RIP Gene Wilder: How the iconic writer-actor transformed American film comedy
The news of Gene Wilder’s death is sure to bring back myriad memories of the funny man for those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. For the millennials, on the other hand, looking at the countless Wilder obituaries the one question that would pop up in their minds would be — who is this strange-looking man pretending to be Johnny Depp by prancing around as Willy Wonka circa 1970? Today would be as good a day as any for the young and old alike to relive Gene Wilder, one of the few writer-actors who transformed American film comedy.
Best known for his trilogy, The Producers (1968), Blazing Saddles (1972) and Young Frankenstein (1974) with Mel Brooks (another trailblazer when it came to cinematic comedy), Gene Wilder was nothing less than a genius. Unlike other greats like Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Jerry Lewis, Wilder’s brilliance didn’t lie in his writing or his execution but in his capacity to understand comedy. Some of Wilder’s greatest works have been collaborations and in that too, Wilder knew that even a dash of something could transform the entire dish.
Every comedian relies on a limited number of tricks — like a quirky walk, a deadpan glance, a half-smile or a wry beam to get the viewer to look at them. Once the viewer is invested, the comic then displays the one thing that separates them from everyone else but in Wilder’s case, he truly didn’t need anything to get the viewer hooked on. Perhaps this is the reason why he recognised the importance of sharing the stage.
In Young Frankenstein, a film that he co-wrote with Brooks and directed as well, Wilder builds the iconic ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ dance where Wilder’s Frankenstein does all the hard work — dancing, singing, the grinning and what have you but right at the moment of the payoff he makes the Monster (Peter Boyle) mouth the nearly dim ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ line, which gets the most laughs. As a writer, Wilder knew that everyone was expecting him to sign off but letting Boyle deliver the punch line made it a masterstroke.
Wilder first came into the limelight with Mel Brooks’ The Producers but it was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1972) that made him a well-known name. Unlike the 2005 Depp version, Wilder’s adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl book kept the focus on the children. In fact, Wilder was even missing through the initial third of the film and even when he appears, he is the antagonist and not given any ‘hero’ like treatment even though the title of the film was changed to include his character’s name. Wilder then collaborated with Woody Allen on Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex... (1972) where he played an empathetic Chaplin-esque character of a doctor who gets attracted to a sheep. The one that followed rewrote many rules and became a touchstone of sorts where Wilder and his generation of funnymen changed American comedy.
On the face of it Blazing Saddles (1974) was exactly like Vincent Canby’s original New York Times review defined it – “every Western you've ever seen turned upside down and inside out”, but scratch a little deeper and you’d see how it smashed stereotypical tenets. Here you had a state Attorney General Lamarr (Harvey Korman) in 1874 trying to scare off an entire town for grabbing their land by appointing a black sheriff Black Bart (Cleavon Little) hoping that this would make them run away. But Bart teams up with gunslinger Jim (Gene Wilder) and the two win over the “unrepentantly racist town”.
Blazing Saddles took the concept of the interracial buddy films as seen in The Defiant Ones (1958) —“two men, one bigoted white and one proud black, are thrown together by circumstances and forced to work together for a common goal” and turned it around with a liberal dose of reality. This template was seen again in In the Heat of the Night (1967) or even Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967) but here you had director Mel Brooks kicking subtlety out and putting in every ethnic and racial stereotype Hollywood could ever imagine. Along with Richard Pryor, who was one of the co-writers, Brooks put in Mexican bandidos, Chinese laborers, Jewish Native Americans and Arabs riding camels and instead of long speeches, the screenplay simply satirised racism.
Wilder is also the biggest contributor in making Richard Pryor a Hollywood star. Following Brooks, Wilder’s second greatest collaboration was with Pryor, whom he pushed into the spotlight in their first film together Silver Streak (1976). Wilder used his box-office clout to allow new comedians such as Pryor to be featured prominently and whenever they worked together — Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), and Another You (1991) – he simply let Pryor be Pryor.
Like many from his generation of writer-filmmakers Charles Chaplin also inspired Wilder. Wilder cited City Lights (1931) and its ability to be “funny, then sad, then both at the same time” as a great inspiration. Could it have also blessed him with an ability to infuse the funniest things with a trace of anguish? Wilder’s sardonic humor hid the ironies of life and the best example of this can be seen in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), a film that he wrote, directed and played the part eponymous hero, Sigerson —
Orville: Do you have a brother whose first name is Sherlock?
Sigerson Holmes: I do not.
Orville: You do have a brother?
Sigerson Holmes: I do.
Orville: Might I inquire as to his first name?
Sigerson Holmes: "Sheer luck."
Gene Wilder has been called the Mad Hatter of American comedy and even though the contribution of a Buster Keaton, a Charles Chaplin, an Abbott and Costello or even a Jerry Lewis appears to be more celebrated, and their debt practically inescapable, the impact that Wilder and his pals had can’t be undermined. Most of the stuff that Gene Wilder did wouldn’t be possible today for a host of reasons, primary amongst them our collective stupidity to ignore the obvious inconvenient truths for comforting lies. And, till the time we remember how to laugh and learn something it’s best to relive the Gene Wilders for there won’t be more like ‘em.