Remembering the Films of Gene Wilder

VARIOUS - 1979

Silver Streak

Arthur Hiller’s 1976 film — the first and best on-screen pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor — is half madcap road comedy, half Hitchcockian thriller. Wilder plays George Caldwell, unsuspecting book editor looking for rest and relaxation turned unwilling action hero, with a disarmingly wounded charm. Caldwell’s initial scenes with fellow train traveler Hilly (Jill Clayburgh) aren’t laugh-out-loud funny, but they’re mesmerizing in how much chemistry is on display. Later, the joy of the film becomes watching Wilder roll with a series of progressively more insane plot-required dangers (including Bond movie muscle Richard Kiel, an armed shootout aboard a moving train and a collision course with Chicago’s Union Station).

The moment Silver Streak goes from merely good to capital letter Great is when Caldwell, now on the run with Pryor’s quick-witted thief Grover T. Muldoon, finally embraces the insanity of the movie he’s trapped in. In a scene that few comedies would attempt let alone actually pull off, Wilder disguises himself as a crude caricature of a black man in order to evade the cops after him. There are a couple of crucial factors that make this sequence hysterical even in the here and now of 2016: Pryor’s participation in the gag helps (“ARE YOU KIDDING? LOOK AT THAT. AL JOLSON MADE A MILLION BUCKS LOOKING LIKE THAT!”) but more than anything it’s how wonderfully, transcendentally fucking stupid Wilder looks as he dances through security. Wilder psyching himself up to go out of the men’s room and 100% commit to the most moronic plan possible is hilarious. Pryor’s bug-eyed amazement at the hot nonsense he’s watching stroll towards the cops, the perfect bit of “can you believe this shit” punctuation, takes it home.

There’s plenty of funny actors and there’re lots of charming movie stars, but none of them could sell a dumb joke like Gene Wilder.

– Max Robinson

Blazing Saddles

There’s a scene right around the middle of Blazing Saddles, where Cleavon Little’s character, Sheriff Bart, has just stepped out of his office to meet the people of Rock Ridge. He doffs his hat and says good morning to an elderly woman, who responds with a curt, “Up yours, n—-r!”

A stunned Bart retreats to his office where Jim, “The Waco Kid” (Gene Wilder), consoles him with the following:

Now, I don’t know much about the history of the filming of Blazing Saddles, let alone what this specific scene was like to film, but I’m willing to bet that’s a genuine crack-up on Little’s part. He’s a little too quick to try to stifle it, and the smile is so warm and unrehearsed. And, if it is real, it’s all on Wilder’s delivery: slow, quiet, and deliberate, with Pinter pauses that make the punchline land with an almost audible THUNK.

Wilder’s tired gunslinger might actually be one of the quietest roles in his career. Leo Bloom, Victor Frankenstein, even Willy Wonka all hinge upon Wilder’s ability to reach unprecedented heights of neuroticism, but The Waco Kid is different. Wilder turns what could have been a boisterous outlaw into a soft-spoken and eloquent thinker of a cowboy. His deliveries are methodical and drawn out, building a tension that his jokes cut through like a hot knife through butter. Jim’s monologue about why he hung up his guns all comes down to that sforzando “…little bastard shot me in the ass!” He knew when to be delicate and when to cut loose better than any other comedic actor, but his ability to play humanity within that spectrum was what made him legendary.

– Adam Pelta-Pauls

Young Frankenstein

If I was asked for one perfect moment of Gene Wilder caught on film, the one all-encompassing display of the comedic virtuoso’s wide-ranging talents, the instance that could define him as a performer, I would point to:

To paraphrase Mel Brooks, Young Frankenstein was the movie he and Gene Wilder wanted to keep making forever. And it’s easy to see why, with scenes like these. Wilder went on to write and even direct other films over the course of his career, but none achieved to the same level, either critically or commercially, as his first. He and Brooks shared co-writing credit and the eventual Oscar nomination; they also managed to succinctly capture the true essence of Wilder’s particular brand of comic genius. 

The moment above stems from the young doctor’s first attempt to reach out to the monster he’s created. He gathers around his assistants and loved ones, and explains no matter what happens that he mustn’t be let out of this room. He does so with a self-assured graveness in his voice. He may die, but it’ll be in service of everything he’s worked for and wanted. He goes into the room, the monster growls, and Wilder flashes those expressive eyes. He’s terrified and immediately retreats to the door, begging and pleading.

On paper, the scene is Comedy 101. Character says one thing, character immediately does the opposite. Setup, punch. Wilder singularly elevates this bit into comedy nirvana. How? By making us believe him. He doesn’t play the somber beat to the cheap seats. He’s intimate with his colleagues and keeps their talk firmly grounded. Then, when the switch gets flipped, his terror feels even bigger. It’s easy to remember the fear in Wilder’s eyes, but in rewatching the scene, I was surprised by his genuine anger. He starts by frantically demanding to be let out, and when he’s not? “DON’T YOU KNOW A JOKE WHEN YOU HEAR ONE?! HAHAHA! JESUS CHRIST GET ME OUT OF HERE! OPEN THIS GODDAMN DOOR. I’LL KICK YOUR ROTTEN HEADS IN!”

The easy choice is crying and whimpering, big and showy, but would that be authentic? Anger is what he feels in the moment. Raw emotion is what set Wilder apart from every other comedic actor. He found the true feeling in something and unabashedly followed wherever it took him. That made him vulnerable, undeniable and original. 

– Tyler Austin

The Producers

I didn’t grow up with Willy Wonka, but like any Good Jewish Boy, my parents introduced me to a steady stream of Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. I don’t remember if The Producers was the first Mel Brooks movie I saw – I suspect not – but it’s one that’s always stuck with me, and one more people should revisit.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick have largely filled the roles Bialystock and Bloom in the collective consciousness, but without the brilliance of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, we wouldn’t have had a hit Broadway show, a movie adaptation of said show, and a Curb Your Enthusiasm season based around trying to get the Broadway show cancelled – a season that featured a cameo from, who else, Gene Wilder.

The Producers still stands as one of the less zany Mel Brooks entries, but it holds ups better than half his work. It marked Wilder’s first starring role and the beginning of his many collaborations with Brooks. Even early on, it displayed all of the otherwise contradictory characteristics that he managed to seamlessly portray. Bloom, and by extension Wilder, is a straight man who  goes wacky. He’s a grounding influence who is also a nervous wreck. He’s intelligent yet foolish. He’s soft spoken yet loud. He has big dreams but no gumption on his own.

While none of his lines from this movie are as quotable as from, say, Young Frankenstein, “MY BLUE BLANKET” and “I’M HYSTERICAL” and “FAT! FAT!” deserve a mention in the pantheon of Great Gene Wilder Exclamations. 

What’s often forgotten about this role is that Wilder got an Academy Award nomination out of it. He lost to Jack Albertson (who later played Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka, because life moves pretty fast) from the movie The Subject Was Roses, which you probably didn’t know existed until right now. Though it’s not tangible, staying in the public imagination so long is more valuable than any award.

– David Lebovitz 

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

“We are the music-makers, and the dreamers of dreams”

It’s tough to not think of Gene Wilder as his iconic portrayal of the dangerous yet enticing candy-maker Willy Wonka from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The movie defines much of the genre of the era as a fanciful musical but also contains several other genres, including fantasy, science fiction, and even elements of psychedelic/body horror.

What’s interesting is that Wonka, who is named in the title, doesn’t even appear until about an hour into the film. His introduction, consisting of Wonka faking a limp before keeling over into a tumble roll, is among cinema’s most classic scenes for establishing a character’s entire deal without any dialogue. Wilder himself pitched this scene upon taking the role. Whereas most portrayals of Wonka enforce his weird quirkiness, Wilder’s take remains definitive because he portrays the reclusive dreamer as remarkably human. Wilder’s Wonka is an unhinged genius, teetering on the precipice of dry wit and unbridled rage.

Throughout the film, we see Wonka’s sarcastic waving away of the other children’s horrible disfigurements or accidents whilst blaming it on their parents. However, the most horrifying scene in the film to me is the “You lose! Good day, sir!” scene where Wonka turns on child protagonist Charlie Bucket and his grandfather with a rage that stings as much as my own father’s disappointment. It’s revealed to be an act, but in that scene Wonka is a lonely, angry man who is just like us. Wilder even seeds this earlier in his haunting song “Pure Imagination,” which conveys a sense of wonder at the world without having anyone to share it with. To me, Wilder’s Wonka was never condescending in the slightest, merely an immortal man dealing with his own mortality. In light of the circumstances of his passing, perhaps Wilder and Wonka were more alike than we thought.

– Andrew Niemann  

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