Earlier this week we lost an acting genius when Gene Wilder passed away at the age of 83, reportedly of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s just the latest of a string of passings in 2016 that feels like we’re losing too much of our cultural weirdness too quickly, and the supply isn’t being replenished. David Bowie, Prince and others who, like Wilder, were true innovators in their chosen fields are gone now and there isn’t a fresh crop of weirdos, of aliens, of those who operate on a frequency the rest of us don’t even know exist to take their place.
Wilder’s passing was followed by countless tributes to the actor’s genius, usually citing the same big four movies from his filmography: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, The Producers and Young Frankenstein while relegating some of his other roles to asides or other smaller mentions. His roles in those movies established him as an actor with impeccable comic chops and timing. After those four iconic roles he would go on to another phase of his career, one that was epitomized by his acting collaborations with the late great Richard Pryor. So while in the last few days many have covered the ground of the Wilder/Brooks years sufficiently let’s today take a closer look at the first two – arguably the best – of his movies with Pryor, specifically examining how they were sold to the public.
1976’s Silver Streak came just two years after Young Frankenstein, when Wilder was an established comic force. So it only makes sense to sell this as a straight comedy, right? Not so much if you watch the trailer. It starts out by introducing us to Wilder’s George Caldwell, a simple publishing executive looking for a boring train ride. Caldwell, we see, gets caught up in some sort of murder conspiracy aboard the train but the comedy doesn’t really kick in until the halfway point when Pryor’s Grover Muldoon shows up in the back of the car Caldwell is using to escape from the police.
From there the comedy is much more prevalent, including Muldoon helping Caldwell evade arrest by donning blackface (only the two of them could make this non-offensive) in a train station. The rest of the trailer, though, plays it pretty straight, opting to sell the movie as more in line with the police dramas that were popular at this point of the 70s than as the next great comedic performance from either Wilder or Pryor, the latter of which was really just starting to become a movie star though he was already an established stand-up powerhouse. Even the poster treads lightly on the comedy, calling it “…the most hilarious suspense ride of your life” while not presenting anything overtly funny outside the presence of the two male leads.
By contrast, the trailer for 1980’s Stir Crazy, the second pairing of the two, uses a much clearer comedic pitch to the target audience. This one starts out as Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) are being sentenced to 125 years in prison for a bank robbery they didn’t commit. Prison life is not an easy adjustment for either, though, as neither is very tough and not used to the problems they’re going to face there.
The footage is pulled largely from the first part of the movie, going no further save for a few shots than the pair trying to act tough in jail after being arrested, an act neither is convincingly pulling off. But what we see is the stuff of comedic legend, including the “We bad, we bad” strutting they do, the woodpecker suit dance in the bank and Wilder’s famous “Wha! Wha! Wha!” reaction as they’re convicted and sentenced. The woodpecker suits also formed the primary image on the one sheet, which also used copy that clear identifies this as a comedy.
What you can see between these two campaigns, which I’ve only briefly recapped here since there was sure to be plenty of press activity and other advertising around, is that Columbia Pictures in 1980 had a lot more faith in marketing a comedy than 20th Century Fox did in 1976. That may have been due to Pryor’s increased stature in the movie industry in the intervening four years. It may have been because the overall comedic landscape was a lot different, with not only “Saturday Night Live” but also “SCTV” combined with movies like The Jerk and more creating a new comedy nerd genre that was proving to be popular and profitable.
Wilder and Pryor would go on to make two more movies together, though they’d wait until 1989 to reunite in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. That and 1991’s Another You would be sold as much broader comedies, which was in keeping with what was hot in that era, though neither turned hit the heights of the first outings, nor would they be as commercially successful. So what you see in the trailers and posters for Silver Streak and Stir Crazy is a reflection of the times even more than that of Wilder’s – or Pryor’s – place in the movie landscape. That’s odd considering the track record of Wilder in particular, but may show it wasn’t him but the material that was seen to be the draw for his collaborations with Mel Brooks and his landmark role as Wonka.
In 2016, though, as we mourn his passing and revisit his career, we know that no, it was him. He made good material great and great material legendary through his warmth, sense of timing, commitment to character and more. There won’t be another Gene Wilder, but we have the gift of so many great performances he’s left behind.