With the passing of comedy legend Gene Wilder, we here at Fandom are taking a look at our favorite films from one of cinema’s masters of mirth. From classics to deep cuts, here are our favorite performances from a man Mel Brooks called, “One of the truly great talents of our time.”
The Producers (1967)
You look at a man like Gene Wilder and you think, “How can somebody be so brilliant? Where does it come from? How does he do it?” Mel Brooks knew. He knew better than any of us. The three greatest films Mel Brooks ever made starred Gene Wilder, and it all started with The Producers.
Take a simple story of a con man trying to eke out a measly living by selling himself to little old ladies before he gets audited for fraud. The opening scene of The Producers is hilarious, but it’s not until Max Bialystock finds Leo Bloom hiding in the hallway does the comedy begin to soar.
Gene Wilder’s work in The Producers is transcendent. His on-screen portrayal of a meek soul blossoming into confidence and strength is one of the best character arcs ever written. When I think back on the great man that was Gene Wilder, I’ll always remember Leo Bloom. He was the best. [Andrew Hawkins]
Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)
Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin in the Bronx is one of biggest Gene Wilder deep cuts. Quackser is constantly pressured by his family to abandon his horse manure filled cart and get a foundry job. When a new girl arrives from America, she wows Quackser’s with tales of a better life. Realizing that he can succeed by following his dreams, Quackser has a new outlook on life. Then, Ireland bans all horse drawn wagons/carriages in favor of the rise of the automobile. Shortly thereafter, the happy-go-lucky Quacker has his world collapse.
His new American girlfriend regrets sleeping with him and blows him off. When Quackser tries to find legitimate work, his lack of education narrows his options. The rather illiterate Quackser bounces around driftlessly, as he desperately holds onto the last shred of happiness in his life. Wilder was amazing in one of his earliest roles. Wilder would win the role of Willy Wonka shortly after this film’s release. However, it would be one of the few times that the audience got to see this side of the funnyman. While the film wasn’t as abstract as Rhinoceros or The Little Prince, the film offered up a quiet dramatic comedy.
As long as there was one horse left in Dublin, Quackser would make his way. It’s not that Quackser was stubborn, it’s just that he build a world for himself. Even if that world was surrounded by horse manure. For those who prefer visual aesthetics, you’ll enjoy a very young Margot Kidder as Wilder’s love interest. [Troy Anderson]
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Paranoid eccentric. Reclusive perfectionist. Control freak. Ruthless capitalist. Sadistic misanthrope. Schemer. Cheat. Swindler. Inhuman monster. All of these describe Willy Wonka, but none are so succinct as “bastard”. Wonka’s been that way a long time — Roald Dahl wrote him as such, inspired by the intense rivalry between the UK’s then two largest chocolate makers: Cadbury and Rowntree. In the 1920’s, the two companies began sending spies to each other’s factories to steal trade secrets. As a result, both Cadbury and Rowntree tightened security to ensure that their processes would remain proprietary. That’d make for an interesting story all by itself, but throw in an all-time performance from Gene Wilder and the genius of Roald Dahl, and you’ve got the makings of a twisted classic.
Since the seminal 1970 adaptation of Dahl’s story, several other adaptations have offered new spins on the eccentric chocolatier. But not a single one can match Wilder’s knack for perfect deadpan. “Stop. Don’t. Come back,” he flatly rattles at Mike Teavee, perfectly capturing Wonka’s disregard for others. No other performer can ever embody the detached sadism of Willy Wonka without, on some level, imitating Gene Wilder. Rest assured — there will be more Willy Wonkas, and I’m sure they will be good. But there will never be another Gene Wilder. [Travis Newton]
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972)
Woody Allen‘s silly and surreal anthology adaptation of Dr. David Reuben’s book is a hit-or-miss affair. However, Gene Wilder’s segment is the undeniable highlight. Starting off like it’s the most awkward response to a Jeopardy! answer, “What Is Sodomy?” begins with the seemingly mundane Doctor Ross dealing with an Armenian patient who has fallen in love with a sheep named Daisy.
You’d think the absurdity of that scenario alone would provide plenty of humor, but the bit goes to an extreme when Doctor Ross begins to have feelings for Daisy. The skit plays out like an atypical torrid affair, but with lots and lots of sheep jokes. Instead of lipstick on the collar and the smell of another woman’s perfume, Ross’ wife detects the odor of lamb chops and finds a stray piece of wool on one of his jackets. She even barges in to find Ross sensually stroking one of his wool sweaters.
Wilder plays the part with delicate sincerity, making the ridiculousness a thousand times funnier. The final shot of him alone and destitute on the streets of New York at first seems almost sad. That is until the camera zooms in to reveal he is guzzling Woolite like a bum would down a flask of liquor. Nobody could sell you on pure silliness like Gene Wilder, and this segment is hilarious proof of that talent. [Drew Dietsch]
Blazing Saddles (1974)
I’m old, so Gene Wilder’s popularity synced directly with my formative years. The Holy Trinity of George Carlin, Gene Wilder, and Lou Costello delivered so many laughs and created such a wide net of comedy that I’ve been trying to fill the hole ever since. Young Frankenstein is Mel Brooks’ masterpiece and the perfect showcase for Gene Wilder but Blazing Saddles is in a different class all its own. There’s nothing like it and the whole thing collapses without Wilder’s cool and collected drunken gunman Jim. He’s the glue that ties Brooks’ ridiculous satire together.
Whether making fun of simpletons, teaching Sheriff Bart about the Peril that is Mongo, or making acute and hysterical comments about race, Wilder is at the peak of his powers in Blazing Saddles. There are so many moments between him and Cleavon Little that sing. So many moments both big and small that not only forever insulate that film’s legacy but also provide laughs that take different shapes over time.
Blazing Saddles is a movie that has several lives for a viewer. That first time, especially if you’re younger, it’s the big slapstick moments. Then it becomes about those zingers that are quoted to this day. Then the racial stuff hits, because today the things Mel Brooks attacked and shone a light on in 1974 may not be as overt as they were, but they still hide and surface from time to time. In today’s political age it may be more relevant than ever. It’s also a perfect barometer for comedy. There’s no edgy comedy being made today that can compare. It’s always going to be there. Like Casablanca or King Kong or Star Wars. It’s that good and that vital. And that big-eyed, frizzy-haired white dude with the holster? He’s right in the center holding it steady. [Nick Nunziata]
Young Frankenstein (1974)
To think that Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein both released in the same year is astounding. Both films would go on to become classic spoofs, but as a horror fan, my heart will always belong to Young Frankenstein. The craft and finesse behind making the movie feel like a genuine Universal horror film from the ’30s/’40s showcases exactly how much Mel Brooks was a fan of the subject he was lampooning.
And in the middle of this carefully constructed homage is Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced frahn-ken-shteen). Wilder is running on maximum the entire film. Every little eye movement or subtle gesture is comedy timing at its perfection. His ability to switch from unassumingly genteel to raving mad in a split second creates a performance that has never been topped and probably never will. He’s only made better thanks to his incredible repartee with his co-stars. The scenes between Wilder and Marty Feldman’s Igor (pronounced eye-gor) are especially gut-busting.
Young Frankenstein is a film that could stand toe-to-toe with the series it’s poking fun at, and that’s a quality not all parodies can master. A big part of that has to do with the strength of the cast, and Young Frankenstein has a venerable titan at the forefront. If you only watch one Gene Wilder movie, it should be this. [Drew Dietsch]
The Frisco Kid (1979)
The Frisco Kid was the last Western directed by Robert Aldrich. While quite funny, it felt like Wilder was telegraphing a ton of the milder buddy comedies to come in the next few decades. Wilder’s work with Pryor was legendary, but this was something else. Supported by co-stars Harrison Ford and Penny Peyser, Wilder plays his Rabbi Belinski role with the panache of Jackie Chan in the ’00s. If you’re expecting it to be offensive, it isn’t. It’s just that the role is played very broad, while everyone else in the movie gets to treat the picture like it’s a Western. Well, save for the scene where Harrison Ford pretty much stops the movie to learn about Jewish culture.
Needless to say, The Frisco Kid was a bomb upon release. But, 1979 was not the best time for a Western comedy. Waiting 5 years to cash in on the Blazing Saddles fanfare was a stretch too far. But, it did offer up a comedic vehicle for Harrison Ford to stretch his acting chops in a post-Star Wars environment. Ford doesn’t get to do much, other than Owen Wilson his way through teaching Wilder how to be a cowboy. If you’re starting to see comparisons between this film and a much later movie, it’s intentional. Hell, they’re practically carbon copies.[Troy Anderson]
Stir Crazy (1980)
Gene Wilder is best known for his role as Willy Wonka and his work with Mel Brooks, but his career has one other great leg: his movies with the equally legendary Richard Pryor. Stir Crazy, directed by Sidney Poitier, is the second of four films the two men made together and easily the most successful. It is the story of two New Yorkers down on their luck, ready to head to Hollywood. On the road, they are arrested for a bank robbery they did not commit thanks to mistaken identity involving stolen rooster costumes. They are incarcerated for 125 years in a crooked jail.
Wilder plays Skip Donahue, a failed playwright but a very positive thinker. Positive thinking does not always work, such as when Skip freaks out and decides a guard is a horse that needs riding. Pryor also gets his moments to go over the top, but mainly plays the straighter man to his kindly, soft-spoken best friend. The two comedy actors have excellent chemistry together, bouncing perfectly off each other’s energy.
One of the most memorable elements of Stir Crazy is Skip’s gentle, almost Bob Ross view of the world. This contrasts with the angry and territorial behavior of the guards and fellow prisoners. Skip Donahue is the type of character that sees the biggest, meanest mass murderer in prison, a certain Grossburger, and thinks, “Nobody has ever sat down and honestly talked with that man.” To everybody’s shock, Grossburger proves to be a gentle soul with a beautiful singing voice. Stir Crazy also got a good use out of Gene Wilder’s singing talents, as he sings the theme song “Crazy.”
Skip’s constant look on the sunny side becomes a great annoyance to the guards of prison, especially Deputy Wilson (Craig T. Nelson). Attempts to lock Skip in a suspended cuffs only fixes his back problems. Locking him in solitary confinement only gets him that much closer to finding himself. Weirdly enough, Skip is also a natural bull rider, making him the perfect patsy for the warden’s rodeo scheme. Skip has just too much fun riding the mechanical bull at its max settings to even realize what he’s doing is incredible. He’s a man that can find the smile in anything, and that is exactly the skill he needs to break free of the jail he is in. It is impossible to imagine any other actor playing this role. [Eric Fuchs]
Haunted Honeymoon (1986)
Haunted Honeymoon was my first exposure to Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner. Well, it would be the first exposure for a lot of people my age who had HBO as kids. Haunted Honeymoon was a co-production between Orion and HBO that bombed during its theatrical run. While it was the last of the Wilder directing efforts, HBO decided to saturate the late 1980s with repeat showings of the film. It would be another 4 years before I learned that Dom DeLuise wasn’t an ugly woman. That “Ballin’ the Jack” musical sequence is hard to shake off once it etches into a young mind.
The film itself is a delightful throwback to the 1930s and 1940s. Wilder had the special effects done on set and in-camera. Hell, one of the most famous scenes is a loving homage to Fred MacMurray in Murder, He Says. While all of this is great for film nerds, the history of the film doesn’t linger well. Most American theaters dumped the movie within 2 weeks of release. Gilda Radner had a miscarriage while shooting the picture. The film would also mark the last time that Wilder and DeLuise would work together. Even sadder, Radner would document most of the problem surrounding the production in her book It’s Always Something. When reading that memoir, one can get a sense that she didn’t want to leave this world with that as her final role. But, plans made aren’t always plans kept.
For mystery and comedy horror nerds, the movie has a bit of a cult following. Kino is preparing a Blu-ray release this Fall of the film and it belongs in every comedy nerd’s collection. [Troy Anderson]