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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

June 29th, Atlanta's Piedmont Park

Once upon a time Quaker Oats decided to get into the movie business. It was a short-lived venture but out of it emerged a strange and unusual children's film. In it, five children win special tickets entitling them to a lifetime supply of candy and a personal tour of the mysterious Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory. Inside, scores of green-haired midget workers called Oompa-Loompas operate the bizarre machinery that creates "Everlasting Gobstoppers" and other Wonka treats. Kids that don't abide by the rules of this private tour, however, get more than they bargained for in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), a live-action fantasy reminiscent of a Grimm's fairy tale. The film is directed by Mel Stuart, stars Gene Wilder as the unpredictable title character, and is based on the popular children's book by Roald Dahl. At the time, Quaker Oats produced a line of branded chocolate bars (Willy Wonka's Super Skrunch Bar and others) to capitalize on the film's release but the candy sold poorly and was soon discontinued. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, on the other hand, has gone on to become a cult film whose audiences continue to grow with the passing years.

Roald Dahl, whose previous work as a screenwriter includes The Night Digger (1971), a psychological thriller about a spinster and her blind mother who shelter a serial killer from the police, also wrote the screenplay for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory which was based on his 1964 children's novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Besides the title change, other plot details didn't survive the translation from Dahl's book to the screen like the original concept of the Oompa-Loompas. In the book, they were pygmies from Africa who lived on a diet of caterpillars. (In response to charges of racism by various book critics, they were changed to little white-faced men with long flowing beards in the 1973 edition of the book). In the film, they are dwarf-like creatures with green faces and red hair who function as a Greek chorus, chanting the lyrics of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley (which received an Oscar nomination for Best Score.)

Probably the single most compelling aspect of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is Gene Wilder's enigmatic performance. In an interview with the actor quoted in Cult Movies 2 by Danny Peary, Wilder said, "We all grew up on movies with scenes where the actor is lying and you know he's lying, but he wants to make sure you know it's a lie, and so he overacts and all but winks at you, and everybody in the world except for the girl he's talking to knows he's lying. I want to do the opposite. To really lie, and fool the audience...I wanted people to wonder if Willy Wonka was telling the truth so that you wouldn't really know until the end of the picture what Willy's motivations were."

When the film was released, it received mixed notices that alternated from high praise - Roger Ebert called it "probably the best film of its sort since The Wizard of Oz [1939]" to total put-down; The New York Times proclaimed it to be "tedious and stagy with little sparkle and precious little humor." The main criticism though was reserved for the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley/Walter Scharf music score, which many found to be downright annoying. Ironically enough, that was the one category that succeeded in winning an Oscar nomination and "Candyman," the opening theme song, went on to become a top forty smash single as recorded by Sammy Davis, Jr. What many critics failed to realize though was how the Willy Wonka score was heavily influenced by the sounds of the psychedelic sixties. Only New Times, a Los Angeles publication, seemed to pick up on this, stating, "it's easy to project that the weirder, effects-and-synth-laden tunes powering the foam-spewing "Wonkamobile," "The Bubble Machine," "Wonkavision," and the Venus-bound "Wonkavator" are musical re-creations of hallucinogenic drug trips. Gene Wilder as Wonka even does a rap on "The Wondrous Boat Ride" that's equal parts Tim Leary, Ken Kesey, and Alan Watts. "There's no earthly way of knowing/Which direction we are going," Wilder chants when Charlie and the others enter a tunnel illuminated by explosions of color to rival the Joshua Light Show. "Is it raining? Is it snowing? Is a hurricane a-blowing?" These lyrics echo John Lennon's Watts-inspired "Rain," and the music is just as twisted. The tune and the bad trip end abruptly when everyone emerges from the dark and mysterious passageway into a vivid, candy-colored wonderland. Talk about your evoking your spiritual rebirth and the journey toward the white light."

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was certainly an unlikely film project for Mel Stuart who specialized in light comedies like If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969), starring Suzanne Pleshette, and I Love My Wife (1970) with Elliott Gould. He also directed the Oscar® nominated documentary covering President Kennedy's assassination, Four Days in November (1964), but Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the film for which Stuart will be remembered.

Producer: Stan Margulies, David L. Wolper
Director: Mel Stuart
Screenplay: Roald Dahl
Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson
Film Editing: David Saxon
Art Direction: Harper Goff
Music: Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse
Cast: Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka), Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe), Peter Ostrum (Charlie), Roy Kinnear (Mr. Salt), Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt), Aubrey Woods (Bill).
C-100m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

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