Waking up and remembering that we don’t share the planet with Gene Wilder any more. &%*!
We used to joke about relocating Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to a Nuclear Power Station. Five lucky children win a tour and a lifetime’s supply of spent uranium.
And you’ll be
In a world of deadly radiation…”
“Mr Wonka – how come all your employees have severely stunted growth and bright green hair?”
“They were like that when they got here. HONEST.”
In all honesty, Wonka was not my favourite film as a kid, because I already had too much invested in the book. I knew the book first. And divergencies from the book were not to be lightly tolerated. The replacement of squirrels with chickens. The whole fizzy lifting scene and (related) the hideous testing of Charlie at the end.
It’s a shame I was such an intolerant and pedantic little brat because the film has so many small pleasures. It has Roy Kinnear in it – and everything with Roy Kinnear in it should compel attention. It has a cameo from Tim Brooke Taylor. The schoolteacher is played by the incomparable David Battley and Aubrey Woods plays the strangely knowing yet clearly benign sweet shop owner who sing the “candy man” song. (Also look out for Aubrey Woods playing a traumatized quisling serving the Daleks in Day of the Daleks.)
But despite the film not being a childhood favourite (I like it more now), the film has the function of making the late great Gene Wilder’s other films funnier. The unpredictable, irascible, vulnerable, and ultimately generous version of Wonka played by Wilder stays in the memory when you see him play other things – it makes him the cynosure of the scene in ways that are always productive of mirth.
Anyone who co-starred in The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein has lived a full life. They have done enough. They can go to meet their maker knowing that whatever length of time they’ve spent on this workaday sublunary sphere and whatever else they’ve done here – they can hold their head up high on whatever dimension they’re to be translated to.
I was always disappointed that The Producers was remade as a musical. The whole genius of the film involved the slow build up to “Springtime for Hitler”, but if the film about a musical is already a musical, then this delicious shock is stylistically smudged. In the original movie (also blessed with Kenneth Mars), Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder offered different versions of mania, the one offering maniacal irresponsible energy and the other offering an agoraphobic inability to live.
As for Young Frankenstein – well it made me laugh harder than anything I’d ever seen up to the absurdly young age that I first saw it. I was out of my chair. I was pounding the carpet. I was actually praying for parts of the film to be slightly less funny so that I could recover some equilibrium. Apparently, Wilder had to fight hard with Brooks for the inclusion of the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number. This was Brooks apparently testing the strength of Wilder’s commitment.
So, we wake up in a world without Gene Wilder. He made me laugh a lot when I saw his face on screen, and whenever I wasn’t laughing I was smiling. We can all of us say that our own lifetimes were better because they overlapped with his. Because we hold, with Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder and Oliver Goldsmith – that uninhibited laughter has its own moral value, it reorganises us and relaxes us and makes us nicer to be around.
Oh, and Gene Wilder was also in Bonnie and Clyde in a very interesting role. Don’t forget that one.