Willy Wonka

It was a stiff upon release. It cost $3 million and grossed $4 million in a pre-home video era. In other words, it lost money, with only half of gross receipts coming back to the studio. Sure, there was television income, but this was pre-cable. No one knew the movie and no one knew the songs. Yet today, it’s a classic.

Originally it was called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” A twisted story by author Roald Dahl, there were no songs, but he had a cult following, one of whose members was my younger sister Wendy, she bought all his books, I read it, I saw the movie back in ’71, when it first came out. The Oompa Loompas were too orange, but one viewing and I knew their song by heart. And the kids all had different personalities, not all likable. That’s a fiction of media, that characters have to be likable, no, the story has to be good. And I was the only person I ever knew who saw the flick and then…

Gene Wilder dies yesterday and it’s the first movie listed in his obit.

Mind-blowing. I too first saw Gene in 1967’s “Bonnie & Clyde.” I remember 1968’s “Producers,” which caused a kerfuffle to the point where the Fine Arts in Westport, Connecticut, edited it itself. The scene with the blankie, it was incomprehensible.

And then came “Young Frankenstein.” The Mel Brooks tour-de-force, it cleaned up at the box office at the end of ’74. It was a cultural staple.

Not that I had not followed Mr. Wilder. I remember going to see “Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx” just before I shipped off for college in 1970. Gene played a mentally-challenged dung salesman who fell in love with Margot Kidder. It was the first time I ever saw her, before “Superman,” before the exploits revealing her mental issues, it was a small movie that stuck with me, but don’t they all.

“Willy Wonka” was a small movie. Not shot for a hundred million and marketed at half that number. Sure, the studio wanted to make money, but comic book heroes were not the only stars who could get a green light. But today, today, if you’re not shooting for the moon, the studio doesn’t want to play.

Nor does the record label. There’s all this hogwash about costs, both real and opportunity. No one wants to hit singles, never mind bunts, and…

The movies come and go.

But not “Willy Wonka.”

I was with a bunch of Gen X’ers and we were discussing the greatest comedies of all time.

All of theirs came from the twenty first century. I was stunned. No “Stripes,” never mind thirties classics.

But that’s today, when almost nothing from the past survives, when it’s all new and then thrown away.

Except for “Willy Wonka.”

“Willy Wonka” is Nick Drake. A film from the classic era which got a second chance, which resonated and held on. That’s right, it was re-released in 1996 and made $21 million.

And the lion’s share of streams on Spotify are catalog, old stuff, that just lasts and lasts.

So in an era of flash are we doing it wrong? Are we focusing on blockbuster me-too product when it’s the challenging stuff that tests limits which survives? Led Zeppelin sold out to Atlantic, their manager felt the records wouldn’t be worth anything in the future. Jim Morrison was dead for ten years before “Rolling Stone” put him on the cover. Led Zeppelin and the Doors not only survived, they flourished! Who from today will flourish in the future? Who are our “Willy Wonkas”? Are we even producing “Willy Wonkas”?

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