On August 9th of this year in Los Angeles, director Mel Stuart, who helmed the beloved 1971 children’s classic “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” passed away from melanoma at the age of 83. The Emmy award winner worked mostly on documentaries, which included two pieces on America’s 35th President, John F. Kennedy. His first Emmy win came for his work which was based on the best selling book “The Making of the President, 1960” by Theodore H. White, which chronicled Kennedy’s ascension to the presidency. He also worked on “Four Days in November” (1964) which dealt with the Kennedy assassination; the film was nominated for an Oscar. Stuart’s decision to direct “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” the subject of this week’s blog, was a direct result of his daughter Madeline’s love for the book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl; she even got to make a cameo appearance in the film. He is survived by his daughter, two sons, Andrew and Peter, as well as two grandchildren.
The one hundred minute, family, fantasy, musical debuted on June 30, 1971. The film, which was made for an estimated budget of three million dollars, was written for the screen by Roald Dahl and David Seltzer, (Cinema Verite) who was uncredited for his work. Enigmatic chocolate confectioner, Willy Wonka, played by Gene Wilder, (The Frisco Kid) is offering the chance of a lifetime to five lucky winners who find golden tickets inside of Wonka candy bars that have been distributed throughout the world. The winners will receive a trip through his factory, as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate – music to most adolescents’ ears. The children may bring one adult guardian with them. The protagonist of the story, Charlie Bucket, (Peter Ostrum) is the final winner. He lives in squalor with his mother (Diane Sowle) and his four grandparents. Charlie brings with him to the factory his grandfather Joe portrayed by Academy Award winner, Jack Albertson, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for “The Subject Was Roses” (1968).
Compared to the other children, Charlie is the one, in this blogger’s opinion, who most viewers will immediately want to cheer on to victory. Each one of the other four children is introduced to the viewer in vignettes which are intercut with other scenes during the first thirty-five minutes of the film. The viewer gets to learn about each of the other four winners unsavory personality traits. There is: the wealthy, spoiled brat, Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole); the gluttonous, Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner); television addicted Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen); and the ill mannered, gum chewing obsessed, Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson). Charlie, on the other hand, is shown to be a well behaved, caring child. Adding intrigue to the plot is a proposition put forth to each of the winners by Wonka’s chief rival in the candy business, Mr. Slugworth (Gunter Meisner). He approaches each of the children and whispers in their ears about the money he is willing to pay them if they can acquire for him one Everlasting Gobstopper; a piece of candy Wonka is working on, that, if he succeeds, will put Slugworth out of business. When Charlie wins the final golden ticket, the viewer gets to learn what Slugworth has been talking to the other children about.
Wilder’s character of Willy Wonka is a man with many different facets to his personality. He can be calm and suave one moment and in the next be disturbing and unpredictable. Regardless of what mood strikes him, the purple waist coat, top hat wearing, literary quoting Wonka guides the lucky winners on a tour of his chocolate factory. It is a place that comes to life as a dazzling fantasyland…a factory unlike any other in the world, where dreams can come true, but there can also be consequences for those who don’t heed the lessons being imparted by the orange faced, green haired, diminutive Oompa Loompas, who work for Wonka.
Trivia Buffs take note: Director Mel Stuart is first cousins with comic book icon Stan Lee who created The X–Men and Iron Man, as well as numerous other beloved superhero characters. Peter Ostrum opted for a career as a veterinarian instead of an actor and, as of this date, has never appeared in another film. For that matter, with the exception of Julie Dawn Cole, all of the child actors who played golden ticket winners are no longer performing. Actor Joel Grey (Cabaret) was the first choice to play Willy Wonka, but it was felt that he didn’t have enough of an imposing physical presence to be believable in the role. All of the musical numbers were original songs written for the film by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, except for the song Wonka sings on the boat ride – that song was taken specifically from Dahl’s book. The movie was shot in Munich, Germany, and the exterior of the chocolate factory that is shown in the movie was the Munich’s gas works. The musical code that is actually played in order to open the lock for entry into the chocolate room is Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” however, Michael’s mother, Mrs. Teevee, says that it is Rachmaninoff.
Further analysis and description of the film would be unfair for those of you who have not yet seen this gem from countless people’s childhoods. In closing, I can add that this is a film that the entire family can enjoy, especially parents with pre-teenage children. There are no sexual situations, no swearing, nor is there any violence. Another aspect of the movie that parents can appreciate is that the film does not patronize, nor does it talk down to children. The film can, among other on-line providers and stores, be both purchased and rented on Amazon.com, and it is available on Netflix.
If you have children and are looking for something for the next family movie night, sit back, relax, and put on “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” You might want to cover the little ones eyes when it comes time for the psychedelic boat ride on the chocolate river, but other than that, everything else with the movie should be smooth sailing.