Thursday, January 5, 2012

What I Watched Last Night: SILVER STREAK (1976) starring Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh and Richard Pryor.

Let me just say right off the bat that I have a really hard time with Gene Wilder in the role of romantic leading man. (And no, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN doesn't count. He was the leading man, yes, but it was hardly a romantic lead. He fit right in because Mel Brooks' ode to Frankenstein was a madhouse. Wilder is great with that sort of thing.)

I fast forward through the love scenes in SILVER STREAK because, between you and me, Wilder and Jill Clayburgh together in bed give me the heebie-jeebies. I mean, it's so wrong. Not only is he not good looking enough to hold the screen with her, but that fuzzy hair!!! And those clothes! He's wearing pants with no belt!

It's like watching Harpo Marx playing a dashing romantic figure. Now, I adore Harpo, but picture him as the lead in NORTH BY NORTHWEST...See what I mean?

Plus Jill Clayburgh behaves as if she's sleep-walking through the part. None of the Eva Marie Saint sophisticated vitality as in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Jill Clayburgh is woefully miscast.

Now don't get me wrong, I love Gene Wilder. He was wonderful in THE PRODUCERS with Zero Mostel. (A fabulous film!) But here's the thing, Gene is a born second banana. As second banana he is perfection. Not so much as leading man in a romantic thriller with love scenes and goopy music. He's also a very talented physical comedy and general silliness specialist. Dashing and heroic he is not.

Here he plays George Caldwell who has something to do with publishing. He's taking a a trip on the Silver Streak from L.A. to Chicago so he can enjoy the rest and relaxation of train travel. (That's what the screenplay says.)

While on the train he finds love, gets saddled with a murder mystery and shoots a bad guy with a spear gun.

SILVER STREAK, a 1976 film, is directed by Arthur Hiller - who if you ever saw him act, you know he's not exactly a bundle of laughs to begin with - in a very perfunctory, TV movie-of-the-week, sort of way. There were so many scenes that could have been MUCH better with a snip here and there. A slightly different camera angle. Many scenes that just went on too long.

However, there's a good running gag throughout the film with George being thrown or having to jump off the train and then finding ways to get back on. But it's all handled in a rather heavy-handed manner. To think what Billy Wilder might have made of this.

Another thing: the move can't make up its mind if it's a thriller or a comedy, there is NO sophistication or wit to tie the thing together. The killings are bloody and make you cringe, and yet later, we have hilarious comedy.

Yet I found myself watching it again. Why? Because I'd remembered how hilarious Richard Pryor had been. He steals the movie as Grover  T. Muldoon, whom we first meet sitting in the back of a police car wearing handcuffs. What a talent that man was. But what a foolish human being he turned out to be.

Well at least we have his film performances to remember him by. SILVER STREAK being one of his best.

His scenes with Wilder are worth any price of admission. There was always something oddly touching about Richard Pryor on film. At his manic best, he still had the most charming, self-effacing smile. Just a wonderful screen presence.

Wilder and the sheriff are pretty funny too as he tries to explain what the heck has been going on on the train - three murders and counting. Of course the sheriff doesn't believe him and turns the tables on Wilder.

"You need to figure out who killed Rembrandt!"

An aside: The 70's were not a good decade for men's fashions. (Pants with NO belts!?) Not for women's fashions either, come to think of it. I mean, the clothes were dreadful! So, if you weren't extremely good looking it was hard to carry it off. Even Patrick McGoohan who is reasonably attractive, can't carry off the clothes and hair - here as the bad guy. He plays a high society art dealer run amok.

There's a scene in which he burns some papers signed by Rembrandt which, more than the blood-letting, gave me the chills. Of course nobody mentions that the letters would have been written in Dutch, not English. But that's a minor detail.

The truth is, I watch this film only for the scenes of train travel which I love and for the scenes which feature Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. If there had been more Richard Pryor and less romantic entanglement, this film would have been a CLASSIC!

The scenes in the Kansas City train station when George pretends to be black are laugh out loud hilarious and not one bit insulting to anyone, except maybe to human beings in general. I laughed until I cried. I mean, this is Wilder's genius - he can get into lunacy quicker than anyone AND make it seem perfectly normal. He just needs a bit of encouragement. Richard Pryor gives him that encouragement.

The odd thing is that there don't seem to be any African American passengers on the Silver Streak. All the black people on board are train workers, waiters, conductors and the like. The 70's were not all about enlightenment.

Near the end of the film, there's a preposterous gun battle between the Feds and the bad guys with a panicking group of passengers in the middle. The train passengers had been asked to leave the train because of some sort of government investigation. Very far-fetched.

But then comes the runaway train ending which is quite thrilling and fun to watch.

And in addition: I noticed that there seems to have been a previous SILVER STREAK film done in the 1930's. I'd never heard of it, but I stumbled across some fabulous movie posters. Take a look:

Watch the trailer for the 1976 SILVER STREAK movie here.


  1. Remember loving this when I was a teen. Not so sure I could love it as much now that 40 years have passed by.

    And I get the whole Gene Wilder romantic lead issue, but I find it easier to believe Wilder than I can Woody Allen. Every time we are to asked to believe a Woody Allen character is in a relationship with someone like Meryl Streep or Mariel Hemingway I just find it absurd. I guess in some instances that ias his point (Streep is his ex and she left him for a woman, for example), but I never believed Woody Allen when he expected us to think of him as a lover.

  2. Oh, I never believe Woody Allen with all those women. And yet....I'm given to understand that he has a very young wife who used to be his step-daughter. So obviously, he has hidden charms.

    But I'm his biggest fan. I too would prefer Gene Wilder, if given a choice.

    The only movie that I might believe Woody as married to a babe is MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY in which he plays one half of an older married couple with Diane Keaton and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS in which he looks okay next to Diane Wiest (I think.).

  3. Yvette, your blog post about SILVER STREAK was a witty, entertaining read, as always! I just love your sassy reviews. I'm the first to agree that SILVER STREAK isn't perfect, and certainly isn't exactly NORTH BY NORTHWEST or THE LADY VANISHES, and I agree that the 1970s clothes didn't look that great even back then -- but by golly, our family can't help loving SILVER STREAK, because the comical chemistry between Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor is comedy gold! We found the film perfectly watchable during the early scenes, but it came roaring to life the minute Pryor shows up playing lovable, streetwise car thief Grover T. Muldoon! By the way, I understand that many of the funniest lines were ad-libbed or tweaked by Pryor.

    Even though SILVER STREAK might not have been Jill Clayburgh's finest 2 hours, I still found her likable. In fact, if you're interested, I wrote a post about SILVER STREAK in 2010 that kind of went all over the place about comedy-thrillers in general, movie theaters of my NYC girlhood, and Clayburgh's then-recent death in addition to the movie itself. Hope you'll enjoy it anyway! :-)

  4. Dorian, I think you're one of the few who appreciate my so-called wit. Ha!

    I'll be along to check out your homage to SILVER STREAK for sure.

    I think I missed it the first time around. Well, you know my old lady memory.

    Comedy Gold is right, kiddo. Pryor and Wilder = perfect together. :)

  5. One of Pryor's ad-libs improved the scene at the train station a great deal. "What, you afraid it won't come off?" The screenplay: "Think of it as an instant suntan." Probably saved the scene.

    Patrick McGoohan always made a great villain too.

  6. Now I know why they say time flies. You forget movies you'd seen years ago and then they come back to you when you least expect them, like SILVER STREAK. Thanks for this fine review and the film shots — they brought back memories of other Wilder-Pryor movies like STIR CRAZY and SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL. I know people who find Wilder rather obnoxious which I think is unfair. For all his awkward demeanour, Wilder is a fine actor. Wilder and Pryor paired well, though, I could never digest Pryor as a stand-up comedian.

    I can't picture Harpo as the lead in NORTH BY NORTHWEST but I'd would sure as hell love to see him chased by an airplane! And you can bet the gravity of the situation won't take that smile off his face.

    By the way, The Museum of Lost Wonder post was amazing. Thanks for the link too!

  7. Hal: I didn't realize that was an improv line. Wow. But I knew it as one of the best lines in the movie. I love that whole scene. Two loonies at work. :)

  8. Prashant: I didn't like Pryor's brand of stand up comedy either, but I loved him in films. He should have had a much better and longer career. It infuriates me to think of the talent he wasted.

    I can see Harpo running down that field as well. Ha!

    Glad you liked the Museum of Lost Wonder post. It's a remarkable 'place'.

  9. This movie was great. Richard Pryor was a genius. He could make me laugh so hard I cried. And with Gene Wilder, a perfect pair.

    I'll resee this movie. Thanks for the reminder.

    Now which was the movie scene in which Gene Wilder goes to jail and his cell-mate, a huge guy, sings Red River Valley? I laughed so hard that I cried. I was with two friends in a movie theatre and we were howling.

    Was this in this movie?

    Also, I liked Annie Hall and some of Hannah and her Sisters, the humorous parts.

    But Woody Allen fell off my hit parade when he dated and married his step-daughter. He had lived in her family's house and been her step-father for many years.

    I don't give him a pass on this. His behavior was less than stellar.

    However, Silver Streak was a riot.
    I'll definitely add it as one to see again.

  10. This movie is totally ridiculous...and I love it! It's so great for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Now I'll have to see if I can get my hands on a copy of the 30s film.

  11. Kathy: That movie might have been STIR CRAZY, but it might also have been BLAZING SADDLES. Can't remember.

    Woody Allen isn't anyone I'd like to know, but I did enjoy a couple of his movies. I'm not a slavish fan of his supposed genius.

  12. Lauren: Yes, I wondered about that one. It really does look rinky dinky though. But the posters are BEAUTIFUL!


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