Dated '70s Wilder/Pryor comedy has violence, cursing, sex.
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Silver Streak is a 1976 movie in which Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor team up to stop a murderous art thief on a runaway train. In perhaps the movie's most famous scene, in the bathroom of a train station, Pryor's character puts black shoe polish, sunglasses, and a hat to make Wilder's character look African American and thus escapes the watchful eye of police believing him to be a murderer. Pryor's character teaches Wilder's character how to talk, walk, and dance like an African-American man, and while the manner and premise in which it's presented is more of a joke at the white character's expense, those sensitive to or vehemently opposed to any portrayals of white people in blackface should either avoid this movie, or use it as an opportunity to discuss the cruel and damaging stereotypes conveyed in on-stage minstrelsy in American entertainment. Antagonists use the "N" word twice. Other profanity includes "p---y," "s--t," and "t-ts." Frequent sexual innuendo and entendre, including references to oral sex. Frequent violence: gun battles, characters killed by guns with silencers, by spear guns, characters beaten up by thugs, characters thrown off moving trains, an out-of-control train is headed at top speed toward Chicago's Union Station, jeopardizing the lives of the hundreds of people inside. Drinking, smoking, and drug use occur.
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What's the Story?
George (Gene Wilder) is an author of self-help books who boards the SILVER STRAK train, leaving Los Angeles, bound for Chicago. He meets a drunk salesman (Ned Beatty) who tells him that the train is a "cathouse on wheels." Shortly after, George is approached by Hilly (Jill Clayburgh), an attractive woman who works as a secretary for a prominent art scholar also on the train. A romantic spark is immediately ignited, and the two go back to Hilly's room. As they are on the verge of making love, George sees a dead body hanging upside down in the window of the train. The body falls before Hilly sees it, and she thinks George is simply on edge because he's traveling by train. However, his suspicions prove to be true after he has unpleasant dealings with some shady characters suspiciously rooting around the art scholar's room, and is thrown off the train in the middle of nowhere by one of the thugs. Knowing there has been a murder, George must find a way to get back on the Silver Streak, even if it means taking a ride in a crop duster to the next train stop. Back on the train, he runs into the drunk salesman, who reveals that he is actually an FBI agent named Sweet who is on the trail of the man behind the murder, an art dealer who will kill anyone who knows that his paintings are forgeries, including Hilly's boss, and even Sweet himself. George ends up off the train once more, in Kansas, and it is outside of a small-town sheriff's office where he meets Grover (Richard Pryor), a local car thief all too eager to help George elude the clutches of the local police, who have been told that George is wanted for the train murders. Together, George and Grover must find a way for George to get back on the Silver Streak, prove his innocence, stop the real killer from killing again, and then stop the Silver Streak from racing out of control and straight into Chicago's Union Station.
Is It Any Good?
A sex comedy, a romantic comedy, a mystery, a spy thriller, a buddy movie, a disaster movie -- this movie tries to combine every bankable genre of the mid-1970s, with mixed results. The dialogue, especially early on, sounds dated and feels gratuitous, like the movie is going out of its way to make clear that it's possible for two drunk people to meet in the bar car and go back to one of their rooms to have sex. And as if being responsible for the deaths of many innocent people in Europe wasn't enough, the criminal art dealer (played by Patrick McGoohan) employs the "N" word to Richard Pryor's character when he pretends to be a clumsy waiter, in case you needed to make extra certain that this is, in fact, "the bad guy."
Nonetheless, the chemistry between Pryor and Wilder, as heavy-handed as the scene that brings them together might be, is magical. However, the "buddy movie" aspect is such a small part of the movie that the end result is that Silver Streak tries to be everything but ends up not being any one particular thing.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about depictions of race in movies. In Silver Streak's most memorable scene, in order to help Gene Wilder's character escape the clutches of law enforcement who want to charge him with a murder he didn't commit, Richard Pryor's character buys black shoe polish, glasses, and a hat from an African-American shoeshiner, and proceeds to disguise Wilder as an African-American man. Is this a perpetuation of racist "minstrel" shows in which white performers would put on "blackface" and talk and mine humor out of engaging in the worst stereotypes of African-Americans? Or does this scene turn minstrelsy on its head and make the white character look ridiculous instead?
In the mid-1970s, "disaster movies" involving planes, boats, and tall buildings were big hits. How does this movie try to play into that genre? What other genres does this movie touch upon?
Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder made a series of "buddy movies" in the 1970s and '80s, movies in which two characters with not much in common must work together to overcome the obstacles they both face. What are some other examples of this genre, and who are some other well-known actor pairs who often worked together?
If this movie was remade, how would you update it?
- In theaters: December 3, 1976
- On DVD or streaming: August 6, 2013
- Cast: Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Ned Beatty
- Director: Sidney Poitier
- Studio: Image Entertainment
- Genre: Comedy
- Topics: Trains
- Run time: 108 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- Last updated: March 31, 2022
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