I remember distinctly seeing Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory for the first time. I was ten, and me and my brother were going to the movies. We had the choice of Willy Wonka or Million Dollar Duck. We went to see Willy Wonka, which was a good choice, since the next weekend it was gone from the theater and Million Dollar Duck was still there (so we saw that). Needless to say, though Willy Wonka was not a financial success upon opening, it’s legacy has long outlasted Million Dollar Duck.
With the death of Gene Wilder, AMC Theaters honored him by screening Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Blazing Saddles. I saw the former, having seen the latter many times (but then I went and watched the latter on home video just now). The theater was packed, and everyone clapped upon seeing the man’s name in the credits and then his first appearance, which he improvised: the limping, stern figure who then does a somersault and welcomes everyone with charm.
The film has a long and interesting history. It was basically made to support a candy bar. Note that it was produced by David L. Wolper and Quaker Oats. Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay, but disowned it, mainly for the fizzy drink sequence and the use of Slugworth. The title was changed because the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, would remind people of the Vietnam War–“Charlie” was the name used for the Viet Cong. Every member of Monty Python (the British ones, that is) were considered for the title role, yet the role went to an American who made the part his own, even after Johnny Depp played it.
The film has a cozy, ’70s feel to it. The special effects aren’t that special, and the Oompa Loompa numbers are refreshingly awkward–those fellows weren’t much as dancers. But there are some very funny moments. In the first act, during the search for the golden tickets, we get the supercilious teacher who can’t divide two by a thousand (Charlie Bucket has only bought two Wonka Bars–“Two? Two? I can’t do two!” the teacher wails). The computer expert who thinks he can crack the code, but the computer has ethics. The news media treat the search bigger than all news stories. And when Charlie finally finds that golden ticket, the audience applauded.
The remainder of the film, the tour of the factory, is a minor masterpiece of drollery, as if Edward Gorey had teamed with Dahl. Though Wilder assures Charlie that all the children are alright (to review, Augustus Gloop is sucked through a pipe to the fudge room, where he may end up in a boiler; Violet Beauregarde turns into a giant blueberry and needs to have the juice squeezed out of her; Veruca Salt is deemed a bad egg and sent down the trash chute–whether the furnace is lit that day no one knows; and Mike Teevee, shrunk down due to being televised via Wonkavision, is being sent to be stretched in the taffy pull) I prefer to imagine more ghoulish endings. Wilder, when the children are in trouble, says, “Stop. Help,” without exclamation points. He is a man who is clearly making a point.
The Wilder moments I love include when he gives his Poe-like poem while on the boat:
“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!”
By the end he’s screaming like Leo Bloom during an anxiety attack, or Victor Frankstein while bringing his creature to life. My other favorite moment is when he tells Charlie that he broke the rules: “You get nothing! You lose!” again in that inimitable Wilder mania.
The film ends sentimentally, and the audience loved it, Tim Burton be damned (he hated the movie, thinking it “sappy,” which made him remake it). But when Wilder, in the zooming Wonkavator, tells Charlie: “I can’t go on forever, and I don’t really want to try. So who can I trust to run the factory when I leave and take care of the Oompa Loompas for me? Not a grown up. A grown up would want to do everything his own way, not mine. So that’s why I decided a long time ago that I had to find a child. A very honest, loving child, to whom I could tell all my most precious candy making secrets.” Then, after Charlie asks if Grandpa Joe can come too, “The whole family. I want you to bring them all.” Well, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The battle will rage whether this film or Burton’s is better. I liked them both, but I think, despite the financial success of Burton’s film, those who have seen both will prefer the first, directed by Mel Stuart, mostly because of Wilder. My girlfriend, who had seen the second but not the first, turned to me early on in the film. “I like this one better.”