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Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Film Buff: Pure Imagination

Tomorrow is the birthday of one of my favorite actors: Gene Wilder of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young FrankensteinBlazing Saddles, Stir Crazy, and married-to-Gilda-Radner fame.
Wilder's first big break in the film business was in a small, but memorable role in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde. he then went on to originate the role of Leo bloom in Mel Brook's 1968 film The producers which would later spawn a musical and then a musical movie, neither of which quite reach the level of the original, in my opinion.
(Yes, I know. I'm an arrogant intellectual elitist. I'm always supposed to think the original is better. Well, I like the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair better than the original, so there.)
Wilder really broke out to wider audiences with his portrayal of the enigmatic Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He only accepted the role on the condition that he could create this memorable scene. Wonka's grand entrance/cane walk/fall/somersault was Wilder's idea, and he insisted upon doing ibecause, in his words, "from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth." Brilliant!
What would follow would be two of Gene Wilder's biggest hits, both with director Mel Brooks: the bawdy Blazing Saddles lampooning classic Hollywood Westerns and Wilder's own scripted spoof of classic horror films, Young Frankenstein.
Right around this time, Wilder also made a quirky little TV movie with Bob Newhart called Thursday's Game, which is one of today's Friday Film Buff recommendations.
Here's the premise: two married guys (Newhart and Wilder) regularly kiss their wives goodnight early and head off to their weekly poker game with the boys, a tradition they've participated in for years. One night, an argument causes the game to break up, and the two guys don't know what to do with their Thursdays. Accustomed to having their weekly night out, the two men decide to keep the ruse of the poker game going and instead get together every Thursday and do, just whatever they feel like doing. 

It's a simple story, but it is sold by the strong performances of Newhart and Wilder. Unfortunately, I don't think it's out on DVD and even a VHS version can be hard to come by, but, if you snoop around the internet a bit, you might just find some way to watch the movie. (Ahem.)
In 1976, Wilder took the role of the protagonist in Arthur Hiller's action-comedy-thriller Silver Streak, which would begin the on-screen partnership between Wilder and comedian Richard Pryor (one of the writers on Blazing Saddles). They would make three more films together.

We'll call Silver Streak today's second recommendation. Maybe you've already seen it, maybe you haven't, but you should.
Wilder met comedienne Gilda Radner while filming Hanky Panky directed by his friend Sidney Poitier. Radner and Wilder became fast friends and eventually their friendship grew into something far more. The two were married in 1984. Heartbreakingly, Radner would lose her three-year battle with ovarian cancer in 1989.
Wilder made a few more movies with Richard Pryor (whose health was also deteriorating due to MS) and even regular TV appearances. He remains active as an author and an advocate for cancer research, and tomorrow, he will be a spry 78 years old.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Wilder. 

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