The world became a little less funny on August 29th when Gene Wilderpassed away at the age of 83. Wilder is most remembered for his work with Mel Brooks, first in The Producers (1967) as Leo Bloom, and then for his roles in 1974â€™s comedy double feature of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Sandwiched in the center of these Brooksâ€™ classics was his spectacular turn as the titular character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), directed by Mel Stuart and written by the author of the book, Roald Dahl.
Last weekend, in commemoration of Wilderâ€™s passing, both films were back in select theaters, and my wife and I took my son to see them.
In these films collectively, it was proven that no one makes an entrance like Gene Wilder. Willy Wonka is a mere myth for the first third of the film. No one knows what to expect when the clock strikes 10:00 outside the Wonka factory. He emerges, cane in hand, limping towards the screen. His emergence brings cheers which slowly quiet down as he moves ever so slowly. And then… his cane sticks, and he tips into a somersault, before popping up to a round of applause. You know then, you never know what youâ€™re going to get with Willy Wonka. I had seen the film several times as a child, but watching again I forgot just how amazingly quick, sarcastic, and hilarious every line he utters is. The way he takes down the nasty kids, and their equally evil parents, while pausing to discuss his marvelous creations is… well… pure imagination. He is equal parts funny, charming, mischievous, and in cases like the boat ride, outright scary and menacing. For his work, he earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
Three years later Wilder reunited with Mel Brooks to make Blazing Saddles, my choice for funniest movie ever made. Again, Wilder is absent in the early stages of the film. When Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) walks into the Rock Ridge jail, he finds Wilder sleeping upside down in his cell, and their friendship begins with this introductory conversation:
Bart – â€œAre we awake?â€
Jim – â€œWeâ€™re not sure. Are we… black?â€
Bart – â€œYes, we are.â€
Jim – â€œThen weâ€™re awake… but weâ€™re very puzzled.â€
Wilder is Jim, AKA The Waco Kid, the fastest gun in the west. This leads to my favorite moment in the film when he steadily raises one hand, then frantically waves the other. â€œYeah, but I shoot with this hand,â€ he informs Bart. The film tackles racism in a way no film has done before or since, and Wilder as the second to Littleâ€™s lead makes for one of the great comedic tandems in film history.
Both films were being shown at one of the largest theaters in Manhattan, and both were packed houses. There were fans of all ages; grandparents were there with children and grandchildren. The films of Gene Wilder impact us even today. Willy Wonka teaches us a wonderful lesson. If you are a good person, like Charlie (Peter Ostrum), you will eventually reap the rewards, whereas the greedy will never be happy and always be left wanting more. Blazing Saddles is frenetic and laugh-out-loud funny, but through the craziness, there is a friendship that defies race and defies the odds.
Gene Wilder will be missed, but his films will live forever. Another collaboration with Brooks, Young Frankenstein is being brought to theaters for one night only by Fathom Events. Wilder co-wrote and starred in the 1974 classic comedy, and you can see it at a theater near you on Wednesday night, October 5th at 7:00pm ET. The special presentation features a live introduction from Mel Brooks himself.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) Official Trailer
Blazing Saddles (1974) Original Trailer – Gene Wilder Movie