US Release Date: 12-03-1976
Directed by: Arthur Hiller
- Gene Wilder, as
- Jill Clayburgh, as
- Richard Pryor, as
- Patrick McGoohan, as
- Ned Beatty, as
- Clifton James, as
- Sheriff Chauncey
- Ray Walston, as
- Mr. Whiney
- Stefan Gierasch, as
- Professor Schreiner & Johnson
- Len Birman, as
- Valerie Curtin, as
- Plain Jane
- Lucille Benson, as
- Rita Babtree
- Scatman Crothers, as
- Richard Kiel, as
- Fred Willard as
- Jerry Jarvis
Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Silver Streak.
Silver Streak is a lightweight Hitchcockesque comedy set on board its titular train. While it's genuinely funny with even a modicum of suspense, the reason it's remembered so well is for being the first film to pair Gene Wilder with Richard Pryor. It's a paring that should have happened two years earlier on Blazing Saddles, but Cleavon Little stood in for Pryor when a nervous studio refused to put Pryor in front of the camera. Pryor is very much in a supporting role here, but it's his presence, and particularly his interactions with Wilder, that really kick this movie up a notch.
If this were a Hitchcock film, the lead would no doubt have been played by the likes of Cary Grant. Wilder is no Grant (but then no one else ever was) and he makes an unlikely romantic leading man, but makes up for his shortcomings in that department with his comic timing. He plays George, a book editor traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago by train. Very quickly he meets and falls in love with Hilly (Clayburgh), the woman traveling in the next compartment. While enjoying her companionship that first night, he thinks he sees a dead body fall off the roof of the train and past their window. This leads to George becoming involved with a train board mystery and winds up with him being ejected from the train on 3 different occasions. On one of these occasions he encounters Grover (Pryor), a thief who helps him get back aboard the train where they can hopefully rescue Hilly.
Much of the humor is generated by Wilder's everyman being in over his head. He goes from being a mild-mannered book editor who is afraid of flying, to someone engaged in a shoot-out while rescuing a damsel in distress. Wilder played hysterical better than anyone and he has a few nice moments where he becomes that here, with one of the best coming when George tries to explain without success what has been happening on board the train to a local sheriff. He also has a cute moment with an old woman and an airplane.
Pryor doesn't make his entrance until roughly an hour into the film, but there's an instant chemistry between the two stars. The street smarts of Pryor plays perfectly off of Wilder's fussier straitlaced mannerisms. This is epitomized in the film's most famous scene when Grover convinces George to paint his face with shoe polish and pretend to be black so they can get past the police and back on the train.
Along with the leads, there are several recognizable faces in supporting roles. Scatman Crothers plays the train porter and gets a few laughs of his own. Ned Beatty is the dirty minded vitamin salesman who turns out to have more on his mind than just the motion of the train. And Patrick McGoohan plays the Bond Villain worthy Roger Devereau who delights in plots and scenarios.
Special mention should also be made of the memorable score by Henry Mancini. The sweeping refrain of its main theme gives the film scope and makes it seem grander than its silly premise.
Wilder and Pryor would be funnier together in later pairings and their screen time together would become more democratic, but in terms of quality of the movie itself, this is their finest film.
Jill Clayburgh, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor and Scatman Crothers star in Silver Streak
Man, I love this movie. I have not seen it in years but enjoyed it just as much this time as I had so long ago. Gene Wilder is a riot as your average Joe caught up in something sinister. He delivered his lines with just the right tone, be it subtle or hysterical. As Scott mentioned, he comes across different folks whenever he gets thrown, or jumps, from the train. Some are helpful while others not so much, but all provide laughs.
When he meets the old woman, Rita, who agrees to fly George to the next town, she tells him to milk her cow first. George explains, “I've never milked a cow before.” Rita smiles, “Cut the gas, Steve, you're a grown man.” It never really explains why she thinks George is named Steve but she is worth some laughs. “You ever buzz sheep, Steve?”
Sheriff Chauncey is another example of the 1970s stereotype of the fat ignorant small town sheriff. I still recalled his Barney Fife type deputy and his line, “Uncle Oliver, he’s got yer gun.” At least with "Mayberry RFD", Sheriff Andy Taylor had some brains but that was from another decade.
Silver Streak is clearly of its time. Scatman Crothers remarks of the conventioneers boarding the train, “I thought it was bad enough we had hippies on board, now we have their fathers.” Yet, Scott’s comparison of this to a Hitchcock film, does give it a bit of timelessness. It could have taken place anytime in the past century, with the exception being the presence of Richard Pryor.
Pryor was a groundbreaking comic, known for his four letter word laced standup. He was not only accepted by the young culture of the time, but also worshipped. As Scott wrote, his easy going casual charm is the perfect opposite of Gene Wilders much less confident man. Never before in a movie would a black character be allowed to yell at a white cop on screen, “Hey Chauncey, this is Grover T. Muldoon. You wanna know what happened? We just whooped your ass. We whooped your ass.” And not only get away with it but come across all the more cool for it.
Scott mentioned the scene where Wilder paints his face black and Pryor attempts to teach him to have rhythm. My favorite part of that scene is later, when Pryor asks some agents, “Who you lookin' for?” The policeman holds up Wilder’s picture and says, “White guy.” Pryor comments, “Well, if I see any I'll let you know.” Pryor is playing a criminal but he is so damn likable that we never even think to hold it against him.
This remains however, Wilder’s film. He is anything but your stereotypical leading man. He is by no definition good looking or athletic. Putting him in a role that Cary Grant could play is humorous in itself. When Richard Kiel goes to throw him off the train, Wilder says with all seriousness, “Listen buster, you’re in trouble. Big trouble.” Of course we see that he has nothing to back up his threat but it is all he’s got. The big showy scene of him dancing in black face with the radio to his ear is classic, but I also love it whenever he has to deal with someone who has no clue what he is talking about, be it Rita or Sheriff Chauncey.
Silver Streak is a bit dated, just take a look at Wilder’s high heeled boots or Jill Clayburgh's scarf tied around her head, but it is also timeless in Hollywood terms as it romanticizes train travel, has a love story, laughs and some danger. Get on board and take a ride with this thoroughly enjoyable movie.
Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Silver Streak.
Yeah Silver Streak holds up well. I too loved it as a kid and I was just as thoroughly entertained by it today. It works very well as both a thriller and a comedy. The cast and direction are both terrific but credit is also due the writer. The name Colin Higgins may not sound familiar but he wrote the screenplays for two of the best thriller/comedies of the 1970s. Silver Streak in 1976 and Foul Play two years later. Both movies combined a 1970s sensibility (not to mention fashion sense) with many little tributes to, and tidbits from, an earlier era in Hollywood.
In addition to the obvious North by Northwest ripoff, here are a few other things I noticed. The always-inebriated conventioneers aboard the train are clearly descendants of Preston Sturges's 'Ale and Quail Club' in The Palm Beach Story (1942). Jill Clayburgh had just played Carole Lombard in Gable and Lombard. Hilly is definitely a Lombard type and this may very well have had something to do with Clayburgh being cast. As for her name, Hildegarde was also Rosalind Russell's name in His Girl Friday (1940).
Eric wrote that they never explain why Rita calls George “Steve”. I don't know for sure if this was an intentional homage or not, but it always reminds me of To Have and Have Not (1944). Only instead of the sultry young Lauren Bacall inexplicably calling Humphrey Bogart's character Harry by the moniker Steve, we have an overweight old woman inexplicably calling Gene Wilder's character George by that name. They even tossed in a reference to Blazing Saddles (1974). During their shootout on the train Pryor quips to Wilder, “What do you think this is - a western?”
Pryor cursing at a white man is hilarious but it's not exactly groundbreaking compared to Sidney Poitier slapping that old white man across the face nine years earlier in In the Heat of the Night. And Poitier was playing a cop while Pryor is stuck playing a petty thief. In fact this movie perpetuates the two most prevalent black stereotypes of 20th Century film - the servant (Scatman Crothers as a train porter) and the criminal (Richard Pryor).
Fortunately what Silver Streak does is turn racist cliches on their head. Take the black-face scene for example. It works for two reasons. First of all because it is the black man's idea, and Richard Pryor only agreed to film the scene if they made one key change in the script. Originally a white man was supposed to walk in and be fooled into thinking George is black. Pryor insisted they change it to a black man who isn't fooled a bit. This makes all the difference since the joke is now on George and not on black people as a race. The other reason it works is because of the incredible camaraderie and organic chemistry between Wilder and Pryor. They exhibit such a comfortable level of intimacy and respect towards each other that it lends their scenes together a very modern feel.
Silver Streak stands the test of time (although the first half hour is the teensiest bit slow), but if you've never seen it don't take our word for it. Get aboard and take the ride for yourself.
Photos © Copyright Twentieth Century Fox (1976)