When I was a kid I was in love with the 1976 film Silver Streak. My poor babysitters sometimes had to sit through the movie once only for me to rewind the video when it got to the end in order to play the movie through again. I just adored the scenes of the train winding its way through the west. My mom knew that all I cared about was the train which is why she let me watch it at a very young age in spite of all the innuendo, violence and inappropriate language this film contains. Yet while I cared only about the train, I still grew up with this movie going so far as to act out scenes on the playground. Well, lately I’ve gotten to wondering, just what messages was I internalizing about women from the media I enjoyed? Silver Streak strikes me as a good place to start digging in.
Fair warning, there are elements of this movie that are not PC today and in this analysis there will be spoilers!
To begin, this movie does not pass the Bechdel Test. Silver Streak has only two female characters who have any memorable amount of screen time: Hilly Burns played by Jill Clayburgh and Lucille Benson’s Rita Babtree. They never interact with each other nor any other women yet, there is an enjoyable complexity to both that makes me ok that I had these depictions of women growing up.
At the start Hilly soon becomes of interest of our male lead George Caldwell (Gene Wilder), who has been encouraged by Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty) to find a “fling” for the three day ride from Los Angeles, CA to Chicago, IL. Soon after receiving said encouragement, George watches Bob make an advance on Hilly only to then see Hilly “cool down” Bob by pouring a drink down the front of Bob’s pants. To be clear there’s nothing hot or sexual about this particular scene. This is just a guy whose advances are going down in flames.
Throughout the first act of this movie, Hilly maintains a lot of agency. It is Hilly who finds George sitting in the dining car and chooses to sit with him. Hilly has George fill out her order card for her dinner. Hilly banters about sex with George as a partner and equal. Hilly does not just fall for the male lead here because he’s the male lead. Instead, a getting to know you period plays out on screen and I don’t think there’s any doubt that if Hilly didn’t want in on what was to follow, nothing would follow. Unfortunately, the mutual good times are interrupted by George seeing a body falling off the train.
The body as it turns out, is Hilly’s boss and it is at this point in the movie that the male centric adventure begins while Hilly is relegated to damseling as the various men work to save her. This switch from an in command woman to a woman who is positioning herself for sacrifice so that George may get away is disappointing because Hilly seems like someone who would try to save herself. There are moments of redemption to come for her but while we wait for those, George is thrown off the train and runs into Rita Babtree.
Rita runs a farm, and George meets her while she’s milking a cow, setting the stage for some more peer-to-peer innuendo. Soon thereafter Rita agrees to give George a lift into town so he can report the murder of Hilly’s boss to the sheriff. Much to George’s surprise the lift ends up taking place in Rita’s bi-plane. She flies with daring, buzzing over sheep, as she points out to George, “They talk about the joy of sex, but it don’t last like the fun of flying!”
When George gets back on the Silver Streak the adventure focuses solely on the boys, and a problematic undercurrent regarding women emerges. Calling women “broads”, objectifying women by likening a car to a crass word for a vagina, and sexist language from Bob Sweet flows. Earlier in the film we did see Hilly in her not-revealing underwear, but underwear all the same. Back in the movie’s latter acts when we see Hilly the only extension she has on her damseling role is that of healer as she tends to the wounds of George and a porter who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now playing a healer isn’t bad, it’s just a very common role for women.
Hilly does ultimately get her redemption by participating in her own escape as she smacks one of the antagonists henchman with a tray, thereby making it possible for George to get the kill shot on him. In addition, when the Silver Streak becomes a runaway train, she leans out of the train to help George get a hand on the decoupler so the locomotives crash into Union Station without our heroes along for the ride. Then at the very end, Hilly is back in command as she makes an advance on George.
I’m glad that my love of trains led me to the characters of Hilly and Rita. With these two, I was treated to seeing women participating in heroics, as well as Hilly’s agency in her own sex life.
As far as Her Story Arc Scale of Inclusivity, I think the 1970s language for referring to women has not aged well so I have to withhold the point for not being offensive to women. I’ll give it the two points for having a female lead character with Hilly and Rita. I mentioned earlier that Silver Streak does not pass the Bechdel Test so no points there. But, I think the good parts of the movie keep it entertaining today so plus four points. I do think I have to wrap it up at those six points cause I don’t think it went above and beyond what was going on at the time. That said, I would invite anyone with better knowledge of feminism in the the 1970s to comment!
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