50 Years Ago: Gene Wilder Adds Mystery, Mischief to ‘Willy Wonka’
Willy Wonka, decked out in fanciful top hat, bow tie and purple suit, hobbles out of his chocolate factory with a cane — a once-mythical man now reduced to a mere mortal. Then he falls forward, crumbling like a discarded napkin before the hushed audience.
But it's a trick: The candy magnate rolls on the red carpet and leaps to his feet with a showman's zest — yet another crowd-pleasing moment for the marketing maestro.
That classic scene encapsulates the deceptive atmosphere of 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, director Mel Stuart's movie musical adaptation of the similarly titled Roald Dahl novel. Everything about the character, and the story he's dropped into, is more curious than it first seems.
The film follows Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), an aw-shucks preteen who delivers newspapers to help support his impoverished family. He resides in an anonymous town (actually set in Munich, Germany), sharing a home with his mother (Diana Sowle) and four bedridden grandparents, including the spunky Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson).
But Charlie dreams of something more, especially after the reclusive Wonka (Gene Wilder) announces what appears to be a publicity scheme: five "Golden Tickets" hidden in company's chocolate bars, granting the recipients a lifetime supply of sweets and, more crucially, a tour of the factory, a location subject to much public speculation and tucked away behind a locked gate.
Wonkamania spreads across the globe, and even Charlie, a clear realist, daydreams about his massively low chance of winning a ticket. (The endless encouragement from Grandpa Joe, a character many have come to revile, only intensifies that obsession.) But against the odds, our protagonist unwraps his key to a magical world — even as Wonka's biggest rival, "Slugworth," offers a cash bribe to steal one of Wonka's newly created Everlasting Gobstoppers.
After Wonka's public fanfare, Charlie enters the factory with his newly mobile Grandpa Joe, the other four ticket-holders (all children, all incredibly annoying for various reasons) and their parents. And Wonka's magical kingdom lives up to its reputation: chocolate rivers, gummy bears dangling off trees, fizzy drinks that'll lift you to the ceiling.
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It's also dangerous and surreal at the level of a bad acid trip: There are optical illusions and hellish, psychedelic boat rides ("There's no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going!" Wonka screams, against a video backdrop of crawling bugs and decapitated chickens). More crucially, the four bratty kids — the mega-glutton Augustus Gloop, grossly spoiled Veruca Salt, record gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde and TV addict Mike Teavee — are each eliminated from the tour, their character defects leading to questionable fates. (Hey, perishing via chocolate river wouldn't be a bad way to go!)
All of these sequences are cleverly constructed, using tactile props and subtly weird humor to anchor tonal shifts between saccharine and scary. (The songs themselves, outside of Wilder's charming lead turn on "Pure Imagination," haven't held up so well — the overly slick Hollywood orchestrations keep them embedded in an early '70s tomb. And that's before mentioning the Oompa Loompa scenes, which feel cheap and uncomfortable all these years later.)
But the whole picture orbits around Wilder's acting. His Wonka is a slippery, fascinating character — each glint of the eye sparking childlike mischief and a hint of mayhem. It's hard to grab onto the real Wonka at any point: Is he a benevolent, wisdom-sharing genius or an eccentric lunatic who enjoys watching children succumb to their own foibles?
At first, the movie seems to end on an anticlimax: Charlie and Grandpa Joe, the last visitors standing, angrily dismissed without their lifetime supply of chocolate ("You get nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!") for violating the microscopically small terms of their contract. (Their crime: guzzling some of the Fizzy Lifting Drinks.— and nearly dying in the process.) Grandpa Joe, ever the grouch, even floats the idea of handing over the Gobstopper to Slugworth out of spite.
But when Charlie relinquishes the coveted candy, Wonka's expression changes — as does the story. Turns out "Slugworth" is actually a Wonka employee, planted to test the children's respective morality. Charlie, the only good egg of the bunch, is picked to lead the factory upon Wonka's retirement — news that's revealed as Wonka, Charlie and Joe burst through the glass ceiling in a futuristic elevator (or "Wonkavator"). Even the kids, we're assured, will survive to annoy their equally idiotic parents another day.
Aww, it's a sweet ending after all! But wait ... during that scene, as the Wonkavator prepares to blast through the roof, the candy man makes an unsettling comment: "Hold on tight. I'm not exactly sure what's going to happen." Given Wonka's history of deception, he's probably just teasing them, albeit in a very disturbing style. But who's to say for sure?
The beauty of the character, and the wildness with which Wilder plays it, is in the mystery.