My father had a great sense of humor and he passed that on to me through his classic, pull-my-finger gag, and through the movies he loved. It was a long list of movies that included Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Refer Madness, Caddy Shack and many of the Gene Wilder movies of the 70’s and 80’s. It is not hyperbole to say that we wore out the VHS of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. I laughed at things I didn’t understand, I laughed at stupid jokes and I always laughed at and loved Gene Wilder. He was the type of performer that no matter what he was doing in a scene you wanted to watch him. Wether he was the focus of the camera or part of the background he was always engaging.
From the very beginning Gene Wilder POPPED! If you watch his scene in his very first feature film, Bonnie and Clyde, the shades of what would become his signature manic but restrained energy is obvious. It is a small scene in the middle of the movie but he is engaging the entire time. As his career developed through his partnerships with Richard Pryor or his collaborations with Mel Brooks he was revealed to be unique comic voice that was entertaining in everything. For many current comedic performers you can find a reflection of their talent somewhere in the past. But for those rare unique voices, they are undefinable and no one really can achieve what they do with a performance. There just aren’t past performers who did what they do and no one currently filling the void they occupied. To me, Gene Wilder is that unique kind of performer.
He has so many iconic roles. I loved him as the smug gunslinger in Blazing Saddles, he was great as the aloof but compassionate recluse in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, and brilliant as the in-over-his-head-goofball in Stir Crazy. But for me Young Frankenstein is my favorite of all of his performances, as I said before we wore out the VHS, because he was all of those things wrapped up in one role. He shows every facet of his comedic genius. He plays the smug erudite professor at the beginning, who is proven to be inept when he plunges a scalpel into his leg. Then when he gets to the castle he becomes the in-over-his-head manic and crazed scientist who is obsessed with fulfilling his grandfather’s vision. And in the end he is a thoughtful and compassionate creator. But his performance in the scene when he realizes that they have an abnormal brain in the Frankenstein Monster is pure comic genius. It has all his gifts wrapped in a short 1:30 scene. He goes from controlled and analytical to crazed and desperate and you are hanging on every sentence as it draws you closer to the moment he explodes. I could watch it over and over and over.
Gene Wilder’s passing makes me sad that we won’t get his comedic voice going forward, and that we got so precious little of it the past 20 years. It also makes me sad that part of my childhood and one of the connections I had with my father is now gone. The great thing is the movies and his genius will live on in those films. Now that my father has passed I know that I can grab my copy of Young Frankenstein (now on DVD) and I can watch it with my son and daughter and I can witness a comic genius at work and I can be with a part of my father for 1hr 46min. I can also pass that on to my children and hope they get as much from as I did when I was younger.
Whatever Wilder performance you connect with most put it in and go back to that moment you discovered it and enjoy the film and of course enjoy Gene Wilder.
Rest in peace Mr. Wilder and Thank You for everything you gave us!