Friday, May 13, 2011

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (David L. Wolper Productions, Quaker Oats Company, Warner Bros., 1971)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had run a DVD that I’d been interested in since we watched the 2005 film of Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: the original 1971 version of the same story, renamed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The copyright on the film co-credits it to David L. Wolper Productions — an especially odd credit because Wolper was best known as a documentarian and a maker of true-life dramas (his best known credit was the TV miniseries Roots!) — and the Quaker Oats Company, which had acquired the rights to the name “Wonka” and thought the movie would promote their candy. (Unfortunately, they made a mistake in the chocolate formula and the bars melted too easily, even when they were just sitting on store shelves. Eventually Quaker Oats sold the Wonka name to another company, and due to subsequent mergers and acquisitions it ended up part of Nestlé.)

My whole family had read the book in the 1960’s and loved it so much I don’t think any movie would have satisfied us; I remember seeing the film when it was (relatively) new and thinking that Gene Wilder was horrendously miscast as Wonka — the book’s Wonka was a figure of irrepressible merriment and fun, and Wilder sounded its depths to find the darker side of the candymaker. (After I’d seen this film I watched the 1934 Eddie Cantor musical Kid Millions and during its final Technicolor sequence depicting the super-ice cream factory Cantor’s character built with his inherited wealth in order to make the children of his old neighborhood happy, I remember thinking, “That is what the movie of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory should have looked like.”) Later, in the 1980’s, I looked back on this movie and wished they had waited until Robin Williams would have been available to play Wonka — and it still seems to me that the Williams of that period would have been the perfect casting for the role — but this time around Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory seems a lot better than it did in the early 1970’s, when I was comparing it to the “dream” movie in my head when I read the book.

Now that there’s a remake to compare it to, the inevitable comparison seems to be a toss-up; Wilder and Johnny Depp were both odd castings for Wonka, the 2005 Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) is more convincing as a ragamuffin than the 1971 model (Peter Ostrum, who incidentally grew up to be a veterinarian and never acted again) and Tim Burton and writer John August score points over their 1971 counterparts, director Mel Stuart and writer David Seltzer (Roald Dahl wrote a screenplay for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and actually got sole credit on screen, but according to he was so incensed at the uncredited rewrite Seltzer gave his material that he disowned the movie and turned it off in disgust whenever it popped up on a TV he was watching), in using Dahl’s actual lyrics for the Oompa-Loompas’ songs — but the earlier version gains in being grounded in the reality of 1971: instead of Burton’s relentlessly Gothic look for the film (one wonders what would have happened if Burton had got the scripts for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd mixed up and left us to wonder what was really in that chocolate!), Charlie and his four bedridden grandparents actually seem to live in a recognizable world similar to our own.

Though Dahl may have disliked the film, the 1971 version seems to retain more of his satire — especially of the world of television and the media — and despite the revolution in special effects from the development of computer-generated imagery, the effects in the 1971 version are quite credible and dramatically appropriate: both versions use effects to tell a compelling story instead of using the story as an excuse to produce the effects the way most “effects” movies do today. And the 1971 version has a major advantage in the presence of a “name” actor, Jack Albertson, as Grandpa Joe, who comes close to stealing the entire movie: the scenes in which he starts getting his sea legs back as he ventures out of bed for the first time in decades (though if the elder Buckets never got out of bed, how did they use the bathroom? Did Charlie’s long-suffering mother have to empty their bedpans when she wasn’t making cabbage soup?) and in which he’s alternately the voice of reason when he and Charlie are in the chocolate factory and the voice of unreason (he’s willing to encourage Charlie to sell out Wonka when it looks like Wonka has deceived him, but Charlie is a good little boy and doesn’t) are among the most moving in the film and showcase how much an old professional can add even to a wild story like this.

One “down” aspect of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the rather silly score — this counts as a musical, and the songs are by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, who could write quite good ballads (notably “Feeling Good,” beautifully recorded by Carmen McRae, Nina Simone — despite a dreadful Hal Mooney arrangement — and John Coltrane) but the assignment for a movie aimed mainly at families brought out the silliest sides of their art. One of the songs, “The Candyman” — sung in the movie by a white candy-store owner extolling the virtues of Wonka’s products — became a hit for Sammy Davis, Jr. (who had wanted to play the part in the film but was turned down by the producers: a real pity, because he would have livened up the scene considerably), while Wilder himself gets an underrated song, potentially worth reviving, called “Pure Imagination,” but the rest of the songs are pretty lame — especially the recurring one sung by the Oompa-Loompas (who are way too cartoonish in appearance — this is one aspect of the movie where the fact that digital effects hadn’t been invented yet really does hurt it), which would be bad enough in themselves and sound even worse compared to Danny Elfman’s settings of Dahl’s original lyrics in the remake. Also, the filmmakers made a mistake by not showing the scene with the other four Golden Ticket holders after they were rescued from their ordeals — the fates and comeuppances of these brats are among the most entertaining parts of the original novel and the Burton film.

Still, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a fun movie, and on balance I’d say the comparison between the two versions comes out about even: this one does some things right that are, shall we say, more dubious in the remake (notably the way Burton and his writer way overdid the Dickensian sufferings of the Buckets pre-Golden Ticket), even though some of the aspects of the story Burton did beautifully (especially with the aid of digital effects) don’t come off as well here. Let’s just be grateful that we have both films — and we can still read the book!