50 Years Ago Today: The Release of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”

The perennial family classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was released on June 30, 1971. A rather dismissive article in The Guardian prompts me to add my voice to the chorus of the film’s supporters, and not just because it was a childhood favorite. I’ve watched it numerous times as an adult and I find its inconsistencies and quirks to be enigmatic and beguiling, enough to keep me interested no matter how many times I watch it — this on top of the fantastic psychedelic visuals.

It’s of course based on Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I also enjoyed, although not nearly as much. We’ve previously written about Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Dahl had a dark sensibility and that remains a huge component of the film, despite protestions of Dahl and others that it became otherwise. It is extraordinarily satirical about the decadence of modern consumer society as represented by four monstrous, spoiled children hailing from the richest nations of the capitalist west, the U.S., the U.K. and West Germany (as it was then styled). Chocolate magnate Willy Wonka (played by Gene Wilder in what may be his most iconic screen performance) is capricious, cruel, arbitrarily perverse, and quite possibly insane. He is an inventor of eccentric genius, who employs slave-like little people, the much-beloved Oompa-Loompas, to make his product. He holds a lottery, the prize of which is a rare factory tour, thereby selling out all of his wares. How is he not also a capitalist monster? The redeeming feature, one supposes, is theoretically that he makes candy, which all children (and most adults) love above even TOYS. But, ya know, he still SELLS it for MONEY. And he does bestow his favor on young Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), an Oliver-like waif who lives in a slum with four invalid grandparents all supported by his washerwoman mother, but, like, what’s Wonka doing for all the other poor kids? How is the factory-owner who sells candy made with slave labor the moral arbiter and judge (and apparently also the executioner!) of the rotten rich children who demand his candy? It’s all of a muddle.

But the saving graces include Wilder’s madcap performance, terrific songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Briscusse (“The Candy Man” was a big hit for Sammy Davis Jr), and delightful costumes, make-up and art direction. And a sea of recognizable character actors. Ironically, I already knew Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe) from The Poseidon Adventure before Willy Wonka came to TV, which is where I first saw the latter film. Roy Kinnear (Mr. Salt) was a highly recognizable British character actor of the day, fresh from such things as the Beatles Help! (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), How I Won the War (1966), and much else. Leonard Stone (Violet’s father) and Nora “Dodo” Denney (Mike Teevee’s mom) were also familiar faces. Aubrey Woods had played Fagin in the original stage production of Oliver.

Oddly, director Mel Stuart was (and is) best known for documentaries, including the Making of the President series, and lots of stuff about the Kennedys, although in the period just prior to Willy Wonka, he had made the comedies If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969) and I Love My Wife (1970).

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a moderate hit at the time of its release, but very,much like The Wizard of Oz and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang it eventually assumed a kind of outsized status as a perennial television classic. “The Candy Man”, the Oompa-Loompa Song, “Pure Imagination” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” are all songs most of us can conjure at a moment’s notice. And may I say, though I really love Tim Burton, his remake was a major disappointment — I don’t remember a damn thing about it. There’s talk now of a prequel, and I am storing up my bile, gettin’ ready to spew it. You mess with perfection, and proceed not to match it in magic? Then you’re a bad egg and need to go down to the juicing room.

May your snozzberries always taste like snozzberries.