortunately we live in an age where nothing that has been televised is lost and THE RICHARD PRYOR SHOW is available on DVD and while it’s nowhere near his legendary concert films, which is what you really want to see to get the raw Richard Pryor, his brief TV career is well worth a look at.

First of all, THE RICHARD PRYOR SHOW is the only place you’re going to see Richard Pryor in comedy sketches with Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, Tim Reid, Marsha Warfield, Johnny Yune, John Belushi, John Witherspoon (the voice of Grandpa on “The Boondocks”) and the legendary Paul Mooney who is probably the funniest man on the planet.  And before seeing this DVD if anybody had told me that Marsha Warfield could actually look hot I’d have called him or her a dirty liar.  But here she is and looking quite sexy in a couple of very funny sketches including one where she and Richard Pryor are in a restaurant and getting turned on by the ferocity in which they attack their food.

The sketch that is the major standout is the one where Richard Pryor is a bartender in the “Star Wars” bar of Mos Eisley.  Here he has to service all the major alien characters that we know and love from those movies.  And he acts just as we expect Richard Pryor to act in such a circumstance.  The best part is when Richard brings Greedo and the alien who looks like The Devil their drinks.  When you watch this scene you have to really look at Pryor’s face since he says absolutely nothing for two minutes and the aliens are gabbling at him in their own languages.  The live studio audience is cracking up and it’s obvious it’s not canned laughter.  The reactions are honest and it all comes from Pryor’s expressions.   It’s a brilliant example of how funny Richard Pryor could be when he said absolutely nothing and only worked with his facial and body expressions.

Another classic sketch is the one where Pryor is President Of The United States and he’s a press conference that starts off with the press (Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, Time Reid, Paul Mooney among others) asking him questions about such lofty matters as The Neutron Bomb, Space Travel and The FBI’s persecution of Huey Newton and quickly degenerating into questions about why does The President like dating white woman and who his momma sleeps with.

My personal favorite of the comedy sketches are the ones where Pryor plays Mojo, a crazed backwater spiritual healer who doesn’t really heal…when a paralyzed woman comes to him and says she can’t walk, the dreadlocked Mojo screams; “Of course you cain’t walk!  You in dat damn wheelchair!” He kicks her out of the chair into the dirt and hollas: “Let Mojo handle IT!”  And there’s an improv piece where Richard Pryor, Sandra Bernhard, Robin Williams, Tim Reid, Marsha Warfield and Johnny Yune all play out-of-workers trying to get their unemployment checks from Paul Mooney that has to be seen to be believed.

Think that’s all?  There’s also a sketch where Richard Pryor plays the only black person on a lifeboat after The Titanic sinks that doesn’t end the way you think and another where Pryor plays a wino in London who has an unfortunately hilarious run-in with a certain doctor named Jekyll which leads to…well, you can guess the rest.  And some of the other sketches show another side of Richard Pryor such as the one where he plays a man who walks into a gun shop, eager to buy a gun…until the guns start to talk to him and tell them their histories of death.   It’s effective and it shows a different side of Richard Pryor.  The man was a naturally gifted actor and this sketch is a nice little showcase for his talent as he reacts to the stories of death these guns are telling him.  And there’s another sketch where he plays a homeless man who puts on a pathetically earnest show for the neighborhood kids that says more about human nature than I’m comfortable with.

But I’ve saved the best for last: The DVD has Richard Pryor doing his legendary and totally uncensored version of what I call “The Miss Rudolph Story” but which is officially known as “Little Tiny Feet”.  It’s the story that Pryor does as his Mudbone character and he relates how he takes a friend of his who has been cursed with these…really, really BIG feet by a jilted girlfriend to the voodoo lady Miss Rudolph to get him cured.  What happens after Mudbone gets his friend to Miss Rudolph is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard and I’m not going to spoil it for you here.  Suffice it to say that I’ve heard the story perhaps 50 times in my life and the way Richard Pryor/Mudbone tells it, I laugh every time I hear it as though it were it the first time.  The DVD set also has a Celebrity Roast that his co-stars/collaborators on the show throw for Pryor and it has the version that was aired on NBC and the version they did for ‘themselves’, if you know what I mean.

So should you see THE RICHARD PRYOR SHOW?  That’s entirely up to you.  It all depends on how much you liked the man and his humor.  Personally, I think his genius lay in that he was and still is the best storyteller I have ever heard.  And the funniest.

God Bless You, Richard Pryor.  And thank you.