I’m going to jump straight in.
Gene Wilder was a gentle genius. His name has been thrown around so many times over the last few days, to recount so many unforgettable standout performances – and rightly so. In the same spirit, here’s my chronological whistle-stop tour through some of his greatest films and memorable moments.
Wilder often portrayed tightly wound characters who were forever on the verge of being pushed over the edge. As Leo Bloom in The Producers (1967, his first film under director and friend Mel Brooks), Wilder played an anxious accountant who was just about as highly strung as is humanly possible. In my favourite scene, producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) makes Bloom feel decidedly uneasy. Bloom’s hysteria begins to escalate; his mop of curls bouncing around; his eyes blazing with frantic intensity, until you think Wilder can go no further with his performance and… he takes it even further. Finally, Bloom is laying on the floor with Max standing over him and he shrieks, “you’re gonna jump on me, I know you’re gonna jump on me – like Nero jumped on Poppaea… Up and down, up and down, until he squashed her like a bug. Please don’t jump on me!” In a moment of total and utter comic commitment, this gives way to screams and exclamations of hyperventilating panic. Also endearing and comic in equal turn is Bloom’s attachment to his blue blanket he had as a baby – “My blanket! My blue blanket! Give me my blue blanket!” making him neurotic and enchantingly vulnerable in equal measure.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) is probably the film that Wilder has become best known for, it’s certainly repeated on television often enough every school holiday! Wilder’s Wonka is often remembered as family friendly, charming and twinkling-eyed, but the character is more complex than that. Apparently, Wilder insisted on the inclusion of the ‘fall’ in the scene where Wonka is first introduced to the audience. He emerges from the chocolate factory looking infirm and unsure, holding tightly to his walking stick, then realises he has lost it and tumbles forward into a somersault. This is a perfect way to introduce such an enigmatic character, showcasing the dark, deceptive elements of his personality and a slightly sick sense of humour. Later, Wonka is shown to have no discernible remorse for what happens to any of the naughty children.
The other stand-out scene is where Wonka is riding on the chocolate river with the children and their adult entourage. As they go through the tunnel, things start to get a little weird, “Are the fires of hell a -glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing? Yes! The danger must be growing!” Soon the boat is hurtling out of control, Wilder’s face is illuminated by flashes of red light; his crazed eyes wide; clumps of hair escaping from the top hat of a truly terrifying Wonka. Take that, Johnny Depp.
Now I’ve seen The World’s Greatest Lover (1977) and it wasn’t all that. There’s a great little scene where Rudy (Wilder) and his wife Annie (Carol Kane) have ‘sex by numbers’, but aside from that, it doesn’t quite live up to its title. No, no – the film in which Wilder really does demonstrate himself to be the world’s greatest lover is, of course, Woody Allen’s Everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask (1972.)
The length and content of Wilder’s silent reaction when, as Doctor Ross, he is told by his patient, “I am in love with a sheep” is outstanding. When Doctor Ross meets Daisy the sheep for the first time he tries to resist her charms, but ends up giving her longer and more lingering looks, stroking her face, his voice softening, running his hands along her shapely sides – it’s as convincing a performance of love-at-first-sight as you would find anywhere. There follows a terrific montage where we are shown Doctor Ross tenderly caressing Daisy as they conduct an extra marital affair; Ross getting questioned by his wife for getting caught fondling his lamb’s wool sweater; Ross and Daisy meeting in a hotel room and Ross presenting Daisy with a necklace and tying it around her neck. It’s Wilder’s full committal to this concept that makes it funny.
Blazing Saddles (1974, Mel Brooks again) first introduces Wilder’s character as an unshaven drunken wash-up, Jim, once known as the Wako Kid. He recounts how, due to his reputation as the fastest gunman in the West, everyone wanted to challenge him to a quick draw. Jim explains that it all went wrong for him when a six year old challenged him, “I just threw my guns down and walked away. Little bastard shot me in the ass!” The wonderful comic turn between those two lines, the first half delivered with matter-of-fact resignation, the second half with outrage, is what makes it. Once Jim has sobered up, his becomes more of a ‘straight’ role, quietly smiling as the action unwinds, almost achieving cowboy coolness in his black shirt and Stetson.
Wilder then worked again with Brooks, only this time Young Frankenstein (1974) was Wilder’s story and Wilder’s screenplay. The stand-out scene is obviously the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” song and dance sequence. Doctor Frederick Frankenstein feels that he has tamed his monster and to prove his full mastery of the creature, he performs on stage with him in full top hat, white tie and tails. Wilder had to fight Mel Brooks to keep this scene and it certainly breaks the mood established throughout of an old-fashioned Universal horror picture, but it is this total incongruous stupidity which makes the sequence so beautifully perfect. The laugh out loud moment for me is when Frankenstein puts his hands on his monster’s shoulders and mouths “I love him” to his stunned audience, before giving him an affectionate knock on the jaw.
It’s another ‘reaction’ shot which gets my second favourite moment in Young Frankenstein. Over breakfast, Doctor Frankenstein explains the large proportions of his monster to his assistant Inga, (Terri Garr) and she remarks, “He would have an enormous schwanzstucker!” Wilder stops chewing, his eyes shift and his brows rise, before he calmly says, with his mouth full, “Well… that goes without saying.”
Another film for which Wilder wrote the screenplay was See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). He co-stars in this film which Richard Prior, in which they play an on-the-wrong-side-of-the-law odd-couple, something which they do several times together in other films. In See No Evil… Wilder plays Dave, a man who is deaf and Prior plays Wally, a man who is blind. Nothing encapsulates the working relationship between Wilder and Prior better than the scene in which Dave and Wally get into a barroom brawl and must co-operate with one another in order to participate in the fight. I also enjoy the dead pan delivery when Dave has incorrectly lip-read a frustrated police officer and reprimands himself, “Yeh, why would she say ‘ship, ship, ship, ship!’ It wouldn’t make any sense.”
Alice in Wonderland (1999) is an underrated TV movie version of the classic tale, in which Wilder plays the mock-turtle. This is one of Wilder’s last performances in a film. Throughout his scene, which contains two musical numbers, Wilder delivers his role with a soft smile and a shine in his eyes, as if the mock-turtle is unsure whether to laugh or cry.
The frame story of this version of the tale involves Alice running away from a party her parents are holding because she is scared to stand up and perform in front of them. This scene, featuring the mock-turtle and the griffin (a Jim Henson creation voiced by Donald Sinden) is crucial in helping Alice to overcome her stage fright. At first, they explain how to dance a Lobster Quadrille “They are waiting on the shingle, will you come and join the dance?” and Wilder engages in a little dance of his own. Then comes “Beautiful Soup” in which the mock-turtle encourages Alice to sing with him. The song is simple, but the delivery is haunting. Wilder performs both lovely songs with his usual dedication, only too pleased to look a little silly dressed in a turtle shell.
This will undoubtedly sound corny, but I can’t think of a better role to finish on. Wilder, a shy man who was nevertheless a fantastic performer, playing a mock-turtle, who comes out of his shell in order to encourage the younger generation to do the same. That’s a pretty good legacy.