The Westgate Cinema in New Castle, PA wasn’t a fancy or clean theater. Yet for most of my childhood, that’s where we saw films for $1 before 5 PM, with my family often sneaking into multiple showings or even more than one film a day. The Toy was one of those films, a movie lost in the miasma of the years between ten and twelve, mixed in with other moves like The Incredible Shrinking Woman, the Jerry Lewis vehicle Hardly Working and The Cannonball Run.
Jack Brown (Richard Pryor) is in danger of losing everything — his marriage and his home — and becomes so desperate for a job that he dresses up like a traditional Southern maid to serve lunch to businessman U.S. Bates (Jackie Gleason).
He’s quickly fired, but Bates’ spoiled son Eric (Scott Schwartz, who yes, went on to appear in A Christmas Story and perhaps more infamously adult films like Scotty’s X-Rated Adventure) — upon being told he can have anything in the store — asks for Jack. Yes, he wants to own a black man as his toy, a fact that powers the whole film.
Bates’ henchman Sydney Morehouse (Ned Beatty) sets up a deal where Jack will be Eric’s live-in friend in exchange for enough money to save his house. The trouble is that the humiliation isn’t worth any money. Yet this is an 80’s movie, so of course, the kid’s rough edges get smoothed out and the two come an understanding, eventually working together to expose the father’s brutal personal and business demons.
This was the movie that Richard Donner followed his work on Superman with. Gleason is, as always, a delight. He was supposedly rough on Schwartz during filming, as the comedian loved to ad lib and it threw the young actor off.