Sweet Legacy for a Dark Film


Not long after he made "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," director Mel Stuart recalls young people coming up and saying--with a wink--that they really dug that scary tunnel sequence where the kids ride a boat through the dark, glimpsing horrific images such as a giant centipede crawling across a human face and a chicken getting its head chopped off.

Just before that scene, one of the young characters is seen nibbling on a giant mushroom. So that was a psychedelic mushroom, right?

"Well, it wasn't a psychedelic trip," the snowy-haired Hollywood veteran sputters now, recounting those encounters. "That was a candy mushroom with marshmallow in it. I never took a drug in my life, I'm nutty enough without them. But people read into your movies what they want."

Stuart, who veers between warmly engaging and irascible, is a highly respected, Oscar-nominated and Emmy- and Peabody-award winning documentary and feature film director of more than 40 years. Now, as the 30th anniversary of "Willy Wonka's" theatrical release rolls around on Saturday, he's made peace with the fact that this is the movie for which he'll always be remembered.

"When you make a movie, you always do the best you can, but you never know what the audience response is going to be," Stuart said.

Rightly or wrongly, the psychedelic tunnel legend is part of the mystique surrounding "Willy Wonka," perhaps best described as a morality tale at the heart of a dark musical comedy.

Adopted from Roald Dahl's children's book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," the story concerns a mysterious candy-maker who leads five children around his Rube Goldbergesque factory.

Leading them on a secret mission that the children can barely imagine, he watches four greedy tots endure nightmarish retribution, while the penitent and good-hearted Charlie receives a great reward.

Stuart coaxed outstanding performances from the entire cast--notably star Gene Wilder in perhaps his most memorable performance as Wonka. Jack Albertson leads a strong supporting cast including five riveting child performers.

Stuart and producer Stan Margulies also brought in art director Harper Goff ("Fantastic Voyage"), who created eye-popping sets (and a few cheesy ones), and the songwriting team of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, who wrote a score that earned an Oscar nomination and featured what became a No. 1 single for Sammy Davis Jr., "The Candy Man."

A Cool Reception

Upon Its Release

It wasn't all a piece of cake. The film was greeted coolly by critics and performed disappointingly in its initial release. But it has grown in stature over the years powered by repeated TV exposure, most recently on Fox Family Channel (it can be seen at 5 p.m. on July 4). "Wonka" will be re-released Aug. 28 in a new DVD edition from Warner Bros. Home Video. There's also a new version of the film in development at Warner Bros. with "Pleasantville" director Gary Ross signed on.

The reason for the film's continuing success? For one thing it defined "edgy children's entertainment" before anybody knew there was such a thing.

"It can be scary at parts [with] the kids falling into terrible fates," said UCLA visiting cinema professor Jonathan Kuntz. "It's not the sweetness and light we sometimes expect from a kids' movie."

Stuart credits his daughter Madeline as an unsung hero who inspired the film. Now an interior decorator, she was 10 when she asked her dad to make the book into the movie.

"I read the book five times before pitching my dad," Madeline Stuart joked in a recent interview. "Later they paid me $50--and I didn't even need a lawyer."

Stuart approached producer David L. Wolper, a close business associate, who in turn cajoled Quaker Oats to put up $3 million to make the movie as a promotional vehicle for a new chocolate bar. Dahl was contracted to write a first draft.

The film's casting seems inspired in retrospect--although Jean Stapleton turned down a part. Wilder offered exactly the right tone of menacing warmth that captured the title character.

By the fall of 1970, the children--most of whom were veterans of TV and commercial production--were cast, the songs were written and the sets were built. Production began on the musical numbers. But there was no shooting script.

Stuart felt Dahl's draft was outdated and needed a rewrite, although Dahl wasn't happy about it. Young writer David Seltzer, who had done some documentary work but never a screenplay and went on to write numerous screenplays including "The Omen" and "Lucas," was brought to Munich, where the film was being shot, to dress Dahl's work with a more contemporary tone, add comedy and flesh out a villainous character in Slugworth.

Arduous Journey for the Children

The final script created a truly unique character in Wonka. Wilder told documentary filmmaker J.M. Kenny that he insisted on choreographing Wonka's first scene--emerging from the factory walking with a bad limp, then doing an acrobatic tumble to greet the children.

"I said no one will know from that time on whether I'm lying or telling the truth," Wilder said on the documentary "Pure Imagination," which Kenny wrote and directed for the upcoming DVD release. "That element of who knows is he lying or telling the truth is what my main motor was," Wilder said.

Critics were far from enthusiastic. Daily Variety called Wilder's Wonka "cynical and sadistic." The word-of-mouth focused on cruel treatment of the children, who one by one are sucked into a giant tube, blown up into a giant blueberry, dropped down a chute toward the furnace and shrunken into a doll-sized figure.

Only gradually did those involved in the film realize they were part of something bigger than they first imagined.

Julie Dawn Cole, who played Veruca Salt, built a successful TV career in England and first realized the film's effect at a children's charity party starring "Star Wars' " Mark Hamill--and Hamill asked to see her.

"I thought this is weird," Cole said. "From that time on, we got the idea that a lot of other people were watching it too."

Stuart, who's currently working on documentaries, said "Wonka's" continuing popularity lies in its unflinching honesty. "I'm not talking down to children and giving them squirrels with funny faces and all that stuff."

So the film lives on with its message and its mystique.

For example, few Wonka fans know that Walon Green, the successful TV producer-director who wrote "The Wild Bunch," has a small but crucial part in the film. "He was this guy who would do anything," Stuart said.

The face that the giant centipede crawled around on belonged to Green.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World