I know there are a lot of us out here who are pretty fed up with 2016 when in comes to the death of celebrities we care about. From sports to music to politics, well known figures from our lives have moved on. Of course as a film fan, we are especially vulnerable because actors we loved as kids are now in that stage of life that call them to the next venue. In no way is this tribute a diminishment of anyone else who has left us this year, but it is a unique opportunity to pay tribute to at least one individual that was significant in my movie going life.
In the 1970s, Gene Wilder was one of my comedy favorites. I first saw “Blazing Saddles” with a group of friends from my High School Jr. Optimist Club. We went far from my hometown in Alhambra, to either Brentwood or Bel Air to pick up one of our group members Ron Rosenberg. It was the only time I remember going to a film with this set of friends, but I know that my Two Best Friends, Art Franz and Dan Hasegawa both went as well. Since we were in Ron’s neck of the woods, we saw the movie on the Westside of L.A.. It wasn’t in Westwood, I think it might have been in Encino. We were all about 16 at the time, so the campfire scene was a major point of amusement for us.
Wilder’s drunken fast gun “Jim” (The Waco Kid) was a take-off on several movie tropes from 50s westerns. I know I’d seen the Gregory Peck film “The Gunfighter” and I recognized the variation of the story about the kid with the gun from that. This movie was subversive in so many ways but mostly it was just funny. A theater full of people laughing hard is one of the great joys in life. You would frequently miss jokes in the film because the laughter had not died down enough from the previous joke for you to hear the next one.
Jim: [consoling Bart] What did you expect? “Welcome, sonny”? “Make yourself at home”? “Marry my daughter”? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.
As a side note, we lost actor David Huddleston just a month ago as well. Those of you who are not familiar, he played the Mayor of Rock Ridge, Olson Johnson.
The screenplay had input from several writers including the great Richard Pryor, which may help explain some of the incendiary use of racial epithets being funny instead of offensive. The list of people and types that get skewered in this film is long and wide. In today’s culture of political correctness and social media, the film would be pilloried and Brooks and Company would be tarred and feathered, at least virtually. The movie is an equal opportunity offender. Nowadays, if a special interest group sees one piece of clothing, hears one suspect term or is portrayed in any light less than flattering, there is a hue and cry across the land. This movie would create an earthquake if it were new today. As important as Wilder was to the film, it is interesting that he got the part as a fluke. The Waco Kid was originally to be played by Gig Young. He left because of health reasons (alcohol abuse being the main issue) and Wilder stepped in after they had already started filming. I have a hard time seeing Young pull off the bit where the Kid and Bart are in Klan Hoods and the Kid starts wiping off Bart’s hand and then turns it palm up saying, “See, it’s coming off”.
Wilder is a significant part of “Blazing Saddles” but he is the star and clear focus of the charming “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” . This morality tale is told from a sour disposition but at the center is a sweet piece of acting by the late Mr. Wilder. This is a movie that I have shared with my kids from the moment they could sit up in a seat and watch something on television. There are some harsh aspects to the story, but it all comes out well and everyone learns a lesson.
There are dozens of asides that Wilder makes as the parents try to engage Wonka in conversation, and he allows the kids to have just enough rope to hang themselves. We have a conflicting message at one point because Charlie breaks the rules as well as the other kids and seems to get away with it. When Wonka flies into his tirade at the end, we are heart broken even though we should have learned that Charlie was in fact wrong. Instead of reacting as an vindictive adult, like his Grandfather wants to do, Charlie is contrite and apologizes in the best way possible. This gives us the joyful moment when Wonka is redeemed for us and himself. That one act allows Wilder to put back on the mantle of gleeful trickster and make us love him again. That is a perfect Gene Wilder Moment.
The theaters this afternoon were not sold out but they were fairly packed, and they were in fairly large houses and as we left, there were two screens playing both films and there were line ups for the 7:30 and 8:00 shows. It is wonderful that people came out for the two films, it’s just unfortunate that the reason why was to say good-bye to a gifted performer.