“A Little Nonsense Now And Then Is Relished By The Wisest Men”: RIP Gene Wilder

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The world just got a little sadder. News has been released that funnyman Gene Wilder has passed away at age 83 from complications due to Alzheimer’s Disease. Wilder was without question one of the greatest comic actors of the late 20th Century, beloved by both filmgoers and peers for the manic energy he brought to his everyman characters.

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Born in Milwaukee, Gene Wilder (nee’ Jerome Silberman) made his film debut in the small part of Eugene, hostage of the outlaw duo BONNIE & CLYDE. He then scored the plum role of neurotic accountant Leo Bloom, caught by in Zero Mostel’s scheme to produce a Broadway bomb in Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS. This was the first of three Wilder/Brooks collaborations, each one funnier than the last. BLAZING SADDLES casts Wilder as The Waco Kid, an alcoholic ex-gunfighter who helps Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) bring peace to Rock Ridge. Best of all was YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (“That’s Fronkensteen!”), a hysterical send-up of the Universal horror movies of the 30’s and 40’s that’s a film buff’s dream, which Wilder co-wrote and starred as Fredrick Frankenstein, descendant of the monster maker who creates his own monster (Peter Boyle) with hilarious consequences.

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Wilder was the original Candy Man in 1971’s WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, playing the delightful trickster of the title. The film wasn’t initially a hit, but gained momentum to become a cult classic beloved by millions. Wilder’s next film, Woody Allen’s episodic EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) did hit box office gold, and Wilder’s sequence as a psychiatrist who falls in love with a sheep named Daisy, is side-splittingly funny.

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In 1976, Wilder began another film collaboration, as he played opposite Richard Pryor in Arthur Hiller’s SILVER STREAK. The scene where Pryor teaches Wilder to act black, so he can escape the bad guys, is another comic gem. Their best pairing is undoubtably 1980’s STIR CRAZY, as two muttonheads framed for bank robbery and sentenced to 125 years in max. Once again, Pryor has to teach Wilder the ways of the streets by “acting tough”, (“That’s right, we bad, uh-huh”) with riotous results. As for their last two, SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL and ANOTHER YOU… well, as Joe E. Brown says in SOME LIKE IT HOT, “Nobody’s perfect”.

HANKY PANKY, from left: Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, 1982. ©Columbia Pictures
HANKY PANKY, from left: Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, 1982. ©Columbia Pictures

But Wilder’s most important collaboration came in 1981 when, while filming HANKY PANKY, he met SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alumnus Gilda Radner. The two fell in love and were married in 1984. After making THE WOMAN IN RED and HAUNTED HONEYMOON together (both films written and directed by Wilder), Gilda began feeling fatigued, and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She battled bravely but succumbed to the disease in 1989, devastating Wilder. Though he did remarry a few years later, he never quite got over Gilda, his comic match.

Besides those mentioned, Wilder also wrote, directed, and starred in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER and THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER, the former as Holmes’ jealous brother Sigerson, the latter a silent film spoof with Wilder as Rudolph Valentino wanna-be Rudy Hickman. Gene Wilder was one of the 70’s biggest box-office stars, a true renaissance man of the movies. He may be gone, but surely won’t be forgotten by anyone as long as there are film fans eager for classic comedy. Thanks for the laughter, Gene. You’ll be missed.

Egging The McGufffin: HIGH ANXIETY (20th Century Fox 1977)

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Mel Brooks loves films as much as the rest of us do. After skewering Westerns in BLAZING SADDLES and horror movies in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Mel set his satirical sights on Alfred Hitchcock in HIGH ANXIETY. The result is a film buff’s dream, with the gags coming fast and furious as Mel and his band of merry pranksters pay a loving but hysterical homage to the films of the Master of Suspense.

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Mel takes the lead here as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new head of the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Thorndyke’s aide, the inept Brophy, thinks the former director was “a victim of foul play”. At the Institute, he meets oily Dr. Montague and starched Nurse Diesel, whose S&M/B&D relationship isn’t their only secret. Thorndyke has an ally in his mentor, Prof. Lilloman (say it slowly). The professor works as a consultant, and tries to help Thorndyke conquer his own phobia, “high anxiety” (fear of heights to you laymen).

Thorndyke discovers some very rich patients are being held there, but Montague assures him they’re very sick people, such as Zachary Cartwright, who sees werewolves, and Arthur Brisbane, who thinks he’s a Cocker Spaniel. After the mysterious death (“murder… I mean accident, accident”, sputters Montague, Thorndyke is encouraged to attend the psychiatric convention in San Francisco. A “Mr. McGuffin” called and moved his room to the 17th floor! Once he makes it up there, a typical Hitchcock blonde bursts in, saying “They’re after me!” Turns out she’s Victoria Brisbane, daughter of Arthur. Thorndyke shows her a picture and she tells him the Cocker Spaniel-wanna-be is not her father at all!

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After completing his lecture on penis envy (which he has to alter when a colleague show up with his two young daughters!), Thorndyke and Victoria meet up in the piano bar, where we get to hear Mel croon his self-penned “High Anxiety” in his Sinatra-via-the-Catskills style. Monatgue and Diesel have hired a killer named “Braces” to disguise himself as Thorndyke and commit murder. Now Richard Thorndyke must clear his name and find out the truth about what’s really going on at the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous!

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Brooks loaded the cast with comedy pals like Harvey Korman as Montague, and Cloris Leachman as Nurse Diesel, who’s a cross between REBECCA’s Mrs. Danvers and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST’s Nurse Ratched. Madeline Kahn (Victoria), draped in a blonde wig, spoofs Hitchcock leading ladies like Grace Kelly and Tippy Hedren. Ron Carey, Charlie Callas, and Jack Riley add to the fun, and Oscar-winning Special Effects genius Albert Whitlock (who worked on nine Hitchcock films) plays the real Brisbane. Even Mel’s co-writers get into the act, including future director Barry Levinson (DINER, RAIN MAN) as a deranged bellboy.

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Fans of the Master will get most of the jokes right off the bat. Besides the obvious shower scene from PSYCHO and Mel being chased by THE BIRDS (pigeons who shit all over him… hey, nobody ever said Mel Brooks was subtle!), there are references to THE 39 STEPS, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, SABOTEUR, SPELLBOUND, REAR WINDOW, DIAL M FOR MURDER, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and of course VERTIGO. Even Hitchcock supposedly liked HIGH ANXIETY, sending Mel a case of expensive wine after watching it with a note reading, “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this”(1). Movie fans will have a ball picking out the Hitchcock allusions in HIGH ANXIETY…. once they stop laughing!

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(1) quote from “It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks” by James Robert Parrish (2008, Wiley & Sons, ISBN 9780470225264)

Way Out West: BLAZING SADDLES (Warner Brothers 1974)

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So last night I tried watching Seth MacFarlane’s A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. At about the twenty minute mark, I came to the conclusion the film totally sucked, and deleted it from the DVR. I was still in the mood for some Western comedy though, and fortunately I had Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES in the queue and ready to roll. BLAZING SADDLES never fails to make me laugh out loud no matter how many times I watch it. Nobody does fart jokes like Mel Brooks:

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The story revolves around Cleavon Little as Bart, a black man appointed sheriff of Rock Ridge by Governor LePetomane (Google it!). This doesn’t go over well with the God-fearin’ town citizens, since Bart is black, and they’re a bunch of redneck racists. It’s all a scheme by the Gov’s crooked Attorney General Hedy Lamarr…oops, that’s HEDLEY!  You see, Hedy (err, Hedley) knows the railroad is going to go through Rock Ridge and wants to drive the townsfolk out so he can buy up all the land. No one stands by Bart’s side except The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), formerly the fastest gun in the West, now a broken down drunkard.

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Hedy (ahem, Hedley!) sends Mongo, the meanest man in the West, to terrorize Rock Ridge and get rid of Bart. Unfortunately, Mongo has a brain the size of a pea, and is easily outwitted by Bart. So the devious Hedy (THAT’S HEDLEY!) sends his ace in the hole, German chanteuse Lily Von Schtupp to seduce him. The tables are turned when Lily finds out just how “gifted” Bart is! Finally, the most dastardly villains of the West are assembled, “an army of…rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters…muggers, buggerers, horse thieves, bull dykes”  to raid Rock Ridge and kill everyone in sight! The grand finale breaks the fourth wall as a wild and wooly slapstick melee ends up going through the Warner Brothers lot!

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Little is a riot as Bart, his cartoonish antics making him a black Bugs Bunny come to life. Wilder gives a sly performance as The Waco Kid, and Harvey Korman is hysterical as the fiendish Hedley Lamarr (whom everyone calls Hedy in a running joke). Western vet Slim Pickens is funny too, as Hedley’s lunkheaded henchman Taggart. Madeline Kahn does her best Marlene Dietrich impression as Lily Von Schtupp, with the pronunciation of Elmer Fudd. Her song, “I’m Tired”, is one of many highlights. Football legend Alex Karras plays the hulking Mongo as an overgrown kid, while John Hillerman, David Huddleston, George Furth, and Dom DeLuise also add to the fun.

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BLAZING SADDLES

Mel Brooks directed and had a hand in the screenplay, as well as playing three roles (The Gov, a Yiddish speaking Indian, and one of Lily’s Prussian back-up dancers). Like any Mel Brooks comedy, there’s enough here to offend everybody:  racist humor, politically incorrect gags, sexual innuendo, slapstick tomfoolery, plus lots of Hollywood in-jokes to savor in this no-holds-barred comedy classic. When it comes to spoofing the Western genre, sorry Seth, but Make Mine Mel! I’ll give the last word to that prairie philosopher, Mongo:

 

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