Monday, August 2, 2010

Willy Wonka: Pure Deliciousness with a Dash of Scary

Hello, everyone!  Sorry for not posting anything last week, but everyone needs a break now and then.  I hope you weren't too lost without me.  ;-)  Anyway, I'm back now, and ready to talk about another great favorite of mine, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971).

I'm pretty sure every kid in the world knows this story.  Based on the book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl, it tells the story of five lucky children, mainly poor Charlie Bucket, and their extraordinary adventures in the candy factory of the odd, secretive Willy Wonka.  The great Gene Wilder plays the title character in one of his best performances ever (definitely my favorite).  He managed to give Wonka, a character who is basically just plain scary and mean at times, a constant lovable undertone.  I never felt he would harm long as I was good.  Or maybe I just really liked his creepy, kooky mind.

This is one of those films were everything seemed to fall into place at just the right time to make it.  Director Mel Stuart started working on making the book into a film after his young daughter came up to him one day.  She had just finished reading "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and told him he should make a movie out of it, and "Uncle Dave should put up the money" (aka producer David L. Wolper).  Wolper, at the time, was actually in talks with the Quaker Oats Company about producing a vehicle to introduce their new candy-making venture.  They all agreed that the book was the perfect story, but the company wanted the name of the chocolate bar in the title.  So they agreed to change the name for the film to "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and Quaker Oats would make Wonka bars.

Everyone thought this was great...except for writer Roald Dahl.  He was hired to write the screenplay for the film but after his first draft, Stuart and Wolper hired first-time screenwriter David Seltzer to do some rewrites to brighten it up, etc.  This included adding candy-making competitor Slugworth as a spy and having Wonka quote everyone from Shakespeare to Wilde to Keats.  All this did not make Dahl happy at all.  He also was upset about not having his first choice to play Wonka cast, Spike Milligan.  This all led to Dahl being so dissatisfied that he refused permission for a sequel based on the next book in the series "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator."

Wilder was cast after a long list of contenders was eliminated, including Milligan, Ron Moody, and Joel Grey.  However, when Wilder went to New York to audition, he was hired on the spot.  Stuart knew he was Wonka as soon as he walked through the door.  As for the children, the production searched all over New York, London and Germany.  At the auditions, the kids had to read from the book, for the script was not written yet.  A few of the children had acted before, like Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt), Paris Themmen (Mike Teavee), and Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde).  But for Peter Ostrum playing the lead kid Charlie, it was his first acting job...and what turned out to be his last.  He had a great time filming, but he decided not to act again and is now a happy veterinarian.  Cole is actually the only one of the bunch still acting today.

Filming of "Willy Wonka" took place mainly in Munich, Germany (West Germany, at the time).  The cast and crew spent three months there, starting exactly 40 years ago this month.  Many of the songs were the first to be shot, for some of them were written before the script was.  I have two favorite numbers, "Pure Imagination" and "I Want It Now."  "Pure Imagination" is the song Wonka sings when they first enter the main room of the factory.  The reactions of the children in those shots are actually real, for it was the first time any of them had seen the set.  It was all created by the amazing art designer Harper Goff.  No CGI to make that place.  It really was as wonderful as it looked.  As for my other favorite number, Veruca's "I Want It Now," Cole filmed that entire sequence on her 13th birthday.  She had to do up to 30 takes of the entire thing.  (They always did cause Stuart was a perfectionist.)  The main thing she remembers to this day is how she did her final stunt.  She had to make sure she stood right in the center of the platform, and she had to have her arms glued to her side - no moving them out or they'd be knocked off.  Imagine having a child do that stunt now in today's Hollywood?!

"Willy Wonka" is one of those films that is so ingrained in my head that the smallest word can make me unconsciously start quoting movie dialogue.  I have a lot of these movies and television shows.  And the quotes are always small and simple, like "tricky, tricky, tricky" or "messy, messy, messy."  Some have that strange pull, like "almost there."  They have to be completed, or the world just feels wrong ("stay on target").  And then there are the ones that just make me burst into song, like "secret tunnel" and "doom."  As for "Willy Wonka," it's simply the line "button, button, who's got the button."  It's strange and random and I love it.  Luckily, all my friends have the same condition so we all get along wonderfully.  (By the way, just click on the above quotes if you don't recognize them.)

"Willy Wonka" was actually not much of a success when it was released.  It made money (for the budget was only $2-3 million), but the marketing plan didn't work out as well as everyone thought.  The Quaker Oats Company released the Wonka bar, but something was wrong with the formula, so all the chocolate started melting on the candy store shelves.  So, Quaker Oats quickly pulled all the bars from the stores.  It is mainly because of television airings and VCRs that "Wonka" is such a cult favorite today.

So, I recommend bringing out the childhood memories this week and watching "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."  You can rent it or watch it instantly on Netflix.  Also, for the LA crowd, "Wonka" is playing at the Hollywood cemetery August 21st (hmm...the day before my birthday...what wonderful kismet).  Until Friday, everyone.  Have a wonderful week!

(Post-tidbit:  Originally the producers wanted Jean Stapleton to play Mike Teavee's mother, but she decided not to do the film and accepted a television pilot instead.  That pilot was "All in the Family.")

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