Gene Wilder

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971, Mel Stuart)

Part of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s greatest successes is the plotting–how top-billed Gene Wilder doesn’t show up until almost halfway into the film–but it’s also one of the film’s problems. It needs another five or ten minutes with Wilder; probably not at the very end, but somewhere before it. There’s so much going on, director Stuart and writer Roald Dahl (adapting his novel) sort of lose track of everything.

There’s a lot creativity, both in the writing and the direction, to the narrative–Stuart juxtaposes various television reports about Wilder’s Willy Wonka offering five passes to his chocolate factory against young Peter Ostrum’s wishes to find one. It’s beautifully executed, thanks to great acting, Arthur Ibbetson’s photography, Stuart’s direction and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s music. Not all of the songs are great, but they’re all good enough and some of them are outstanding. Ostrum gives a fine, appealing performance; Stuart tends to put him opposite rather strong performers. Jack Albertson is great as his grandfather, Diana Sowle’s good as his mom. Bit players Aubrey Woods and David Battley are also quite good.

The second half of the film, in addition to bringing Wilder into the story proper, also has all the other “golden ticket” winners. Great obnoxious children–particularly Julie Dawn Cole and Denise Nickerson–and great obnoxious parents–Leonard Stone and Roy Kinnear standout. Ostrum gets somewhat lost in the shuffle. When he and Albertson do get a scene to themselves, it’s at a point where the film needs more Wilder, not less.

As for Wilder, he’s phenomenal. He overcomplicates the role to fantastic result, going light and dark, introverted, extroverted. He’s always doing something wonderful (and why the heck didn’t Wilder do more singing roles?). While Stuart, Dahl and Ibbetson create a lot of the film’s gently tragic magic in the first half–along with Ostrum and Albertson, of course–it’s Wilder who introduces that element in the second half. Everyone else is way too busy with all the special effects and just managing the eleven principal characters.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory achieves a great many successes. It doesn’t quite get where it’s trying to go, but thanks to Wilder, Stuart, Dahl and Ostrum, it does get somewhere very special.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Stuart; screenplay by Roald Dahl, based on his novel; director of photography, Arthur Ibbetson; edited by David Saxon; music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; produced by Stan Margulies and David L. Wolper; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter Ostrum (Charlie), Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka), Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe), Diana Sowle (Mrs. Bucket), Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt), Roy Kinnear (Mr. Salt), Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde), Leonard Stone (Mr. Beauregarde), Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee), Nora Denney (Mrs. Teevee), Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop), Ursula Reit (Mrs. Gloop), Aubrey Woods (Bill), David Battley (Mr. Turkentine) and Günter Meisner (Mr. Slugworth).


Blazing Saddles (1974, Mel Brooks)

Maybe the first two-thirds of Blazing Saddles are really funny, getting great performances out of lead Cleavon Little, his sidekick Gene Wilder and especially Harvey Korman’s villain. Wilder’s almost an add-on character; he’s around so Little, in addition to being funny and likable, doesn’t also have to be an accomplished gunslinger. It’s one of the most pragmatic elements of the screenplay, which has five credited contributors, and is otherwise all over the place.

Director Brooks splits Saddles out into sketches. Here’s a sketch with Little and underutilized proto-sidekick Charles McGregor, here’s a sketch with Slim Pickens and Korman, here’s a sketch with Brooks starring as the moron governor (Korman’s his suffering Judas attorney general), here’s one with Korman and Madeline Kahn, here’s one with Kahn and Little. The racist townsfolk–who get saddled, no pun intended, with black sheriff Little–have their own series of sketches. Brooks brings it all together somewhat well–the constant fade outs are more curtain lowering than transition–until the film hits the halfway point. Once Kahn and Little have their sketch, Saddles just starts racing to its conclusion.

And that conclusion is a madcap mess of Panavision and Technicolor. There’s no intelligence in the absurdity, except when Korman is around (Little is reduced to a bit player in his own movie for most of the conclusion). Korman gets Saddles’s best material, knows it and appreciates it. He delivers in every scene. Everyone else tries, but the material isn’t always there.

The script relies on caricatures–funny ones, sure, but still caricatures–instead of giving the actors anything to work with. Hence my describing it as a series of sketches. Burton Gilliam, for example, gets some solid material at the beginning, but then he just loiters around. McGregor follows a similar pattern–stronger material at the start, then he disappears only to return as a gear in the deus ex machina. One of the dei ex machina, the film’s got a couple, the second one pointless.

Brooks keeps it moving–Saddles runs under ninety minutes–but the last thirty or so are just spinning its wheels. Nice photography from Joseph F. Biroc and some rather funny songs for establishing montages (and Kahn’s number) help things along.

Saddles has all the pieces to be more than a madcap comedy, Brooks just doesn’t utilize them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Brooks; screenplay by Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor and Alan Uger, based on a story by Bergman; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Danford B. Greene and John C. Howard; music by John Morris; production designer, Peter Wooley; produced by Michael Hertzberg; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Cleavon Little (Bart), Gene Wilder (Jim), Harvey Korman (Hedley Lamarr), Madeline Kahn (Lili Von Shtupp), Slim Pickens (Taggart), Charles McGregor (Charlie), Burton Gilliam (Lyle), Alex Karras (Mongo), Mel Brooks (Governor William J. Lepetomane).


Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)

Bonnie and Clyde opens with two immediate introductions. First, in the opening titles, photographs from the 1930s set the scene. Second, in the first scene, with Faye Dunaway (as Bonnie) and Warren Beatty (as Clyde) meet one another and flirt their way into armed robbery. Okay, maybe in the latter, director Penn does start with Dunaway.

It’s only fair because Dunaway’s the one who gets the big personal arc. The bigger arc–Dunaway and Beatty robbing banks, making a gang, on the run–is a Homeric odyssey through the characters’ lives and the world they live in. The film is very much a rumination on the thirties and the Depression, but never an overpowering one.

The script moves quickly, whether it’s bringing characters together or developing their relationships. At the center of it, right off, Dunaway and Beatty have to click. And they do; that opening scene shows off how well they click (as they click). There’s a certain boastfulness to Bonnie and Clyde; Penn is confident and takes bold strokes.

Dede Allen’s editing is also an essential for the film’s success. The cutting in the first act is maybe the most dynamic, but it also sets up the viewer for what’s going to come. It’s startling but reassuring. Great photography from Burnett Guffey. The film’s visuals are extremely important. Penn is always keeping things moving.

Excellent support from Michael J. Pollard, Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman.

Bonnie and Clyde is breathtaking work. Big kudos to Penn, Dunaway and Beatty.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Penn; written by David Newman and Robert Benton; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Dede Allen; music by Charles Strouse; produced by Warren Beatty; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Warren Beatty (Clyde Barrow), Faye Dunaway (Bonnie Parker), Michael J. Pollard (C.W. Moss), Gene Hackman (Buck Barrow), Estelle Parsons (Blanche), Denver Pyle (Frank Hamer), Dub Taylor (Ivan Moss), Evans Evans (Velma Davis) and Gene Wilder (Eugene Grizzard).


Silver Streak (1976, Arthur Hiller)

Silver Streak is a wonderful film. It opens with all these little scenes on a train between Gene Wilder and Ned Beatty and then Jill Clayburgh. At this point, Streak seems like a very intelligent romantic comedy. There’s no drama yet, just excellent dialogue from Colin Higgins’s script. If he didn’t write it for Wilder–who Higgins and director Hiller deftly turn into a leading–and Clayburgh, it feels like he did anyway. Wilder and Clayburgh have completely different acting styles and they clash and the script mashes them together and it works. Clayburgh disappears for a while soon after this scene, so it has to establish her and it does.

So Wilder’s then off on his own in what’s now an action adventure picture. Higgins’s events perturb in the most outlandish way–one’s always expecting Wilder to have to fully explain himself, but he never does. Instead, Higgins and Hiller leave that absurd summary for the viewer to tell someone else for word of mouth value.

And then there’s Richard Pryor. He and Wilder have to hit it off immediately, they have to become Butch and Sundance in a conversation. Hiller’s got to get it right, Higgins has to get it right and the actors have to get it right. They do.

The film’s only letdown–all the acting’s fantastic and the script’s consistently marvelous–is Hiller. He does an outstanding workman job, but he’s never sublime.

Silver Streak is a masterpiece. Mainstream American filmmaking doesn’t get much better.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Hiller; written by Colin Higgins; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by David Bretherton; music by Henry Mancini; production designer, Alfred Sweeney; produced by Thomas L. Miller and Edward K. Milkis; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Wilder (George Caldwell), Jill Clayburgh (Hilly Burns), Richard Pryor (Grover T. Muldoon), Patrick McGoohan (Roger Devereau), Ned Beatty (Bob Sweet), Clifton James (Sheriff Chauncey), Ray Walston (Mr. Whiney), Stefan Gierasch (Professor Schreiner), Len Birman (Chief), Valerie Curtin (Plain Jane), Lucille Benson (Rita Babtree), Scatman Crothers (Ralston), Richard Kiel (Reace) and Fred Willard (Jerry Jarvis).


The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975, Gene Wilder)

I didn’t know what to expect from The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, other than some of the principals of Young Frankenstein to reunite. As it turns out, Smarter Brother is Frankenstein’s younger brother. For his first directorial outing, Wilder basically just mimics Brooks’s direction of Frankenstein. There are the constant fadeouts and the same scenic approach to humor.

Unfortunately, Smarter Brother is nowhere near as good.

The third act of the film is full of these lengthy sequences absent dialogue–there’s a lengthy opera performance, then a sword fight, even the last scene in the film relies on music over characters conversing. It’s good music (John Morris also composed the Young Frankenstein score), but it’s clearly masking the absence of content.

The film only runs ninety minutes and, during that final scene, I realized how much better it opened than it finished. The present action of the first third is one night, introducing Wilder as the titular character, Marty Feldman as his sidekick and Madeline Kahn as the love interest and damsel in distress. Once that first night is over, however, the film flounders. Wilder’s script still has some really funny moments, but he’s clearly churning out whatever he can to keep it moving.

Dom DeLuise shows up in the second half and is funny. Leo McKern is mediocre but likable as the villain. Wilder spends too much time on him. Roy Kinnear is mostly annoying as McKern’s stooge.

The idea alone should have made a better film.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Gene Wilder; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Jim Clark; music by John Morris; production designer, Terence Marsh; produced by Richard A. Roth; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Wilder (Sigerson Holmes), Madeline Kahn (Jenny Hill), Marty Feldman (Sgt. Orville Stanley Sacker), Dom DeLuise (Eduardo Gambetti), Leo McKern (Moriarty), Roy Kinnear (Moriarty’s Assistant) and John Le Mesurier (Lord Redcliff).


The Frisco Kid (1979, Robert Aldrich)

The Frisco Kid is a Western, but it doesn’t open like one. It opens more like a seventies Gene Wilder theme comedy (composer Frank De Vol starts out like it’s Young Frankenstein, but quickly gets bad… especially at the end). The film takes a little while to ground itself. Before Harrison Ford shows up, much of the film is Wilder making his way—a rabbi from Poland headed to San Francisco—across the United States. There are comic moments, comic dialogue, but it’s not really funny. When there’s humor, it’s not stupid—Michael Elias and Frank Shaw’s script, which has its bumps, is actually very thoughtful.

Obviously, Wilder being a rabbi in the Wild West is going to produce some comedic situations, but that religious aspect of the character is thoughtfully portrayed.

The problem is Aldrich, who apparently doesn’t know how to direct something like Frisco Kid. He doesn’t seem to get it’s not a spoof; he shoots it like a sitcom.

He also is a disaster with some of the actors. Ford, in particular, is weak. He’s likable, but his performance constantly sputters (much like his accent). Then there’s Val Bisoglio, who—along with Aldirch’s weak handling of it—turns a potentially sublime scene with American Indians into something good, but clearly failing.

The directorial failings don’t affect Wilder—he never plays the caricature he could. He’s superb.

It’s unfortunate Elias and Shaw never wrote another feature.

The film’s a moderate success, but some of its parts are amazing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Aldrich; written by Michael Elias and Frank Shaw; director of photography, Robert B. Hauser; edited by Jack Horger, Irving Rosenblum and Maury Winetrobe; music by Frank De Vol; production designer, Terence Marsh; produced by Mace Neufeld; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gene Wilder (Avram), Harrison Ford (Tommy), Ramon Bieri (Mr. Jones), Val Bisoglio (Chief Gray Cloud), George DiCenzo (Darryl Diggs), Leo Fuchs (Chief Rabbi), Penny Peyser (Rosalie), William Smith (Matt Diggs), Jack Somack (Samuel Bender) and Beege Barkette (Sarah Mindl).


Young Frankenstein (1974, Mel Brooks)

Young Frankenstein does not feel like a Mel Brooks film. It’s so startlingly well-directed, one could almost believe he didn’t direct it himself. Brooks, for the film, has this way of keeping the camera mostly stationary and letting his actors and the sets do all the work–one can’t forget Gerald Hirschfeld’s amazing cinematography either.

Brooks–and Wilder, who co-wrote and runs wild with the film in the lead–have a sizable accomplishment here.

Wilder’s performance–and Brooks puts him in these insanely tight close-ups with an unwavering shot–is unbelievably good. Probably his best performance. He does so well alone, but also so perfectly with everyone else (Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn). It’s almost unfortunate when Young Frankenstein has to get moving with its plot, because it means it’s going to end.

Kahn’s got some hilarious moments in an extrovert role, while Garr’s a lot quieter but just as good. Garr might give the best straight acting performance. Feldman’s got maybe the flashiest role; Brooks’s tight direction keeps him from taking over the film, making sure it’s him, Garr and Wilder.

As the Monster, Peter Boyle does a fine job. It’s an almost entirely physical performance, but his facial expressions–even exaggerated–are ideal. It’s impossible to think of anyone else in the role.

Same goes for Gene Hackman’s cameo. It’s incredibly small, but it’s one of Hackman’s most memorable performances.

Reiterating, the only thing wrong with Young Frankenstein is it eventually has to end.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Brooks; screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, based on their story and a novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Gerald Hirschfeld; edited by John C. Howard; music by John Morris; production designer, Dale Hennesy; produced by Michael Gruskoff; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Wilder (Dr. Frankenstein), Peter Boyle (The Monster), Marty Feldman (Igor), Cloris Leachman (Frau Blücher), Teri Garr (Inga), Madeline Kahn (Elizabeth), Gene Hackman (Blindman), Kenneth Mars (Inspector Kemp), Richard Haydn (Herr Falkstein), Liam Dunn (Mr. Hilltop) and Danny Goldman (Medical Student).


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