by Michael B. Hock
Back in High School, I had this one friend. He knew I loved movies, so he would constantly try to push me to watch things out of my comfort zone. It resulted in some good movies, some bad movies, and one interesting experience watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a giant V on my forehead. Like I said, he tried to push me out of my comfort zone. That was just him.
One day he came to me with an old tape of a black and white movie, and told me to watch it. Kids, we used to have to watch movies on something called “tapes.” The experience was pretty horrible, but there were very rarely issues with streaming. Anyway, he wanted to show me this old black and white movie called Young Frankenstein. I initially balked.
“But it’s black and white,” I probably said. This was over twenty years ago and I’m currently trying to remember where I put my wallet.
“But you like Mel Brooks,” Jon would have responded, making an argument that I probably would have agreed to. I did like Mel Brooks, having grown up with Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Spaceballs. When history gets around to noting that Mel Brooks was one of the greatest writers to have lived, they will probably shuffle those two movies off with the likes of Titus Andronicus and that episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer where beer made everyone turn into monsters.
Jon, who was typically right, put the tape in the VCR, and for the next two hours I was laughing at the antics of Frankenstein in a way that I would have never laughed at before. Gene Wilder, playing the young Frank-n-steen, trying to outlive his father’s legacy only to find himself singing “Putting on the Ritz” with a monster that could barely get four syllables out.
I don’t claim to know a lot about Gene Wilder. I got a little taste of his brilliance in Willy Wonka, the role he was the most known for. I loved him in Young Frankenstein, for sure. And we can’t forget the grandaddy parody movie of them all, Blazing Saddles. He was brilliant in the Producers, originating the role that too many only know from Broadway. I know that the man was funny, and he was funny at a time when I was learning what funny was.
To me, Gene Wilder was a true comic, one who we don’t see much of anymore. He was a man who understood that the true way to be funny is to bring out the best in everyone around him. Zero Mostel’s deranged Max Bialystock doesn’t have much to work with without the sad-sack Leo Bloom hanging around him. Cleavon Little is hilarious as Bart, but really picks up when he has a sidekick in the Waco Kid. Even his signature role, that of potentially murderous candy maker Willy Wonka doesn’t show up until well after we’ve established a world that exists without Gene Wilder.
But to me, he will always be Dr. Frankenstein. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a bad mood and the mere sight of that movie has cheered me up. And it was always Gene Wilder’s performance that made me laugh. That over the top but at the same time playing everything remarkably straight performance that did it for me.
Goodbye, Gene. A lot of people are throwing out lines about Pure Imagination or something else that makes them feel better. The only line I can think of right now is like you… even though I have a tear in my eye, I want to laugh.
“Put the candle back.”