arteejee

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Saturday, September 03, 2016

But Some Call Me…Jim: Gene Wilder



We lost a true comedic icon this week with the passing of Gene Wilder at the age of 83.  True to form with our American culture, his best remembered works are being released for a short time in tribute. His most revered work in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles will appear on the big screen in select theaters this weekend, even as his best remembered role Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is still in heavy rotation on cable television.  These are both wonderful films, but there are so many other Wilder performances being overlooked and in desperate need of being rediscovered.

We needn’t worry about The Producers and Young Frankenstein, Wilder’s two other collaborations with Brooks.  It seems that these two films have never gone out of style.  Brooks even managed to recycle his take on an old backstage show business story - rumor has it that the plot for The Producers was also proposed as a story idea for the Marx Brothers’ A Night at The Opera - into Broadway gold.  The latter film is a marvelous spoof of the Hollywood horror genre photographed in - how else - wonderful black and white.

Yet there are a number of other gems in Wilder’s career that are worthy of another look.  Following The Producers, Wilder starred in the charming Quackster Fortune Has A Cousin in the Bronx (I am not making this title up), and a Norman Lear spoof on A Tale of Two Cities with obvious Brooks overtones,  Start The Revolution Without Me.   Willy Wonka followed, as did a short memorable performance as a sheep obsessed doctor in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* *But Were Afraid to Ask.  This last film was based on a book by psychiatrist Dr. David Reuben, and its title is a testament to the fact that even as America adopted more swinging mores in the 1960s, we still felt uncomfortable shedding our Victorian era notions at that late date.

Brooks’ western spoof Blazing Saddles is, for my money, the greatest commentary on bigotry and racism ever put to celluloid (sincere apologies to the producers of To Kill a Mockingbird).  Wilder played a washed up gunfighter in this Brooksian free for all, loaded with every comedic trick from puns (a laurel…and hardy handshake) to self-conscious realism. Wilder, for his performance, played his part of Jim (“But some people call me…Jim”) straight as the lunacy cascaded around him.

A made for television movie, Thursday’s Game, paired Wilder with Bob Newhart, who in turn were supported by a number of other then current denizens of American television situation comedies at the time: Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper, Rob Reiner, and Nancy Walker among others.  The film was written by James L. Brooks, then producing the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and later developed The Simpsons.   Wilder had the best luck getting to work with some of the most gifted comedy talents of the 1970s.  Of course, his agent probably had a lot to with this…

Wilder worked once more with the other Brooks on Young Frankenstein before working Brooks style out of his system with the awkwardly titled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.  I actually paid money to see this one; I don’t regret my choice, but I’m not in any hurry to see it again nearly 40 years later.

Then there is his performance which impressed me the most: The Frisco Kid.  Wilder made me totally forget his previous personas of a well-meaning nebbish with his portrayal of a Polish rabbi crossing the American West circa 1850.  The film had major star power with Harrison Ford as his co-star; the latter was still riding the crest of beginning stardom fresh from his role in Star Wars (the original).   Hey, cable tv, we need to see this one again!

Two more collaborations were on the horizon for Wilder: one with Richard Pryor and another with up and coming comedienne Gilda Radner.  His first teaming with Pryor on Silver Streak is the most memorable, being patterned after the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  The popularity of this film led to three more teamings with Pryor, and they probably would gone on forever had not Pryor’s health deteriorated as quickly as it did.

Wilder’s collaborations with Radner were fruitful even as it eventually descended into somewhat Brooks’ style silly.  They met on Hanky Panky, developed a friendship and then into marriage in real life.  A more or less straight role as a husband with a midlife crisis in Women in Red gave way to Haunted Honeymoon.  We can only speculate what would have happened next but, as with Pryor, Radner’s health also declined.   She would be gone by the end of the decade, but her memory lives on in Gilda’s Club, a series of support shelters for those afflicted with cancer around the country.  Wilder, as the grieving husband, helped found this tribute to Gilda’s legacy.

We can only hope that he has been reunited with her in whatever afterlife we care to imagine exists.  There is no denying that Wilder left us an extraordinary legacy of his own.  We have only to turn on our televisions, queue up our cds or streaming services, and enjoy as much as can.

(Thank you for reading.  Rest in Peace, Mr. Wilder.)

7 Comments:

Blogger Raybeard said...

I would have been hard-pressed to have been able to count Gene Wilder's films on the fingers of just one hand. You've now somewhat remedied that, including one or two I've never heard of, though even then I don't think that the tally of his output does justice to the man. A sad departure indeed, despite his having had a good innings.

September 3, 2016 at 11:13 AM  
Blogger Bob Slatten said...

And, I might add, "Thanks for the laughs."

September 3, 2016 at 2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A nice tribute!

~ Freckles

September 3, 2016 at 9:51 PM  
Blogger Ur-spo said...

He always made me smile and laugh.

September 4, 2016 at 2:43 PM  
Blogger todd gunther said...

Thank you all for your thoughts. Warrior Queen read his autobiography a few years ago and she just reminded me that I put it on my shelf as a book I intended to read. Perhaps I should start now.

September 4, 2016 at 5:48 PM  
Blogger slugmama said...

One of the greats of his era.
Don't forget the flick, The World's Greatest Lover, and his cameo in Bonnie and Clyde as the undertaker they kidnap.

September 6, 2016 at 8:39 AM  
Blogger todd gunther said...

Believe it or not I have never seen The World's Greatest Lover all the way through. I am familiar with his small role in Bonnie and Clyde. Thanks for these two memories, Slugmamma!

September 6, 2016 at 9:25 PM  

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