Tag Archives: 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).


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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).


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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).


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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).


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