Posted by David Kalat on July 26, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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