We lost one of the greats earlier this week, and while there are tributes pouring in, I prefer to remember Gene Wilder through his work. The best way to honor his memory is to dig into his greatest films and immerse yourself in his comedic genius. Here's an absolutely perfect way to spend one of your three days off this weekend...
10 A.M: Young Frankenstein
You've gotta start strong, and they don't come much stronger than this 1974 comedy classic that Wilder co-wrote with the film's director Mel Brooks. An absolute pitch perfect parody of Universal's classic horror films—particularly James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein—this film rightly deserves its legendary status because it's one of the few comedies without a single terrible joke. It's rare when every single joke lands in a film, and this is one of those films where the dedication of the actors and the quality of the humor make it so that every punchline works. It's a wonderful reminder of what a genius like Wilder could do when surrounded by such talented friends.
12 P.M: The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother
One of the two most underrated films of Wilder's career is his directorial debut, which takes more than a few cues from the time Wilder spent working with Mel Brooks. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother isn't a razor sharp as Young Frankenstein, but it's carried by the enthusiasm of a game ensemble cast that includes Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, Roy Kinnear, and an hysterical Leo McKern. Wilder would go on to direct three other films, but this remains his best work behind the camera, and a lovely companion piece to Young Frankenstein.
2 P.M: Stir Crazy
Wilder's second of four collaborations with Richard Pryor is also their best. You could mount an argument for Silver Streak as well, but I think this Sidney Poitier directed prison comedy is far and away their funniest film together. Like many of the best comedy teams, Wilder and Pryor could play the straight man or the buffoon, could seamlessly switch between the two, and were equally skilled at playing both roles. While some of the humor hasn't aged well—this is a movie set in a prison in the deep south in the early 80s—the stuff that works does so brilliantly, and it's a treat to watch these two comedic geniuses volley with one another for two hours.
4 P.M: The Producers
The film that launched Wilder's career—and earned him his first Oscar nomination—The Producers is probably more famous now as a Broadway musical, but the original film is still a lean and very mean comedy. Showing that he was always at his best with another great actor to work in tandem with, Wilder plays the straight man to the brilliant Zero Mostel as two unscrupulous men trying to make a fortune off of producing a flop titled "Springtime for Hitler." The film's third act turn is one of the best in comedy, and has been aped countless times since, and it works so wonderfully because Wilder and Mostel both have imbued both of these crooks with a tremendous amount of empathy.
6 P.M: The Frisco Kid
The second of the aforementioned "most underrated movies" in Wilder's career is this woefully underseen 1979 comedy where Wilder plays Avram Belinsky, a Polish Rabbi sent to open a new temple in San Francisco during the late 19th century. Upon landing in Philadelphia, "The city where all the brothers love each other," Avram is robbed and left with nothing, until he meets Harrison Ford's Tommy, an outlaw who takes pity on the poor rabbi and decides to help him get to his destination. This was sadly the only pairing of the two actors, both of whom shine in this film. Seriously, this was one of my grandmother's favorite movies, and she had damn good taste.
8 P.M: Haunted Honeymoon
There has to be a Gene and Gilda movie on the list, and though their three films together were subpar compared with the rest of their work, this Wilder-directed take-off on Noël Coward still has more good stuff than bad stuff in it. Working for the third and final time with his wife Gilda Radner and Dom DeLuise, Wilder crafted another achingly specific parody of a genre that most audiences in the 80s could have cared less about—see also, or rather don't, High Spirits, the Armageddon to Haunted Honeymoon's Deep Impact.
10 P.M: Blazing Saddles
As the film festival winds down, let's return one final time to Wilder's work with Mel Brooks. If you've somehow managed to get this far into your life without seeing this film, enjoy it all the first time. If this is your seven hundredth time watching it, focus on Wilder's subtly brilliant work here. He manages to take a stock character and, to paraphrase Loki, burden him with glorious purpose. Had Gig Young played the role in the film, as originally cast, he would have done a fine job and the film would still be a comedy classic, but with Wilder, it's elevated to the level of a classic.
Midnight: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
How else to close out this Gene Wilder film festival than with the first film most of us saw him in—provided you're under 50. In a hard, cynical world like ours, Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka is the exact man we need, one who is able to suss out the good kids from the bad kids, reward those that deserve recognition, and punish those that don't. The callous and aloof man we meet at the beginning of the film is all part of a carefully constructed test by Wonka, and when he finally drops the façade and embraces Charlie at the end, you understood him completely.
The perfect way to cap off the night is with Ella Fitzgerald's cover of Over the Rainbow, the song that Wilder and his family were listening to when he drew his last breath. I would challenge you to hold back the tears at this point, but let them flow. Gene Wilder brought us so much love and laughter over the years, and best of all, will continue to for years to come.