“A hundred and twenty five years… Oh God, Oh God… I’ll be a hundred and sixty one when I get out.” Gene Wilder, “Stir Crazy”
Sad news today, everyone. Mr. Gene Wilder passed away at the ripe old age of 83. He had been secretly living with Alzheimer’s for the last few years, but had been out of the public eye for much longer than that. In fact, the last movie he actually starred in came out 25 years ago! Truth be told, I didn’t even know he was still alive, but that doesn’t make his passing any less sad or any less worth mentioning.
Many people will cite “Willy Wonka” as the movie that sticks with them, if prompted to talk about Gene Wilder. Others, perhaps might choose “Young Frankenstein”. And yet others out there will bring up “Blazing Saddles” as the one to remember. All fine choices, I GUESS. But the one thing these three movies have in common is that I HAVE NOT SEEN ANY OF THEM. (Nor do I have any interest in seeing them).
And yet despite this, Gene Wilder has a special place in my heart. It’s because of 1980’s “Stir Crazy”. Man, I must have watched that movie a hundred times, EASY, in my elementary school days. It wasn’t a movie for children, but somehow my brother and I taped it off the TV one night, and something about that damn movie struck a chord with us. You know how as kids you tend to read the same books or comic books, watch the same tv shows and movies, consume the same content over and over? “Stir Crazy”, and to a lesser extent, “Silver Streak” were part of my early pop culture. “Stir Crazy” was the second time Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor teamed up, but it was the first one I ever saw. The two of them play a couple of hapless boobs who have a dream to head to California to seek their fame and fortune, but in Arizona they are framed for a bank robbery and are sentenced to 125 years in a maximum security prison. You know, reality. In prison, they befriend a motley crew of in-mates who plan a break out while at the same time Gene Wilder’s character discovers hidden talent as a prison rodeo star. It’s absurd, I’ll grant you that, but the way Gene Wilder delivers his lines, and the way he glances around really sells the role. You really got the feeling he was totally invested in the character and the story, despite how madcap and goofy it was. I’ll never forget that scene when he goes in to meet the warden, (played by Northern Exposure’s Maurice), to raise some concerns on behalf on the inmates. He doesn’t get very far into his talk when one of the prison guards shouts, “Get on the bull.” Gene Wilder’s character mishears. “Get on the ball?” he asks, confused. “GET ON THE BULL!” the guard yells again and gestures to the corner of the warden’s office, where, sure as shit, there is a mechanical bull. It’s the warden’s way of sussing out talent for the prison rodeo, and Gene Wilder gets up on there and wouldn’t you know? The guy was a natural and both warden and prisoner see a way to work the angle from that moment on to the end of the film. It’s pretty much “The Shawshank Redemption” with more jokes (and rodeo stuff). And you know something I just learned tonight? “Stir Crazy” was directed by Sidney Poitier. SIDNEY POITIER, you guys! What a marvelous world we live in!
“Silver Streak”, on the other hand, played a much bigger role in my family’s pop culture mythology growing up. Careful readers will remember I referenced the movie in my post about trains as part of my Thing(s) I Love series a while back. My parents lived in Toronto at the time this movie was made, and Toronto stood in for Los Angeles and Chicago (both ends of the train trip), and The Canadian stood in for the titular train, the Silver Streak. Train nerds will notice that this predates VIA, and that the train cars have the orange and white markings of Canadian Pacific, not the blue and yellow of VIA, BUT I DIGRESS.
The movie is a thriller that takes place almost 100% on a train, and the train shots are almost fetishized in their angles and close ups. Even the soundtrack was built around train sounds, as if Brian Wilson got into the recording studio and brought a bunch of porters with him.
I loved it, but when I saw it as a kid, I didn’t realize it was a lampoon of a bunch of other thrillers that came before it. For example, the dining car scene was a complete homage to a very similar scene in “North by Northwest” (SPOILER) but since I saw “Silver Streak” first, I sort of always thought Hitchcock got his idea from Gene Wilder. (I KNOW THIS IS NOT TRUE YOU GUYS. I WELCOME YOUR EMAILS).
The big finale of the (SPOILERS AGAIN, Jesus!) movie is a big ol’ TRAIN CRASH into a TRAIN STATION, and Union Station in downtown Toronto served as the set. As mentioned before, my parents lived in Toronto at the time, and watched the film crew shoot the final scenes over and over again. I guess in those days you could just hang around movie sets and nobody seemed to mind. I seem to recall hearing about my Dad actually seeing Gene Wilder in blackface, (it happens at one point. Gene Wilder impersonates a BLACK MAN to sneak past security, in the same way that Cary Grant cleverly sticks on SUNGLASSES to sneak past security in “North by Northwest”. You’d never be able to get away with that kind of thing today, but I guess in the mid 1970’s it was considered HUMOUR).
That movie had a great cast. In addition to Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, you had Ned Beatty (that man is still alive!) as a detective who gets MURDERED early on (spoiler!) and you get the great Patrick McGoohan as the villain. Again, I discovered “Silver Streak” long before I discovered “The Prisoner”, so I did things all in reverse, and had to adjust my attitude to root for “Number 6” even though I knew he was a baddie who was trying to MURDER (spoilers again! This whole damn post is one big Gene Wilder tribute/Silver Streak Spoiler, people).
Look, you can’t have ALL of these posts as masterpieces. Even the title of this post is lazy. You wouldn’t appreciate the good blog posts if they all were good, right? Just like Gene Wilder’s movies. Most of them were terrible, but a few stand out, and I’ll always think of him affectionately, for those times my brother and I consumed “Stir Crazy”. I’m sure if I called my brother up right now, he and I could sing the jingle that Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor were singing in that bank in Arizona.
“Oh, you’ll save money, knock on wood…”
Rest in Peace. Thanks for the laughs.