Upon hearing about the death of legendary comic actor Gene Wilder, my father approached me with a curious question: “Lee, who was Gene Wilder?” I had a think for a second because being asked such an obvious question threw me. Factoring in my father’s age I answered “The guy from ‘Blazing Saddles’.” He responded, “Yes, that’s right! Not ‘Charlie and the Bloody Chocolate Factory’!”
Well, sorry father but firstly, it’s ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’. Secondly, the role that defined Gene Wilder for any child that saw it, possibly for any child who will see it, was Willy Wonka.
He brought such depth and character to that role. He was earnest and wistful, creepy and sinister, acerbic and sarcastic. He was a charismatic enigma who mostly seemed bothered by having ten ignorant and avaricious strangers invade his sanctuary. Their departures from the group are no accident. He is having them forcibly removed one by one, like a white blood cell ejecting germs from the body.
The reason that the riverboat is Willy Wonka’s defining moment is because it’s his most honest. This is where he truly opens up about his intentions. The contest winners who won a Golden Ticket to gain entrance to his magical factory have already seen Augustus Gloop dispatched with a poetic irony. His riverboat poem is letting the rest of them know that it was no accident and a similar fate awaits all those who hearts are tainted with greed.
After a boat pulls up alongside them, afloat in the luxuriant chocolate river and awash with splendorous turn-of-the-century aplomb, all fears that the Gloop boy was being churned into a gooey, chocolaty mess seemed to float away. The remaining participants are entranced by the innocent and wholesome looking transportation. They immediately hop aboard to have all their remaining troubles ebbed away by the current.
But as soon as the paranoid Mr Beauregarde exclaims his anxiety about entering a claustrophobic and pitch black tunnel the tone of the scene changes tremendously. Immediately, the pleasantly dreamlike score is kicked aside by an ominous brass section resonating danger and doom. ‘Round the world and home again. That’s the sailor’s way,’ exclaims Wonka. Flashing lights of red, green and blue bathe the tunnel in a psychedelic glow as Wonka insists the boat go faster and faster down a tunnel it is now impossible to see ahead in.
The imagery is upsetting and mind-bending, the lights are dizzying, the music quickens your heartrate and Wonka himself is terrifying. The iconic poem that he recites here is written with such skill as to be familiar, yet is an entirely original composition. You second guess yourself trying to figure out where you’ve heard it before and your lack of answers makes you doubt your own mind.
The lyrics pose further questions. They are being asked by the man in charge and by his own admission he is losing control of the situation. His voice breaks in mock terror and he begins screaming and yelling the prose in a panicked, despairing howl.
And in an instant the lights come on, the boat has stopped and has reached its destination safe and sound. Wonka was in control all along. The depth of that scene, its genius, lies in how Wonka used it to test his guests. Before the lights went out the Salts were only interested in the opulence of the boat, Teevee was feeling seasick and all Beauregarde wanted to do was talk business. Only Charlie and his grandpa had the sense of adventure to appreciate it for what it is supposed to be. All of these feelings are exemplified in the tunnel. He’s observing them. Testing them all. Seeing who is worthy of running his factory when he is gone. It’s a fantastic addition to the controlling, fiendishly intelligent character. Just one of the many layers to add to one of the films of the decade and one of the most iconic roles of all time.
Willy Wonka and the chocolate Factory was released as part of Warner Brothers’ Iconic Moments Collection on September 5th.