The recent passing of Gene Wilder has caused an outpouring of emotion from both the film industry and his many beloved fans. Wilder was loved for his eccentric roles such as in Young Frankenstein (1974) and Stir Crazy (1980), as well as films such as Blazing Saddles (1974) and The Producers (1967). Perhaps his most notable and loved role though, was in Mel Stuart’s 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The alteration of the film’s title, compared to the literary version, which places Wilder’s character Willy Wonka at the heart of the production provides a fitting indication of the impact that Wilder has had. Not only was Gene wilder’s performance ground breaking and memorable at the time, but the legacy he has achieved over time has only elevated this iconic role.
This legacy is the result of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory being held up as a classic by film lovers across the World. In a the way that the Wizard of Oz has achieved film immortality by being watched every Christmas, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory has assumed a similar role. The film, like the Wizard of Oz, is a firm favourite at Christmas. Furthermore, the performance of Gene Wilder provides nostalgia for adults and children of all ages, reminding them of the first time they saw the magical and mysterious workings of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. This nostalgia gives the film great longevity as viewers return to the film at times of personal sadness and happiness.
The eccentric personality of Willy Wonka that Wilder so perfectly portrays is one of, if not the most, memorable aspects of the film. From the very first scene in which Wilder appears, where he is initially seen as an old cripple before performing an energetic forward roll you anticipate that his performance will be something special. On several occasions this eccentricity spills over into a sense of dark utopia. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory is by no means a joyful family film throughout.
The chocolate factory is the centre of this utopia. The unknown nature of the chocolate factory is made apparent to Charlie Bucket in the opening scenes of the film, when an unknown man tells him that “Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out”. The regular, and on occasion gruesome, removal of the other ticket winners such as the suction of Augustus Gloop up a chocolate pipe represented the potential danger of a chocolate factory to a young child. Other aspects of the factory also provided discomfort for young viewers, including myself. Looking at the umpa lumpas today as a young adult they provide comic value with their bright neon orange faces and complimentary green wigs. Although as a young child they provided a sense of trepidation as they were so alien to me.
This trepidation was masterminded by Wilder, the figure head, the mad professor. One of the most memorable moments of Wilder’s performance is his psychedelic and haunting speech as the umpa lumpas transport the invited guests down the chocolate river:
‘There’s no earthly way of knowing, which direction they are going
There’s no knowing where they’re rowing, or which way the river’s flowing
Is it raining, is it snowing? Is a hurricane a-blowing?
Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing!
Are the fires of Hell a-glowing? Is the grisly Reaper mowing?
Yes! The danger must be growing, cause the rowers keep on rowing
And they’re certainly not showing, any sign that they are slowing!’
At times this scene made the skin of young children crawl, which is testament to the talent of Gene Wilder. The madness that exuberates from Wilder at this point in the film creates a sensational experience when coupled with the vortex that the characters are travelling through. Wilder captures the eccentricity of a chocolate maker. He captures a man who created a gobstopper that was everlasting, a piece of gum that was a three course meal and edible wallpaper that has ‘snozzberries’ on it.
Despite the quirkiness that Wilder emanates, he also depicts a man who is caring and down to earth. This is shown to perfection in the final scenes when he forgives Charlie for drinking the ‘fizzy lifting drink’, when Charlie returns the everlasting gobstopper which a man posing to be Wonka’s arch rival Slugworth (who was in fact Mr. Wilkinson an employee at Wonka’s) has offered to buy off him. Charlie’s reward is that Wonka hands the factory over to Charlie. At this point we see a caring side to Wilder, a man who respects Charlie and the poor background he has come from. The underdog nature of the story gave children from all backgrounds the inspiration to dream.
Wilder was the pioneer of creating Children’s pure imaginations. A memorable performance that will live long in the memory.