Friday, January 4, 2013

Film Friday: Silver Streak (1976)

Silver Streak is one of my favorite comedies. This film is funny, clever, thoroughly enjoyable, and timeless. And it’s the timelessness I want to talk about, because this film again shows us how to do a comedy that lasts: tell a compelling story first, add the jokes later.

** spoiler alert **

The Plot
Silver Streak is the first collaboration between Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, who would go on to make three more film together. It’s the story of George Caldwell (Wilder), a man who edits books for a living and his attempt to take a train from Los Angeles to Chicago for his sister’s wedding. As the story begins, Wilder meets a man named Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty), who claims to be a vitamin salesman, and he ends up romancing a woman named Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh). Hilly is the personal secretary of a Professor Schreiner, an art historian who has just written a book on Rembrandt.
When George takes Hilly back to her compartment, George sees the professor’s body dangling from the train outside the window. This starts a chain of events which gets George thrown off the train by the men who killed the professor. George then works his way back onto the train, with the help of an old woman with a biplane. Once onboard, he discovers that the professor was killed by a man named Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan), an art dealer who would be embarrassed by the professor’s latest book. Then he gets thrown off a second time.

George seeks the help of the police, only to learn that he is now suspected of murdering Sweet, who was actually a federal agent. He flees the police and boards the train again with the help of Grover Muldoone (Richard Pryor), a small-time thief, after they steal a Jaguar and catch the train in Kansas City. Once onboard, he discovers that Devereau is holding Hilly hostage. Once again, he ends up being tossed off the train. This time he and Grover are found by the feds, who are after Devereau, which leads to a rather well-done final conflict.
Why This Film Works
Silver Streak is an interesting movie because it’s a great comedy, but it’s not hilarious. It has lots of lines which will make you laugh out loud and quite a few inspired situations, but ultimately, the vast majority of this film is quite serious. Indeed, the plot itself is serious – there is a murder to prevent a multi-million dollar mistake from being exposed. The villain is quite serious – Devereau never tells a joke or even becomes the subject of a joke. He is quite nasty and could easily be the villain in any serious action/suspense film. Hilly too is played seriously. The feds don’t joke around either. Beyond this, all the jokes tend to be one-off lines delivered by minor characters, like the porter, whose hilarious line consists entirely of “damn hippies.”

Even Wilder’s character is played seriously except for a couple moments which count more as tension breaking than humor. For example, Wilder has a great line about “having met some dumb bastards in my time” but this is in response to difficulties he is having with a brainless sheriff. Really, the only “funny” scene involving Wilder is when Wilder tries to sneak past the police onto the train in blackface with Grover’s help.
The only exception to the above involves the moron sheriff and the old woman with the biplane, both of whom are played as ridiculous characters. But honestly, those scenes fall flat and just aren’t very funny. . . they detract from the film.

The lesson here is the same as with Ghostbusters, that a film can be hilarious without being a series of comedy sketches and without setting up a series of jokes. In fact, when I look back on most of the great comedies, the thing they all have in common is a solid, serious story which acts as a backbone upon which the jokes are added – the jokes then arise from the natural actions of the characters as they move through the story. Now clearly, there are exceptions, but how many of those are there? Airplane and its cousin The Naked Gun, Blazing Saddles, the Marx Brothers and the Stooges, but what else? Compare that to dozens of the comedies which dominate the AFI’s Top 100 comedies, including The Blues Brothers, Animal House, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, etc. Most of these films are surprisingly serious, even though we remember them as hilarious.

This is also why these films have staying power, because you can keep watching them long after the jokes have gone stale because you’re watching them for the characters, for their relationships, and for the plot itself, and not the jokes. Indeed, what this suggests is that if you want to write a comedy with staying power, write a serious film first and then add the humor where it fits rather than setting out to write an intentionally funny film.

Thoughts?

31 comments:

PikeBishop said...

1. I swore Silver Streak was 77, not 76 but oh well.
2. One of my minor quibbles was a woman as hot as Jill Clayburgh's character being attracted to Gene Wilder. Yuck!
3. In the "minor technical quibble" department: As the train races towards Chicago, Wilder disconnects the airbrake before jumping to safety on to the remaining cars as the engine heads towards its destiny. My grandfather, a former brakeman and fireman for the P&LE told me that was incorrect. As soon as that hose was disconnected the engine's brakes would engage too and thus it would stop, not head into the Chicago station.
4. RE: the idea of a funny film having to have a good story first, I agree here and with your mention of Ghostbusters as well. I remember leaving Ghostbusters and a fraternity brother of mine commenting on what a well done film it was, with some genuine scares in it, "It could almost have been done "straight" was his comment."

AndrewPrice said...

Pike, All the information I have says 1976. On the train stopping, I think there's some artistic license taken there, but for the vast majority of he audience, I don't think it causes a problem. All films do that to one degree or another.

The reason the Wilder Clayburgh's romance worked for me was that this was a train and they set it up with training making people amorous, because he did win her with his intelligence/humor and not his looks, and because this was the 1970s and ugly people were still allowed to be in films back then.

On Ghostbusters, I agree. I think that with a couple minor tweaks, Ghostbusters could have been an effective horror story. And I think it really proves the idea that what you truly need in any genre is first and foremost a solid, serious, well-told story... then you adjust at the edges to get your horror or comedy or romance or whatever. I think it's a mistake for people to set out to write a "genre" film, they should write out to tell a solid story and then genre-it-up once the backbone is in place.

BIG MO said...

Yes!!! Silver Streak is one of my all-time favorite movies. Saw it repeatedly on the networks and local independent stations in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. You’re right about it not being slap-stick comedy, but a serious situation with a lot of funny moments. It wouldn’t have worked – or at most would have been fun but forgettable – if written specifically as a comedy.

I love Gene Wilder, who I call “the gentle comedian,” as George. And getting a lady as hot as Miss Clayburgh? The ultimate nerd fantasy come true. Plus, any movie with Scatman Crothers is a treat.

My favorite parts are George’s repeated exits from the train. A bit of trivia: If you remember the Lee Majors show The Fall Guy, George’s second “exit” is seen in every episode’s opening credits: after killing one of the goons on top of the train, George slams into an overhead signal.

Also love Henry Mancini’s theme for the train and George’s cross-country trips.

AndrewPrice said...

Big MO, I do recall The Fall Guy! That was a fun show and I recall the opening... can even sing the theme song! :)

I love that line by Crothers... "damn hippies." I laugh out loud every time I hear him say that.

I totally agree that this would never have lasted as a slap-stick comedy. It would have been funny, no doubt, but it would have grown stale very quickly. Instead, this is a film I can watch every single time it comes on television and still enjoy it and I still laugh at the jokes because they fit perfectly with the scene rather than being stand-alone jokes where you anticipate the punchline you already know.

The soundtrack is excellent too. And good call on calling him "The Gentle Comedian." His style is really pretty unique in that regard. He's always polite, and yet really funny in the process. In fact, I can't think of anyone who takes his approach. It also makes his outbursts ("I've met some dumb bastards in my time") all the funnier.

rlaWTX said...

I have never heard of this one. I'm getting used to that around here... :)
Sounds interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, You should really check this one out! It's funny, it's funny, it's a classic and it's just a great time. There are no politics (except a really un-PC moment when Wilder is trying to "act black") and a crack about hippies. I highly recommend this one.

Tennessee Jed said...

good story, good actors, and good jokes; a combination hard to beat. Wilder and Pryor are among the very best of my era. Also used to love Wilder's collaborations with the great Maedine Kahn.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, You know what's funny? When I was young, this movie and Stir Crazy came out and I used to think of Wilder and Pryor as a team. It wasn't until later that I realized they weren't. And it wasn't until much later that I realized they only worked together in three movies total. They just had amazing natural chemistry together on film.

Tennessee Jed said...

I think a lot of people got that impression, Andrew. It probably goes to the fact these films were among each actor's best known and best liked works.

AndrewPrice said...

That could be Jed. I also remember when Hear No Evil, See No Evil came out in the 1980s, there was this big marketing push about them being back together again and it made it sound like they had been this team that just hadn't worked together in a couple years.

Either way, they were excellent together and they should have made more movie together.

rlaWTX said...

Totally off topic, but I thought of Commentarama when I saw this:
http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/01/the-day-william-shatner-tweeted-at-an-astronaut-and-the-astronaut-replied/266824/

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, That's great. :)

Here's the link: LINK

Individualist said...

Some ridiculous films that work: Monty Python
The Holy Grail
The Life of Brian

although it can be said that the comedy masks a serious metaphor or society.

Another funny ridiculous movie would be The Hitchhiker's Guide Trilogy but honestly the books werre much funnier than the movies.

As to greeat serious comedies I really liked Brewster's Millions and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.


Part of the problem I have with the ridiculous sketch comedy of today is that it is not so much comedy as it is just very gross bathroom humor, naked women and people doing drugs. This was good when it was Cheech and Chong but now it just seems boring to me. There is no more shock left in shock jock humor. We've all been there and are looking for a place to discard the T shirt cause its got gross stuff on it.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, One of the problems with things like the gross out humor (which I don't like either) is that it leads to people trying to up the stakes in each film to get the same rise out of the audience. At some point, you hit a wall where there is simply nothing more you can do that is both funny and believable. That means once someone goes nuclear, the genre is over because there is nothing higher they can do and it all suddenly feels stale.

Moreover, once they go nuclear, each of the prior films suddenly feels in adequate and dated. So when you make one of those kinds of films, you are guaranteed a short shelf-life.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I can't stand the Hitchhiker's Guide film, but I love the books. And I've spent a lot of time trying to think of ways to adapt those books in a way that would work. I've actually concluded that it can't be done because the books rely on too much innuendo to work visually.

TJ said...

I remember Stir Crazy much better than Silver Streak and I agree, Wilder and Pryor were great together and should have done more movies.

I think "Gentle Comedian" is a good way to describe Wilder. I really liked him in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, I love Willie Wonka, Wilder is perfect in that! :)

I prefer Silver Streak to Stir Crazy, but not by much -- I think they're both excellent films. And I too wish they would have done more films together.


(As an aside, I still have no idea why you have this spam problem. You wouldn't believe how much obvious spam the filter is letting through these days, yet it keeps catching your comments. I just don't get it?)

Patriot said...

Gene Wilder is one of those actor/comedians that never really got the credit he deserved yet has been in some of the most mimicked films out there......Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

AndrewPrice said...

Patriot, That's true. It's strange in a way because he's probably got as many top comedies as anyone, yet his name never comes up when people talk about favorite comedian. I wonder if his lack of a well-known standup routine hurt him? Because even from the era, people don't usually credit him as much as they do Pryor or Cosby or Carlin.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I think the major reason why the Hitchhiker's books don't translate to film is that much of the comedy is in the exposition. When you limit the stories to just the action that takes place in them, then all you have are some goofballs in space. In print, the Guide is an excellent expository device, but moving that to the screen is impossible because film just doesn't tolerate that amount of exposition.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree. I think it also involves too much unrelated exposition. It's constantly switching subjects to completely irrelevant points, often mid-sentence. That makes it more like a fever dream than a story, and that would be really hard to film. I guess you could do it in the style of something like Scott Pilgrim, but I'm not sure.

Anthony said...

Routinely cutting away to irrelevancy sounds an awful lot like McFarlane's animated shows (which I'm not a fan of).

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, It's actually a good book IF it's your kind of sense of humor. It's the sort of book that will go three sentences into a scene before it mentions something like "The Vogon Construction Fleet" and then it will do two paragraphs on what that is before it jumps back to the story.

shawn said...

I found the 1980's BBC production of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to be superior to that of the movie, even though it's production values were sorely lacking.

Haven't seen Silver Streak, but I did see Stir Crazy many times in the theater. Pryor and Wilder made a good team.

Dave Olson said...

Just saw Silver Streak on one of the cable channels a few weeks ago. I had seen it several times on cable in my youth, and I liked it then. Watching it as a more seasoned ((shudder for my lost youth)) viewer, it holds up amazingly well as a film, as a comedy, and as a time capsule of its era. It's a subtle twist on the premise of "North by Northwest", in that our protagonist is thrown into a situation of international intrigue that he has nothing to do with.

What doesn't work, and is an astoundingly bad piece of screenwriting (even for the 1970s), is the feds giving George a gun and bringing him back to the train. They had to do this to get to the third act, but still. Why not have the feds tell George "Stay here, we'll handle this." Then George convinces Grover to steal another car to get them to the shootout scene, and back on the train.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I absolutely recommend this one. It's more of a Wilder film featuring Pryor, but their scenes are still excellent together.

I agree about the BBC version of Hitchhiker's Guide. It's better. I still don't think either version works very well, but it is much better than the film.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, There is definitely a lot of North by Northwest in Silver Streak, but it's also very subtle, which I think is another sign of excellent writing.

I agree that in real life, the feds would never hand him a gun and tell him to come with them, but I don't mind the film doing this because this is a comedy so some license is allowed, plus the film sets up the importance of Hilly to him and the feds are minor characters so it works for me. You're right though, it would have closed a hole if he'd just gone without the fed's help.

ScottDS said...

I'm back.

I saw this movie once like five years ago but I barely remember it and I think my frame of mind at the time wasn't conducive to movie-watching. So I need to see it again.

I like Wilder a lot and Willy Wonka is a personal favorite. He could crank it up to 11 in two seconds.

And I agree with you re: comedies and being seriousness. It must be quite difficult to write a comedy script without giving in to the temptation to simply throw every conceivable gag into it, whether it belongs or not.

Animal House might be borderline and even Caddyshack kinda succumbs to this problem, with funny set pieces (featuring Murray, Chase, et al) punctuated by "plot" scenes with Noonan and the other caddies. It's a bit uneven but the funny stuff saves it.

And it's a testament to Bill Murray that he helps make the film even though you could take out 95% of his scenes and the overall movie would not be affected.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Caddyshack is a strange film. I enjoy it a lot, but apart from the funny scenes, it's really a pretty awful film. If you took out the scenes with Murray and Chase, I think the film would have been forgotten as a really poor movie. Yet, their scenes wouldn't have worked without the rest of the movie.

Mr_Severus_Snape said...

I must see this movie, ASAP!

Regarding your last paragraph. I really feel the exact same way, each time I watch Rio Bravo, Planes-Trains-and-Automobiles, Ghostbusters, Ferris Bueller, Rocky, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Goodfellas or The Thin Man movies. For some reason it feels like I'm not watching a movie, but I'm actually "hanging-out" with the characters. Weird. lol

AndrewPrice said...

Snape, I highly recommend this one. This fits right in with those kinds of films -- just very enjoyable.

I think that if you can make a movie (or tv show) where the audience starts to see the characters as friends they hang out with, then you have achieved something that will have long term success. It is the rare movie that lasts year after year where people don't talk about just liking to "be" with the characters... as if they were friends.

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