PRYOR CONVICTIONS FROM MOVIE MORLOCKS
Those 58 years had been filled with incident: he was born in a brothel, forged his comic fearlessness in front of the Vegas Mafia, set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine, and played a computer hacker inSuperman III.
Addressing this audience of VIPs, Pryor said that he considered his mission as a comedian to be more than just making people laugh—it was using that laughter as a tool “to lessen people’s hatred.”
As it happens, we can see this noble calling at work in a particular scene of Pryor’s 1976 film Silver Streak.
I don’t mean anyone would mistake this for a Hitchcock film. And it has none of the ostentatious panache of the thrillers from the supposed “heirs” to Hitchcock’s mantle: Dario Argento, Brian DePalma, Claude Chabrol.
But, it’s a film that was clearly made by filmmakers who had learned lessons from Hitchcock. They hadn’tmastered any of those lessons, but they at least did their homework and turned in a credible effort. If the Argentos, DePalmas, and Chabrols of the world were the ace students, Hiller at least earned a gentleman’s C.
The story goes that Gene Wilder was attracted to the project (the first movie in a long time that he hadn’t written himself) because of the opportunity to play a “Cary Grant-like” character—and don’t think the parallel was lost on Grant, either. When Grant met Wilder for the first time, his first question was Hey, did you guys just copy North By Northwest there? And Wilder’s response: Yup.
Which is one reason why Silver Streak works as well as it does: it willfully violates those familiar rules. A thriller set on a train should be about the sensation of being trapped—but Gene Wilder gets thrown off, knocked off, or forced off the train three times in the course of this adventure! Far from being trapped on the train, he spends as much time off the train as on.
I mean, no disrespect to Gene Wilder—he’s terrific. He deserves the Cary Grant role here, and he does it well. And he’s certainly capable of bringing manic intensity to his work (cf. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, still the default version of that story, despite the best efforts of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp). And despite what the title says, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is the demented masterpiece it is because co-writer Gene Wilder insisted on keeping faith with the Universal classics that inspired it. But, for all that, Wilder’s Cary Grant-ification is a little low-key. Enter Richard Pryor and suddenly a whole new movie gets going.
And, just once, he was.
The scene in question occurs when Pryor’s character is trying to help get Wilder’s character safely past the various federal agents who are out in force looking for him. He takes a can of shoe polish, a gaudy jacket, and a radio and tries to disguise this red-haired Jew as a black man.
But, that’s not to say it’s necessarily fatal. As I’ve written about here before, there are instances of genuinely funny blackface comedy that wrestle with the terrible racial offense without falling victim to it. There are ways to do this—it’s all in the details.
As written, the script called for a white man to enter the bathroom while Wilder was blacking himself up and accept the ruse, believing him to be black.
Pryor instead suggested an alternate staging—why not have a black man come in instead, the shoeshine man for example, and immediately see through this as an incompetent effort. “You must be in a lot of trouble,” he could say, and shake his head in disappointment at the world. Then, when Wilder later manages to fool the cops with this blackface act, the joke isn’t directed at black people, it’s directed at Wilder’s character and the foolish white people who can’t see past the fake skin color.