Going back to the Genius of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka…
In remembering Gene Wilder I recall his iconic role as Willy Wonka, a character from the children’s film from the 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) Official Trailer – Gene Wilder, Roald Dahl Movie HD, Movieclips Trailer Vault, http://www.youtube.com and photos © Warner Bros Pictures
I was sad to hear that Gene Wilder had passed away the day before yesterday. Wilder was a familiar face and name from my childhood, and I had seen him in many of his movies such as See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and The Woman in Red (1984). There is however one role that I will always see as his, that of Willy Wonka. Willy Wonka was a main character in the classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory children’s book, written by Roald Dahl. I remember it inspired sweets in the 1980s – such as the Watermelon gobstopper – complete with Willy Wonka branding, that almost made you believe that he was a real person and not just a character from the book or movie.
Most of us watched the original movie starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, and showed this version to our own kids, usually in preference to the Tim Burton remake with Johnny Depp as Wonka. As we tend to prefer the original film, Hollywood rebooters and remakers, mainly for sentimental and nostalgic reasons.
The 1971 film – branded a musical fantasy – was renamed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and as in the book, it tells of how young Charlie Bucket lives with his penniless family. Willy Wonka, the reclusive owner of the local chocolate factory announces a worldwide contest, where 5 children can win Golden Tickets to visit his chocolate factory and win a lifetime supply of chocolate. The world and it’s children buy up the chocolate bars and four tickets are found. However an unknown but creepy man is seen whispering to all the winners.
After finding some money, Charlie buys a chocolate bar and finds the final ticket. He is confronted by this man, named Slugworth – a rival of Wonka – who wishes to obtain Wonka’s latest creation. Charlie along with his granddad Joe visit the local chocolate factory, along with four other children and their relatives. They then enter the chocolate factory – which is manned by oompa loompas (little orange men with green hair) – with its charismatic owner, Willy Wonka and all sort of adventures happen.
As for the rest of the storyline, I’ll let you remember it for yourselves so as those of you yet to see it can enjoy the film or book. However, I must argue this original version is much better than it’s remake, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), as mentioned previously. Wilder is fantastic, scene stealing and memorising as Willy Wonka and makes him charismatic, sinister, frightening and genial as the story requires. Imdb reports how Wilder’s acting often led to genuine reactions from the children. His entrance as Willy Wonka was improvised by him and his only condition for doing the movie. His Wonka also is more eccentric than the Depp’s Wonka who sadly at times reminded me of a Liza Minnelli tribute act. Wilder and the cast delivered the original Oscar-winning songs well and effectively, earning Wilder a Golden Globe nomination for his contributions. The songs to this 1971 film are unforgettable and I’m sure even just reading this many of you will recall songs such as “I Want it Now” and “The Candy Man”, the latter which was later covered by Sammy Davis Jnr.
The Monty Python actors, Eric Idle and John Cleese were asked to be considered for the role in this film and Burton’s 2005 version. I feel Idle would have made a better Wonka than Depp. Depp’s Wonka was not the character I visualised as a child before seeing the film. Idle I feel would have made this role more original, than Burton’s Willy Wonka who to me appeared to be more like an another Tim Burton and Depp caricature. It is incredible to believe – after reading more about this 1971 film – that other hopefuls and contenders for Wonka’s role in the original included Fred Astaire, Ron Moody, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
However, when reading more about the casting of the 2005 version before Burton became involved, the contenders read like a who’s who of Hollywood with Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, Will Smith and Adam Sandler all considered. Burton also had considered Dwayne Johnson if Depp was unavailable! You feel that any of these actors would have been, shall we say interesting viewing apart from Brad Pitt and Dwayne Johnson which is almost laughable. But reading this list I’m sure you would agree, as did the 1971 director on meeting Wilder, that really only Wilder could be such an iconic character. Wilder is by far, the best actor to play Willy Wonka. As a child having seen the cartoons by Quentin Blake and using their creativity to picture Wonka, his face could be easily brought up in their pure imagination.