A-List: Top Five Gene Wilder Movies
By J. Don Birnam
August 30, 2016

Hold your breath, make a wish, count to three.

The year 2016, that cruel vixen, has claimed the life of yet another acclaimed figure. Comedian Gene Wilder has died, and today we pay tribute to a career that brought joy to millions over many decades by looking back at some of his best films. It’s never fun to write these - and we’ve had to do a few - but at least the celebration of someone’s life oeuvre reminds us that it was a life well-lived.

You really can’t go wrong with his movies, and many were left off the list, including three iconic collaborations with Richard Pryor - Stir Crazy,See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Silver Streak. This duo loved the crime comedy movie, and there is certainly nothing wrong with woodpecker bank robbers, though arguably the three movies blend with each other in terms of themes.

I’m also partial to Wilder’s somewhat wacky portrayal of Sigerson Holmes, alongside Madeline Kahn, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, another one of his iconic comedic performances that are both spoof and reinvention at the same time. But here are the five that I think are even better.

5. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

His screen time is but a few minutes, sitting in the back of Bonnie and Clyde’s car, trapped with his fiancée. So, yes, this isn’t really a Wilder movie per se, but the strength of the film in my mind buoys the standing of it overall.

It showed, at the very least, that Wilder had talent beyond only comedy. In the sequence, a pivotal part of the movie that really tests your sympathy for the main characters, Wilder’s character and his girlfriend are kidnapped by the criminals after they find them on the road. The question of fear that the audience perceives in part due to Wilder’s expression is whether Bonnie and Clyde are going to kill them in cold blood.

From a movie that gave you acting greats like Gene Hackman, it’s easy to forget a more supporting performance. But in only his second screen credit ever, Wilder showed quickly he could hang with the big boys.

4. The Producers (1968)

But it was his next movie the following year that marked Wilder for permanent fame as a comedian. In Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Wilder plays the sneaky accountant who is in on a plot to bilk investors from their money after he and a Broadway director purposefully stage a bad play - that is, until the play turns out to be a smash hit and all their plans go away.

The movie has been remade many times over, on Broadway itself, and with spectacular flops in Hollywood. But not this one. In this original, Wilder netted an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Leo, a corrupt accountant to Zero Mostel’s corrupt producer. Yes, the movie is over the top, and, yes, there is a needless sentimentality that infects it at times.

But Wilder carries himself with enough wit to make the spoof worthy. The point is to spoof our tastes and our tolerance for misbehavior. It’s the original Chicago, if you will. Since then, Springtime for Hitler and other songs from the musical have become timeless classics, and the characters themselves have been spoofed the world over.

Yet find me someone who played Leo the Accountant with the dexterity and hilarity of Wilder - I doubt you’d be able to.

3. Blazing Saddles (1974)

Wilder liked nothing if not frequent collaborations, and in this Western/satire of whitewashing in Hollywood of the racist trends in the Wild West, he appeared with many names you’ve read in this column already.

There’s Madeline Kahn, the aptly named German spy Titwillow. There’s Richard Pryor, at least in spirit, as one of the cowriters, and there is of course Mel Brooks directing.

For a movie of its time, it’s nothing short of brilliance in its spoof creativity. The plot revolves around the sad sack sheriff of a small Western town that the powers that be have hatched an evil ploy to shut down. The sheriff, played by Cleavon Little, is black, a fact that the baddies are sure will drive the townsfolk away. He is aided, though, by his sidekick the Waco Kid (Wilder), who despite his persistent alcoholism manages to save the day in unexpected ways.

The movie uses tropes from the present or recent past of 1974 - KKK members, Nazis - to make its point. At first glance it sounds extremely silly, but in typical Mel Brooks/Gene Wilder fashion, it somehow works. What is most impressive, indeed, is how much this movie showcases (like most of his others) how progressive and ahead of his times Wilder was. Not just in the themes he chose to explore and exploit, but in his consistent work with black actors - something that is rare even 40 years later and that to him seemed second nature.

You are reminded of that kind heart as he and the sheriff ride out into the sunset at the end of the film - a scene that you see coming from the opening credits, except for the fact that you really don’t expect them to ride out quite in the means as they do. His name was Jim, and most people called him that.

2. Young Frankenstein (1974)

Has another pair had a better year than Brooks and Wilder’s 1974? From Western spoof to wacko black and white monster movie, it’s hard to imagine so. But the spoof of horror movies is even better than the parody of westerns simply because it showcases the most honest story by the duo - they wrote the screenplay together. Oh, and there’s Madeline Kahn too.

As you should know by now, the movie’s plot, premise, and lines are nothing but pure ridiculousness. In this film, Wilder plays the title character, a descendant of Mary Shelley’s infamous doctor. But he’s embarrassed by his family legacy, so he calls himself Fronkesteen. There’s a gigantic member, another deranged German, and some silly musical numbers.

Wilder took himself seriously and yet not - he was an infinitely brilliant comedian and in Young Frankenstein he proved his versatility once and for all. It wasn’t, after all, the medium that he was spoofing, or even the genre. It was the entire concept of seriousness in and of itself, that any of the themes or concepts that underlay these classic stories could be taken seriously if you looked from the right perspective.

And he was right.

1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

But there really should have been no question whatsoever what Wilder’s most iconic role is of course Willy Wonka in the all-time classic movie about the golden ticket contest and the chocolate factory.

The story, of course, is based on the Roald Dahl novel and, like many Dahl stories, is a mixture of dark humor, dark feeling, and dark heart - for children. One always wonders with gifted funnymen like Robin Williams or Gene Wilder if comedy is a coping mechanism, if the clown isn’t sad inside, or doesn’t feel a sort of lasting melancholy. Although there is no biographical reason to think that Wilder suffered of the type of depression that Williams did, for example, his turn as Willy Wonka did demonstrate that he was not beyond the sullen and somber.

Wonka is a layered character, one laced with superficial sweetness but an almost dangerous, underlying bitterness. Along the way, he teaches children the values of respect, restraint, and decency, perhaps in unorthodox but memorable ways. Wilder, wielding his cane and the somewhat ridiculous suit, simply hit it out of the park.

And in that Oscar winning song, Pure Imagination, he achieves yet another pinnacle, one that takes us full circle from Bonnie & Clyde to this and everything in between. Sure, there had been singing in a lot of the spoofy musicals we have covered, but in Willy Wonka the emotion was real. There was no Madeline Kahn or Richard Pryor to serve as sounding board. This was him, almost entirely solo, and he delivered a haunting melody for the ages, like most of his career and life, really.

In the song, in the movie, and in his work, he has a simple but true message. If you wanna change the world, there’s nothing to it. There is no life to compare to your imagination. Living there you’ll be free if you truly wish to be.