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Pryor convictions

Richard Pryor stood on the stage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC in 1998.  It was an unusual audience for the veteran comedian—a bunch of stuffed shirt politicos and hoity toits, there to award Pryor with the Mark Twain Prize for humor, and to congratulate themselves for doing so.  He was 58 years old—and although no one knew it at the time, he had less than a decade left to live.

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 in Superman 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.

Silver-Streak

Before we examine that moment, some context.  Silver Streak was an action comedy co-starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, in the first of numerous pairings.  It was directed by Arthur Hiller, from an original script by Colin Higgins.  And, it is a pointedly Hitchcockian picture.

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’t mastered 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.

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Here’s the wrongly accused man (Wilder), caught mid-way between two chases—racing after the real bad guys, racing away from the cops.  Here’s his love interest, an improbably available Hitchcockian blonde played by Jill Clayburgh in her best Eva Marie Saint imitation.  Here’s the MacGuffin that motivates this chase.  Here’s a story that basically just mashes up The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest.

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.

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Trains make great settings for thrillers—the claustrophobic confined space hurtling at great speeds across picturesque landscapes make for as romantic and dramatic a setting as a filmmaker could ask.  Airplanes offer many of the same attributes, but for all their surface similarities, planes and trains make for very different kinds of movies.  A typical thriller set on a plane would focus on the threat to the passengers posed if something were to happen to the plane—whereas a train-based thriller would typically emphasize the enclosed space and the tension that comes from trapping a bunch of strangers in a thin metal tube from which no one can easily enter or leave.

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.

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Another rule willfully violated by Silver Streak is that it is a buddy comedy in which the second half of the team, the co-billed star of the thing, doesn’t even appear until 60 minutes in.  And here we are, halfway into this blog post, and we’ve barely mentioned Pryor—I’m trying to model that disorienting, frustrating feeling.  But, while it’s true that the movie is half over by the time Pryor shows up, it’s also true that it doesn’t really start until he arrives.

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.

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Arthur Hiller was reluctant to work with Pryor—the comic’s reputation had preceded him, and Hiller was worried he’d be difficult.

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.

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OK, so… blackface.  The third-rail of American comedy.  Touch it at your peril.

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.

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The scene involves Gene Wilder rubbing shoe polish on his face and indulging in the broadest, most cartoonish racial caricature he can summon.  That’s a given.  What happens next determines the context of this gag, and how the joke is pitched.

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.

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And here’s where Pryor drew a line.  Although Pryor didn’t articulate what bothered him about the staging, it’s easy enough to figure out: in this version, the joke seems to be that this absurd racist stereotype is close enough to the truth about black people that it’s convincing.  It gives audiences a place to laugh at black people.

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.

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Pryor had to basically go on strike to force Hiller to shoot it his way—but he was right.  Pryor’s version not only rehabilitated the ethical stance of the joke, he just plain made it funnier.  It was one of the bigger laughs of the movie—a signature moment.  A small tweak, but one that shifted the focus of the joke in a crucial way–and it’s too Pryor’s credit that he saw how to rescue the scene with such a subtle change.

19 Responses Pryor convictions
Posted By John : July 26, 2014 2:17 pm

Great post and excellent observations. Reblogged, natch.

Posted By AL : July 26, 2014 8:33 pm

On the list of the Top Ten Comedians of all Time, this brilliant gifted man is near to position #1. Richard Pryor. We lost him too soon…

Posted By pdb : July 26, 2014 9:17 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with AL. My son and I watched Silver Streak recently and I remember the scene Mr. Kalat discusses in this post. His insights and description of how that scene evolved make me respect Richard Pryor even more, if that’s possible. He had his personal demons but he fulfilled his mission of lessening hatred.

Posted By Doug : July 26, 2014 10:33 pm

It’s said that all humor comes from pain; Pryor was the master comedian because he hurt so much.
Mel Brooks wanted Pryor for Bart in Blazing Saddles but the studio balked because of Pryor’s drug use, so he only had a writing credit in what could have been his biggest starring role. That had to hurt,too.
It’s been too, too long since I saw “Silver Streak”.
I mean no disrespect, but Jill Clayburgh didn’t look well in her final film, “Bridesmaids”.
I think Wiig cast her in the role of her mom to honor her, to give Clayburgh a curtain call on her career.
Pryor wrote/directed his own career summation, “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling”. He did more projects after, including two more films with Wilder, but what he wanted to say, he said in Jo Jo Dancer.

Posted By george : July 27, 2014 12:38 am

“I mean no disrespect, but Jill Clayburgh didn’t look well in her final film, “Bridesmaids”.”

Well, she was dying from leukemia. In fact, she died six months before the film was released. I haven’t seen BRIDEMAIDS. Maybe she should have retired after her role in LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS.

Pryor looked bad in the last film he made with Wilder, ANOTHER YOU (1989). The effects of MS were painfully obvious … so obvious that I couldn’t laugh at the film, or even watch it until the end.

Posted By george : July 27, 2014 12:42 am

Correction: ANOTHER YOU was released in 1991, not 1989.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 28, 2014 3:09 am

Great post on one of my favorite comic actors and comedians. Not many are both.

Posted By Ben Martin : July 28, 2014 2:21 pm

Good job David.

Makes me want to see Silver Streak again.
But now the curmudgeon in me comes out –

I know and adore every inch of the three Karloff Frankenstein movies (I’d seen them all by 1968 – my tenth birthday) and as a teen I couldn’t wait to see Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. I saw it all right – - – thought it was dumb and offensive then and I think its dumb and offensive now. (When I went to Silver Streak two years later I didn’t necessarily expect much but was blown away.) But when even the guy I so regularly and passionately agree with in his books, liner notes and blogs (I dig your takes on Toho and Harry Langdon the most) utters the familiar “Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is a demented masterpiece,” as does 94% of the population (I know ’cause I just visited Rotten Tomatoes to see how it scored) , I just shrug and sigh. Oh well. Again I must be alone in the universe.

Anyway – that’s movie fans for ya. Cant always agree.
Thanks again for the great post.

- Ben

Posted By swac44 : July 28, 2014 6:17 pm

I guess not everyone can love Young Frankenstein, at least your heart is in the right place, Ben. At the very least it should be treasured as one of a finite number of showcases for the great Marty Feldman, and in the back of my mind I wished that Feldman and Pryor had had a chance to work together.

And then I remembered that they had, sort of, in the film Feldman wrote, directed and starred in, In God We Tru$t (1980), where Pryor voices a supercomputer known as G.O.D. We don’t get to see the legendary comic, but his presence is unmistakeable. Unfortunately, the film isn’t widely available, there was a VHS edition and I taped off the Canadian network Vision TV, but it’s worth seeking out.

Posted By Doug : July 29, 2014 12:21 am

S’okay, Ben, I love Young Frankenstein enough for two people.

Posted By Qalice : July 29, 2014 9:49 pm

I recently re-watched Gene Wilder’s interview with Alec Baldwin, where he discusses that change and they show the scene. As you note, it’s a small change that completely transforms the scene. And yet more proof of Richard Pryor’s genius.

Posted By robbushblog : August 1, 2014 3:06 pm

I’m just curious, Ben. What did you find so offensive about Young Frankenstein? Was it just that it made fun of the movies you loved, albeit in a loving way?

Posted By Parallax ViewThe View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 1 » Parallax View : August 1, 2014 5:39 pm

[…] never work. Never.” “What, you afraid it won’t come off?” David Kalat recounts how Richard Pryor’s balking at a punchline on Silver Streak allowed them to arguably pull off a […]

Posted By A nice appreciation of ‘Silver Streak’ (1976) — and its blackface scene : August 4, 2014 5:26 pm

[…] David Kalat writes: […]

Posted By Ben Martin : August 5, 2014 12:52 pm

Hi Robbushblog –
I know Mel Brooks never claimed to be a filmmaker bursting with good taste but by the time Madeline Kahn sleeps with the monster I am done with the “naughty” humor. I ask myself am I a prude but no – I can really roar at, say, Annie Hall’s humor when dealing with Alvy’s sex life because I suppose its thematically sound. With Young Frankenstein I wasn’t offended so much at what I saw but more about Brooks’ apparent assumption that I would naturally fall into giddy hysterics at what i consider his sophomoric shenanigans as if I were a seventh grader peeking at the cartoons in a Playboy magazine. (Believe me – i know i am the oddball here. Everybody seems to love this movie.)
I do laugh out loud at the blind hermit sequence and wish the entire film had that same sense of good natured fun-poking. (Is the Puttin on the Ritz scene really funny? It’s just kind of dumb to me.)
Young Frankenstein – one of those cinematic sacred cows I just don’t get. But there you have it.
Ben

Posted By robbushblog : August 5, 2014 3:12 pm

Thanks for clearing that up, Ben.

Posted By george : August 5, 2014 7:40 pm

I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. I have met people who didn’t like SILENT MOVIE or HIGH ANXIETY, and I don’t care for most of Brooks’ output after the ’70s.

As I recall, quite a few people were offended by the profanity in BLAZING SADDLES in ’74, although the language seems mild compared to what you hear in an R-rated movie today. These days, SADDLES’ frequent use of the “N-word” would be more shocking.

And Ben Martin is right: the blind hermit sequence is the best thing in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

Posted By Doug : August 5, 2014 8:38 pm

Ben said:”i know i am the oddball here. Everybody seems to love this movie.”
I think we’re all oddballs on this bus-and if you get that reference, you’re good.
Likes and dislikes are opinions, and this would be a boring world if everyone’s opinions were the same.
Susan is highlighting a book on David Fincher interviews, which is fine; I’ve never seen “Fight Club”, have seen a few of his other movies, but only once each time. Technically proficient, but somehow Fincher leaves me cold, like Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” cold.
So I’m probably the oddball concerning Fincher-there’s room enough for all of us on these interwebs.
I do agree that the blind hermit scene is the best in YF. The ending is weak tea compared to the film (s) Brooks was ‘homaging’.
As for the ‘naughty bits’ in Young Frankenstein, Maddy Kahn was alright, but Terri Garr won my admiration.

Posted By Ben Martin : August 7, 2014 1:00 pm

I must admit – I have a warm wonderful spot in my heart and soul for all things Teri Garr!!

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