Tag Archives: Richard Pryor

Blazing Saddles (1974, Mel Brooks)

Maybe the first two-thirds of Blazing Saddles are really funny, getting great performances out of lead Cleavon Little, his sidekick Gene Wilder and especially Harvey Korman’s villain. Wilder’s almost an add-on character; he’s around so Little, in addition to being funny and likable, doesn’t also have to be an accomplished gunslinger. It’s one of the most pragmatic elements of the screenplay, which has five credited contributors, and is otherwise all over the place.

Director Brooks splits Saddles out into sketches. Here’s a sketch with Little and underutilized proto-sidekick Charles McGregor, here’s a sketch with Slim Pickens and Korman, here’s a sketch with Brooks starring as the moron governor (Korman’s his suffering Judas attorney general), here’s one with Korman and Madeline Kahn, here’s one with Kahn and Little. The racist townsfolk–who get saddled, no pun intended, with black sheriff Little–have their own series of sketches. Brooks brings it all together somewhat well–the constant fade outs are more curtain lowering than transition–until the film hits the halfway point. Once Kahn and Little have their sketch, Saddles just starts racing to its conclusion.

And that conclusion is a madcap mess of Panavision and Technicolor. There’s no intelligence in the absurdity, except when Korman is around (Little is reduced to a bit player in his own movie for most of the conclusion). Korman gets Saddles’s best material, knows it and appreciates it. He delivers in every scene. Everyone else tries, but the material isn’t always there.

The script relies on caricatures–funny ones, sure, but still caricatures–instead of giving the actors anything to work with. Hence my describing it as a series of sketches. Burton Gilliam, for example, gets some solid material at the beginning, but then he just loiters around. McGregor follows a similar pattern–stronger material at the start, then he disappears only to return as a gear in the deus ex machina. One of the dei ex machina, the film’s got a couple, the second one pointless.

Brooks keeps it moving–Saddles runs under ninety minutes–but the last thirty or so are just spinning its wheels. Nice photography from Joseph F. Biroc and some rather funny songs for establishing montages (and Kahn’s number) help things along.

Saddles has all the pieces to be more than a madcap comedy, Brooks just doesn’t utilize them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Brooks; screenplay by Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor and Alan Uger, based on a story by Bergman; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Danford B. Greene and John C. Howard; music by John Morris; production designer, Peter Wooley; produced by Michael Hertzberg; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Cleavon Little (Bart), Gene Wilder (Jim), Harvey Korman (Hedley Lamarr), Madeline Kahn (Lili Von Shtupp), Slim Pickens (Taggart), Charles McGregor (Charlie), Burton Gilliam (Lyle), Alex Karras (Mongo), Mel Brooks (Governor William J. Lepetomane).


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Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982, Joe Layton)

Maybe it’s Sheldon Kahn’s editing, which doesn’t do the picture’s content justice, but Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip doesn’t feel seamless. The first twenty minutes or so do, however, which makes the change jarring.

All of a sudden, the reaction shots of the audience aren’t believable. Someone, either Pryor or director Layton, decided to showcase Jesse Jackson in the audience. It kills Sunset‘s focus on Pryor every time. And Sunset isn’t just a comedy special. It could get away with transgressions of that nature if it were.

No, Sunset is supposed to be something more. For the first third, the routine flows. Pryor connects all the material. Then he talks about visiting Africa and Sunset decides it’s going to be about something important–an entertainer trying to share a personal change with his audience and encourage them towards something.

But Sunset is even more ambitious. In a supposedly seamless transition from an old Southern black guy impression–which an audience member conveniently suggests–Pryor moves to discussing his cocaine addiction and his burn incident.

This segment takes up about the final fourth of the picture. Sunset isn’t just a comedy routine, it’s about Pryor as a person and a celebrity. Except Layton shot the thing like it’s a comedy concert picture–and Kahn edits it like it’s one. As the film gets more personal, the emphasis clearly needs to go on Pryor and it’s still split.

Haskell Wexler’s photography is great–Sunset‘s amazing to watch.

And Pryor’s magnificent.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Layton; written and produced by Richard Pryor; director of photography, Haskell Wexler; edited by Sheldon Kahn; production designer, Michael Baugh; released by Columbia Pictures.


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Silver Streak (1976, Arthur Hiller)

Silver Streak is a wonderful film. It opens with all these little scenes on a train between Gene Wilder and Ned Beatty and then Jill Clayburgh. At this point, Streak seems like a very intelligent romantic comedy. There’s no drama yet, just excellent dialogue from Colin Higgins’s script. If he didn’t write it for Wilder–who Higgins and director Hiller deftly turn into a leading–and Clayburgh, it feels like he did anyway. Wilder and Clayburgh have completely different acting styles and they clash and the script mashes them together and it works. Clayburgh disappears for a while soon after this scene, so it has to establish her and it does.

So Wilder’s then off on his own in what’s now an action adventure picture. Higgins’s events perturb in the most outlandish way–one’s always expecting Wilder to have to fully explain himself, but he never does. Instead, Higgins and Hiller leave that absurd summary for the viewer to tell someone else for word of mouth value.

And then there’s Richard Pryor. He and Wilder have to hit it off immediately, they have to become Butch and Sundance in a conversation. Hiller’s got to get it right, Higgins has to get it right and the actors have to get it right. They do.

The film’s only letdown–all the acting’s fantastic and the script’s consistently marvelous–is Hiller. He does an outstanding workman job, but he’s never sublime.

Silver Streak is a masterpiece. Mainstream American filmmaking doesn’t get much better.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Hiller; written by Colin Higgins; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by David Bretherton; music by Henry Mancini; production designer, Alfred Sweeney; produced by Thomas L. Miller and Edward K. Milkis; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Wilder (George Caldwell), Jill Clayburgh (Hilly Burns), Richard Pryor (Grover T. Muldoon), Patrick McGoohan (Roger Devereau), Ned Beatty (Bob Sweet), Clifton James (Sheriff Chauncey), Ray Walston (Mr. Whiney), Stefan Gierasch (Professor Schreiner), Len Birman (Chief), Valerie Curtin (Plain Jane), Lucille Benson (Rita Babtree), Scatman Crothers (Ralston), Richard Kiel (Reace) and Fred Willard (Jerry Jarvis).


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Moving (1988, Alan Metter)

I really wish–even though the cameo is great–Morris Day wasn’t in Moving. If he weren’t, one could make the argument all the terrible people are white and all the good people (basically Richard Pryor and his family) are black.

But Day shows up for a funny moment. Oh, and bad guy mover Ji-Tu Cumbuka is black too.

Race isn’t actually an issue in Moving (except when Pryor gets confused for a robber and even then they don’t press it). I was just trying to find something interesting to say about the film.

Pryor can apparently rise above any material, even writer Breckman’s script–Breckman eventually has Pryor donning body armor and running around Boise, Idaho with a bunch of guns (he got the gun part right, though I think there are more black people in the film than there are in Idaho state).

Beverly Todd is fine as Pryor’s wife, though the script eventually falls out from under her and she’s left to just silently follow him around. Stacey Dash manages to be weak but appealing as the daughter. As twin sons, Raphael and Ishmael Harris are likable.

Randy Quaid falls flat in a Vacation variation, but Dana Carvey is absolutely hilarious as a car mover with multiple personalities. Conversely, everyone else in the film lacks personality.

Howard Shore’s music’s innocuous, as is Metter’s direction (though there are a few good shots).

It’s like they’re trying to do a W.C. Fields movie for modernity.

It doesn’t work.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Alan Metter; written by Andy Breckman; director of photography, Donald McAlpine; edited by Alan Balsam; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David L. Snyder; produced by Stuart Cornfeld; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Richard Pryor (Arlo Pear), Beverly Todd (Monica Pear), Dave Thomas (Gary Marcus), Dana Carvey (Brad Williams), Randy Quaid (Frank / Cornall Crawford), Stacey Dash (Casey Pear), Raphael Harris (Marshall Pear), Ishmael Harris (Randy Pear), Morris Day (Rudy), Ji-Tu Cumbuka (Edwards), King Kong Bundy (Gorgo), Alan Oppenheimer (Mr. Cadell), Gordon Jump (Simon Eberhart), Bill Wiley (Arnold Butterworth), Bibi Osterwald (Crystal Butterworth) and Paul Willson (Mr. Seeger).


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