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Willie Wonka Doesn’t Care One Whit if Augustus Gloop Drowns (and That’s Why We Love Him!)

December 28, 2016

Willy Wonka: Stop, don’t, come back

It’s a slight, seemingly empty bit of dialogue, isn’t it? Yet imbued with Gene Wilder’s sarcastic intonation the dialogue expresses that he actually couldn’t care less if the kid to whom he’s speaking comes back or not. He speaks the ostensibly dull sentence in an unflappable, flat tone such that it becomes richly, perversely, funny. It is is also, oh, just a teensy bit mean. As is our Mr. Wonka himself.

Indeed, this is the key to Wonka’s character: we love his subtle, light as a feather barbs, even if they are at the expense of children. We love that he stands by looking bored and doesn’t seem to care one whit when Augustus Gloop is near drowning in a gelatinous river of chocolate. Nor does he care when Violet is turning into a blueberry. Nor when Mike Teavee’s physical body is being pixelated and transmogrified into a 2 dimensional tv image. And certainly not when our howlingly spoiled and appallingly unpleasant Veruca Salt is falling down that garbage shoot to be destroyed with all the other bad eggs. Nope, Mr. Wonka does not care a whit about a single one of them. Hell, he even rather enjoys looking on while the rotten kids, one by one by get their comeuppances.

It takes a special kind of actor to break one of life’s cardinal rules (thou shall not be mean to children), and have it come off as funny. Wilder pulls it off, in part, because of that gentle, soothingly cooing voice of of his. Recently, I was reminded of his voice while watching an interview that TCM sponsored between Gene Wilder and Alec Baldwin in 2008. During a ninety minute interview Wilder was charming, funny, smart and humble. It was clear that he had enjoyed making some films more than others, based not merely on what he said about them, but also on the way his eyes lit up.

When talking about “Willie Wonka” he looked as happy as a kid in, well, a candy factory. He gave more time and thought to his replies about Wonka than any other film he’d discussed throughout the interview. And he seemed delightfully proud of the things that he, himself, had contributed to the film — things that the writer and director had not thought of, such as the particular perversity of his reason for giving his character, Mr. Wonka, a limp when he meets the children for the first time at the factory gates.

Mr. Wonka limps down a cobblestone walkway with a cane looking frail and lame, and presumably a disappointing figure to the children. Suddenly, his cane gets stuck between the stones, which causes him to fall to the ground — whereupon he leaps up into a gymnastic somersault! He is not lame at all! To the contrary, quite spry. “So,” asks Baldwin, “Why the charade?” Wilder looks at Baldwin with a wickedly (rather Wonka-ish), gleam in his eye and says, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

The whole movie is about deceptions, fantasy, charades and honesty; Charlie’s honesty in particular. Wilder was so joyful talking about this film that he took the time to recount the final scene with Charlie returning the Everlasting Gobstopper in detail, including the splendid piece of dialogue that Wonka gives to Charlie right then. Charlie places the Gobstopper on the table — that same Gobstopper that the evil Mr. Slugworth had offered all the kids a fortune to sneak out of the factory to sell to him — and Willie Wonka, furious a mere moment ago, now smiles and tenderly puts his hand over Charlie’s, saying, “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

Wilder described the scene to Baldwin and finishes his description by quoting that line. Then he paused, smiled, and repeated the line with an even deeper affection for its meaning, “So shines a good deed in a weary world.” Yes, it does indeed.

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