The answer to the above question is, “No, he can’t.” However, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady apparently can. They are listed as the directors of the PBS American Masters special from last night entitled, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of Myself. I just finished watching the program and it was, surprisingly, a disappointment. I say surprisingly because I’m someone who not only has a favorable opinion of Mr. Lear and his accomplishments but an active curiosity to know more about him. I tend to enjoy documentaries, particularly those about people in entertainment, politics, and/or sports whom I admire. I seek out such programs to learn more about the subject and, in some ways, to celebrate them. I do not watch a documentary on Norman Lear, or anyone else, because I’m interested in the director’s cinematic aspirations or bag of tricks. Sadly, that’s what we get from Norman Lear: Just Another Version of Myself.
Watching this documentary, you may get the impression your watching an entry in the “Why I Want To Be Ingmar Bergman” contest. The deep, dark silences, the staged shots in silhouette that are supposed to represent the boyish version of Norman Lear, the numerous shots that are related to . . . nothing! This documentary is an exercise in frustration. I would assume Norman Lear approved the final product but I sure hope not. Pure and simple, the final product is a practice in poor storytelling.
I admit that I am a strange combination of traditionalist and iconoclast. I like questioning the establishment and authority but I prefer it to be done in an organized, articulate fashion. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of Myself, was disjointed, confusing and incomplete. There is a lot of interviewing Mr. Lear that goes on within the film. That’s okay except that it felt to me that perhaps that should be a different film. You could certainly do a piece entitled, quite simply, “A Conversation with Norman Lear.” However, if you’re doing a documentary about his life and about his work then you need more interviews from his friends, family, and associates. Those people were all present in Norman Lear: Just Another Version of Myself but in disproportionate balance to Mr. Lear and the filmmakers artsy heavy-handedness.
For example, I was fascinated by the interview with John Amos and the discussion of the Black Panthers and what the African American community’s opinion was of Good Times. However, just as the filmmakers were getting into this question, we jumped to The Jeffersons as an explanation of how Mr. Lear responded to critics of Good Times. That’s all well and good but they seemed to cut off the Good Times discussion before they had clearly defined the issues and complaints. Did viewers complain about it or just the actors? Did Lear agree or disagree with the complaints? Did Amos leave the show because of it? What was Esther Rolle’s opinion of the show after it was over? They show a clip that seems to indicate she felt it was a stereotyped version of the truth but, if so, why did she do it? The intercutting of current interviews with older interviews of those individuals who are now deceased was helpful but like almost everything in this film, handled in a less than coherent fashion.
By the way, the only Lear shows that were really discussed in ANY fashion were All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. There was little or no discussion of Fernwood Tonight, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, One Day At A Time, or Sanford and Son.
The entire first 20 years of Lear’s career were covered in a sequence that lasted roughly two minutes and forty-five seconds. You can certainly argue that making a documentary can be similar to making a narrative film in the sense that you must tell a certain story, a piece of the whole instead of trying to cover everything. However true that may be, when you sit through as much empty, wasted time as you do in this film, you wonder about all the other information that could have been covered by losing what seemed like 20 minutes of a little kid walking around in shadows wearing Norman Lear’s signature white cap. In the end it felt like we received 30 minutes of information in 90 minutes of screen time.
Norman Lear is probably one of the most fascinating men in American popular culture in the second half of the twentieth century. He is certainly one of the most important and influential artists in the medium of TV, film, and storytelling. Sadly, this story doesn’t seem to do his story justice.
Tags: "Good Times", "The Jeffersons", All in the Family, Amy Poehler, Carl Reiner, Carroll O'Connor, Ed Simmons, Esther Rolle, George Clooney, Heidi Ewing, Ingmar Bergman, Jimmie Walker, John Amos, Martin & Lewis, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, PBS, PBS American Masters, Phil Rosenthal, Rachel Grady, Rob Reiner
Just watched Cat and the Canary (1939) for the first time that I can remember. I may have seen it years ago but I don’t think so. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I was really starting to cultivate my love for classic films I watched pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I cut my teeth on the Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s but soon spread out into the comedies of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Cary Grant.
I’ve known a few people who have been surprised to read interviews with Woody Allen over the years in which he praises the early films of Bob Hope and credits him as an influence on his (Allen’s) work. However, watch a bunch of Hope comedies from the 1930s – 1940s and the influence is clear particularly on the first 15-20 years of Allen’s film work. Hope perfected the character of the boastful, vain coward. And as unfunny as Mr. Hope was in his formulaic NBC specials of his last three decades, he was decidedly brilliant in these early film roles. His rapid-fire delivery keeps the pace of the film moving along and often makes the “punchline as an aside” even funnier than it would have been if given full attention. Whether you liked the Bob Hope of the 1970s or not, he was an intelligent performer. He knew his audience, knew his style and knew how to deliver the joke. Like so many of his fellow comedians of the pre-WWII era, however, he was unable to successfully adept his style and material to a new generation of baby boomers. The Vietnam War and his hawkish politics certainly did not help matters.
The Cat and the Canary is one of Hope’s earliest narrative films and it benefits from a tight, sharp script. At 1 hour and 15 minutes there’s not a stagnant moment to be found. Another treat is the fact that Hope himself is still playing an actual character. While we are shown glimpses of the “Bob Hope stock character” to come, the individual that Hope portrays in The Cat and the Canary is still one who is a flesh and blood person. He has fears but knows he must face them. In the years to come, particularly in the Hope-Crosby era, Hope’s cowardly nature trumps (you should pardon the vulgarism) all other aspects of his character turning him into more of a caricature than a character.
We’re given a flash of another side of the future Hope in The Cat and the Canary when character actress Nydia Westman asks him: “Do you believe in reincarnation? You know, like dead people come back?” Hope’s reply: “You mean like Republicans?” In the years to come, Hope will weave more and more contemporary jokes of the day into his scripts. Hope and Crosby’s “Road pictures” were particularly famous for breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience by speaking right into the camera. It’s an effective comic device when used sparingly but it became a trademark for Hope. If the joke is timeless, it’s probably okay but many of Hope’s quips referred to current events or culture of the day and fail to hold up through the passage of time. Too many of the references to the current events of the day are now things that happened 60+ years ago.
The general plot of The Cat and the Canary pertains to a group of distantly related individuals who are called to a spooky old house in the Louisiana bayou on the 10th anniversary of the death of their long lost relative to hear the reading of his will at midnight. The melodramatic nature of the set up is accented by Hope’s character who is introduced as a vaudevillian and radio comic who points out each of the corny details of the set up as though it were a hackneyed radio drama. When he guesses that Paulette Goddard will inherit all the dough, the others regard him with suspicion especially after his prediction comes true. He’s then forced to explain that he just assumed she’d inherit the fortune because she was the pretty young ingenue in the group and that’s how “it always works” in these stories.
One of the odder circumstances of the story is the obvious romance that develops between Hope and Goddard despite the fact that they were supposed to be distantly related. Then again, it was 1939 and the President and First Lady of the United States were fifth cousins so, apparently, that wasn’t a concern.
The rest of the film is the old story of surviving the night in the haunted house with a homicidal maniac on the loose. However, this film proves that even the most over-used plot devices can entertain if handled correctly. Paulette Goddard is stunningly beautiful, Hope is fresh, young and funny and the legendary Gale Sondergaard is at her creepiest best. Elliot Nugent, the film’s director, deserves credit for the brisk pace of the film which only works to enhance the comedy. This is a great holiday treat for Halloween lovers of old Hollywood.
This election has been a smorgasbord of delights for our nation’s comedians. Normally, there are few jobs in the entertainment world more difficult than writing comedy. The past few months, however, have been like shooting fish in a barrel for our funny men and women. Colbert’s comedic coverage of Donald Drumpf has been excellent.
The fruit is so ripe on tree that Colbert doesn’t even want to wait until his vacation is over to seize upon the moment. And again, what do you really need to write to accompany a video of a Presidential Candidate who says he hasn’t spoken with his running mate and disagrees with him! I mean, good God! Talk about your softballs!
At this point, I always expect John Oliver to be brilliant because, well, he is always brilliant.
And even Trevor Noah, although he seems to get very little love, has done some good work covering this circus too.
But one comedian/commentator who was all but forgotten has, in my opinion, come back strong amidst the shitstorm that is Donald Drumpf and his campaign and that person is Seth Myers. Here’s a guy who was pretty terrific on SNL as the host of Weekend Update but didn’t seem to really hit his stride as host of his own late night talk show. However, once they moved him back to his desk and did away with a “stand-up routine” of jokes at the beginning of his program, he began to find his comfort zone again. Then, all of a sudden, Donald J. Drumpf started lobbing these grapefruits and Myers pounced on them like Hank Aaron on a hanging curve ball! In recent weeks, Myers has put together some really great moments on his “A Closer Look” segments.
And my favorite of all the “unprecedented moments” inspired by the lunatic in the big red hat is the fact that in all of my years of really watching comedians whether live, or on TV variety and/or talk shows (and that’s 40+ years), I DON’T EVER REMEMBER comedians as genuinely angry at their target as they are with Drumpf. For me, that only makes me love what they’re doing more. They are, in fact, doing what many of the Court Jesters of old did. They’re working within the system but they’re also mixing commentary into their humor to say, “Will you look at this guy? The clothes you’re oohing and ahhing over are rags! There isn’t anything there! This demagogue is bat-shit crazy and you better do something about it fast or else we’ll all end up on the chopping blocks!!”
Thank heavens for comedians and the one, still-shining aspect of American democracy, freedom of speech.
A short time ago I listened to Vin Scully call his last half-inning of his last Dodgers-Giants game ever. I have no idea how many contests he’s called over the years between these two rival clubs but it’s got to be close to 1500. It may not sound like much but that was just the amount of games he called between those two teams. I’m sure a statistician somewhere knows the exact amount (or close to it) of total baseball games Vin Scully broadcast over the years but whatever it is, it should be understood today, tonight, tomorrow, and forever after – that no one WILL EVER do what Vin Scully has done again. Ever.
Vin Scully has been a broadcaster of Dodger baseball for 67 seasons. To have been a baseball play-by-play man for 67 years, in and of itself, would have been extraordinary but Scully did it with one team. Technically, two teams but one organization. When Scully started, he was calling games for the Brooklyn Dodgers. When the Dodgers moved west in 1958, Scully moved with them. The Dodgers have now played 59 seasons in Los Angeles and Vin Scully was the play-by-play man for every one of those 59 years.
Preacher Roe was a pitcher on that 1950 Dodger team. Roe appeared in his first major league game in 1938. There are a couple of players on the 2016 Dodger team like Corey Seager or Julio Urias who could conceivably still be playing baseball in another 20 years. That would mean that there will be nearly 100 years of baseball represented in just the Dodger ballplayers that Scully has covered in his career. It is truly mind-boggling.
For my generation, Scully was also a network man calling football and golf for CBS from 1975-1982 and the NBC Baseball Game of the Week in the 1980s as well as network coverage of World Series and All-Star games. In the 1970s and 1980s, Scully was everywhere. He was the voice of American sports broadcasting.
In the last 10-20 years I gained a new perspective on my appreciation of Scully and his talents. As someone who has hosted a radio program on public radio for the past 16+ years, I am in awe of Scully’s incredibly smooth delivery. I’ve never been able to fully understand how Scully could broadcast day in and day out and never stumble. When you listened to Vin Scully, you never heard an “ah” or an “um” or any kind of hesitation, fumble or botched grammar. It was truly, TRULY amazing.
In his last inning in San Francisco this evening he relayed a quote that he felt apropos for the moment at hand – “Don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that it happened.” I hate to think of myself as disappointing Vin Scully but while I’m so glad that it happened and that more than half of it happened in my lifetime, I can’t help but be really sad tonight that it’s over.
Thank you Vin Scully. I wish you nothing but happiness and contentment.
Frank Sinatra’s 1965 Reprise album entitled September of My Years, with arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, has long been one of my very favorite Sinatra albums. Even when I was in my early teens, I would sing along with great conviction to this collection of songs that were all about growing older and looking back. While it was true that, like George Bailey, “I was born old,” even I wasn’t THAT old. Nevertheless, the album spoke to me. I was, and continue to be, mesmerized by it.
Sinatra adored the album’s arranger, Gordon Jenkins. In Will Friedwald’s 1995 book entitled, Sinatra! The Song Is You, Friedwald cites a quote from a late 1970s interview Gordon Jenkins gave to DJ (and game show host), Wink Martindale, stating, “The first time we worked together, a hundred people showed up because they thought it was going to be a free-for-all. He had a reputation for being tough to work with,” Jenkins recalled, “and I also have a reputation for not holding back. So the studio was just jammed [with people] waiting for the fight to start. And we never did have any fight, not ever. We have never had a cross word.”
To work with Sinatra for more than three decades and be able to say, “We have never had a cross word,” is a monumental achievement in and of itself. To have produced some of the greatest recordings of the twentieth century through that partnership is the stuff that legends are made of and both men, Sinatra and Jenkins, have to be considered legends of The Great American Songbook.
I am not a musician but I consider myself to be a fairly good judge of the great songs of the 1920s – 1970s, those songs from the Big Band Era, Broadway shows, and Hollywood films that have since been grouped together as The Great American Songbook. I remember being somewhat shocked years back when I read certain reviews and realized there were critics who weren’t crazy about Gordon Jenkins’ syrupy strings. I suppose from another source, I might be bored by all of it as well but when matched with Sinatra, it works. And Sinatra knew it worked. He wasn’t a trained musician but he enjoyed an incredible ear and an inherent sense of musicianship that rarely failed him. There’s no doubt he was a sucker for strings and string arrangements but he also knew how to use those strings and arrangements to elevate a syrupy love ballad into high art.
The video on this piece isn’t much to look at but you don’t need to. Just close your eyes and enjoy the magic of Gordon Jenkins and Frank Sinatra.
Gordon Jenkins had been one of the first people in the music business to recognize an audience for American Folk Music. He scored a huge hit with The Weavers and “Goodnight Irene” in 1950 when just about no one else in the music business wanted anything to do with the song. His confidence in the group’s ability to put over the song and his astute judgment in recording it, paid off handsomely for Jenkins.
When it came time to record the September of My Years album it’s only natural that Sinatra would turn to Gordon Jenkins. He had a track record with strings, sentimentality and folk music, all elements used to perfection in the September of My Years album. “It Was A Very Good Year,” the breakout song of the collection, had originally been recorded four years earlier by the Kingston Trio. Jenkins reworked the arrangement and turned it into a Sinatra classic. It was so recognizably masterful that when CBS News did an hour long portrait of Frank Sinatra in the fall of 1965 as he approached his 50th birthday, they taped a whole segment featuring Sinatra’s recording session of the song.
No one was more thrilled with Sinatra’s recording of “It Was A Very Good Year” than composer Ervin Drake. Frank’s recording no doubt made Mr. Drake a lot of money and well as elevating his song to iconic status.
This Sunday on my radio show I will do what I’ve done for a number of years now, I will play every cut from Jenkins’ & Sinatra’s September of My Years album. Please join us for some glorious music and memories, this Sunday, September 25, 2016 at 12:00 noon Eastern time on Jazz 90.1 FM in Rochester, New York. Remember, you can listen in from anywhere via our live web stream on our home page at www.jazz901.org or just click HERE.
By the way, apropos of Sunday, September 25, 2016 – that will mark Charles Osgood’s last show as host of CBS News Sunday Morning. I avoid the news and magazine shows like the plague and yet, this has been one of my most favorite shows on television for well over a decade. Mr. Osgood will be sorely missed. He is an intelligent, gracious and witty host. We hope to continue to “see him on the radio.” Tune him in Sunday BEFORE my show – he’s on the CBS TV network from 9:00 – 10:30 am Eastern and I’m on at 12:00 noon – what a Sunday!!!
There’s nothing better than an old Warner Brothers gangster film particularly if it stars Humphrey Bogart and has a little humor in it. I had DVR-ed King of the Underworld in August and decided to watch it the other night. I’d seen the film years ago but was happy to revisit it. It’s not a particularly memorable film but as long as it’s in black and white and boasts some familiar old faces, I’m always game to spend the time.
The story involves a Public Enemy No. 1 type named Joe Gurney played by Bogart. The gangster, proud of his ruthless record, is a student of Napoleon and is often seen reading a book about the famous French general. Nevertheless, his status as a scholar is quickly dismissed when he expresses great enthusiasm for being told he is “a moronic type,” thinking it’s a compliment and thereby confirming the designation.
Warner Brothers was the studio famous for gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s. Most of these films were serious melodrama and/or social commentary. At some point, someone happily decided to have some fun with the genre and made some comedic gangster movie as well. For whatever reason, most of the out and out comedies starred Edward G. Robinson: The Little Giant (1933), A Slight Case of Murder (1938), Brother Orchid (1940), and Larceny, Inc. (1942), to name but a few. However, Warners often employed humor to counterbalance the seriousness of their chronicles of the American gangster. How else would you explain the creation of “The Dead End Kids?” This group of hooligans was introduced in the drama Dead End (1937) with Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sydney, and Joel McCrea but my introduction to them came from the film Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) with Cagney, Bogart, Pat O’Brien, and Ann Sheridan. It was the first Warner Brothers gangster film I ever saw.
King of the Underworld is nowhere near the classic that Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) is but it’s entertaining nonetheless. As I always do when I see an old movie like this, I immediately head to IMDB to check out all the character actors that appeared in the film. I can easily lose myself searching through all the character actors and which film they did with whom, etc. In King of the Underworld, I noticed the name Joe Devlin. He’s the round-faced mug named Porky. In the video below, he’s the torpedo relaying the medical news to Bogie over the phone.
He was a recognizable face of the period but a player who usually snared only bit parts with little dialogue. In fact, Porky was quite a meaty part for Joe Devlin. As you peruse his IMDB page you’ll notice that he appeared “uncredited” in at least half of the 173 credits listed in his thirty active years from 1938 – 1967. What I noticed was something that was even unusual in the days of the studio system but completely impossible today. In 1939, the year King of the Underworld was released, Joe Devlin appeared in 17 different films. Yes, that’s right, 17 films!!! It would take many actors today the entire 30 years to accumulate parts in 17 films. He was uncredited in 12/17 of those films but it’s still a fascinating statistic when measured against modern day production methods and schedules.
By the way, I certainly didn’t intend to demean Edward G. Robinson’s comedic efforts above. He was terrific as the comic gangster. We’ll end today’s post with a trailer from one of my favorites – a movie that includes Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, Harold Huber, and Paul Harvey. A veritable treasure trove of some of the best character faces ever!
Tags: Allen Jenkins, Billy Halop, Edward Brophy, Edward G. Robinson, Gabe Dell, Harold Huber, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Jimmy Cagney, Paul Harvey, The Dead End Kids, Warner Bros., Warner Brothers
It was 40 years ago today that Frank Sinatra brought “a friend” out onto the Sahara stage in Las Vegas during the wee small hours of Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon. Frank had just finished singing and was laying some checks on Jerry and when they finished with the money transfers Frank said he had a friend that enjoyed what Jerry did each year and wanted to come out and say hello. Frank bellowed to the stage crew to have his friend come out. Amid roars of shock and delight, out walked Frank’s pal Dean Martin, the former partner of Jerry Lewis. It had long been rumored that the two had not spoken since their breakup in 1956. Sinatra decided this telethon, with a TV audience in the millions, was the proper place for a public reconciliation and he was the peacemaker who should design the truce.
I didn’t see it live because it happened around 2:00 am in the East but Lewis played the exchange again late in the telethon after he was a bit more composed. I’m running off to do my radio show right now but I’ll write more later. For now, enjoy this tidbit of show biz history from 40 years ago today!
*** POST SHOW EPILOGUE ***
All I wanted to add is a certain trick my memory has played on me over the years about this event. It may be because I think of this event as having happened so long age (which it did) but for whatever reason, I always remember, or rather think I remember my dad watching this with the rest of our family late in the afternoon as Jerry talked about the reunion and replayed the video. It happened in the last hour or two of the telethon and everyone was at our house because, believe it or not, we really did have Labor Day barbecues back in those days. Imagine that, instead of running out to the store to buy sheets or to the nearest car dealership to buy a new car, people gathered at home with family and friends to enjoy that last weekend of summer fun. I guess, if nothing else, that should remind me just how long ago it was.
Anyway, I’ve always thought of my dad being with us as we watched this little moment of show biz history and yet, it’s not possible. My dad died in March of 1976, nearly six months prior to the Labor Day Telethon. Perhaps it was because it was so soon after his death? Perhaps it was because it was a “where were you when” moment? Perhaps it was because we were all gathered together in a way we had done every year when he was with us? Or maybe it’s just that as I get older, I want to remember more of my memories with my dad in them. The older I get, the more minuscule those 12 years I had with him look to me.
Whatever the circumstances, much like the clip I posted the other night of Jackie Gleason and Johnny Carson, I’m grateful I was around in time to know who all these guys were and to enjoy some of their talents before that whole era just disappeared. And thank goodness for audio, video and film archives!!
Happy Labor Day.
I have no idea why I’m up at 12:45 am but I’ve had some trouble sleeping lately so I was searching around on YouTube and came up with this gem from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1986. I’ve written on this site about Johnny Carson more than once and how much I loved his reign on The Tonight Show but that’s not what I’m talking about tonight. No, this post is to spotlight the one-of-a-kind life, presence, and accomplishments of Jackie Gleason. I actually wrote about Jackie this past February on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth. You can find that post HERE.
However, as I sat watching this next clip just moments ago I couldn’t help but smile and be grateful that I grew up in a time where I knew very well who Jackie Gleason was. I was born in 1964 so by the time I came along, “The Original 39” episodes of The Honeymooners was already nine years old. Not that it mattered, since the reruns were on TV every night. I did grow up with the color version of The Honeymooners that were part of a variety show Gleason did every Saturday night from 1966 – 1970. Amazingly, I remember quite vividly sitting on the ottoman in our family room watching the camera zoom in over the water and the announcer saying, “From Miami Beach . . . it’s The Jackie Gleason Show!”
But these few moments of Gleason reminiscing with Johnny Carson are really sweet for two reasons. First of all, you rarely saw Johnny really impressed by a guest as he is so obviously in this clip. And second, it’s bittersweet because this appearance seemed as “a summing up” of his life and, in fact, he would be gone less than two years later. Jackie Gleason was the last of the dinosaurs, GIANTS of comedy and show biz that once trod the boards and lit up the screens of theaters and our homes. Guys like Gleason came up the hard way, honing their craft in saloons, strip clubs, burlesque theaters, vaudeville houses and nightclubs. They could pretty much do it all.
In Gleason’s case, as is mentioned here by Carson, his was an extravagant life and style and for better or for worse, he did have a certain authentic style. He was who he was. There are personalities around today who present a certain style but it all seems rehearsed and inauthentic. Audiences give standing ovations to people on talk shows who are reality stars! Admiration is no longer earned, it’s coached. You are prepped by these shows to go crazy for the host and the guests so that no response is actually earned, just programmed.
Jackie Gleason was authentic, he was unique, he was a star!
I had the pleasure of interviewing Hal Linden a couple of times in the past few weeks. In addition to being a very nice man, he’s incredible talented. Most people will remember him as the Solomon-like Capt. Barney Miller, chief of the detectives at the 12th Precinct in Lower Manhattan, from the ABC TV show Barney Miller, (1975 – 1982). However, he began his long career as a musician, playing clarinet/sax and singing in the Big Bands. He eventually shifted into acting and spent many years on Broadway, even winning a Tony Award for his role in The Rothchilds, (1971), before heading to Hollywood and lasting fame as Barney Miller.
Poking around YouTube this afternoon, I found this marvelous clip from the 1976 Tony Awards in which he, Leslie Uggams, Michelle Lee, and Clifton Davis render an impressive 15 minute medley of Broadway tunes from shows that DID NOT win the Tony Award as Best Musical!
I apologize that the video is not very good but have no fear, the talent and the music is tremendous!!
There have been dozens of written tributes to Gene Wilder since his passing this past Monday. By all accounts, he was a wonderful, kind, sensitive man. I didn’t know the man but his friends and associates seem united in their appreciation. What I do know is his talent was special.
Gene Wilder had an unusual ability to play characters who seemed to be “on the edge.” Nowadays, I think most of us feel that way but when Mr. Wilder was racking up hits from the 1960s – 1980s, people were expected to maintain a certain composure as they went about their daily lives. His characters tried but fortunately failed more often than not to do so.
The 1960s and ’70s was a particularly inspired period for Gene Wilder. In just over a decade, he brought to life a series of unforgettable film characters: Eugene Grizzard, Leo Bloom, Willy Wonka, and Dr. Frederick “Fronk”enstein to name but a few. “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” and “Young Frankenstein remain favorites of mine to this day, more than forty years since I first viewed them. They are timelessly charming, engaging, and funny. In both films, as it is with every great piece of theater and/or film, the writing is a key ingredient to its success. However, I don’t think either of those films would be as beloved today as they are if it weren’t for the contribution of Gene Wilder. Both characterizations offer a sense of narcissism mixed with vulnerability making outrageous characters seem relatable to us all.
Most tend to forget that “Young Frankenstein” was Wilder’s idea and he teamed up with Mel Brooks to bring it to cinematic life. Instead, we just lump it in as “a Mel Brooks movie” but it really wasn’t. It was a Wilder/Brooks creation. Two brilliant creative minds working together to create one the most unforgettable films in movie history.
Thank you Gene Wilder, your talent will live forever.