It’s interesting to see what headlines various news services are going with for Wilder: “Young Frankenstein” star, “Willy Wonka” star, star of “Mel Brooks classics,” star of “classic comedies.” Personally, I’ll go with the “Mel Brooks classics,” because Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” — though probably Wilder’s best performance — isn’t enough.
Indeed, what would “The Producers” have been without Wilder’s squeamish accountant, Leo Bloom? Though the movie’s shrillness can wear on me — Zero Mostel is not known for comic subtlety — it’s endlessly quotable.
Take the scene, early on, in which Bloom gets hysterical. “I’m hysterical!” he says, so Mostel’s Max Bialystock throws water on him. “I’m wet! I’m wet! I’m hysterical and I’m wet!” So Bialystock slaps him. “I’m in pain! I’m wet! And I’m still hysterical!”
That got him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
As for “Blazing Saddles,” it’s my favorite comedy, period.
But though Wilder and Brooks were a match made in comedy heaven, I’d like to call attention to two other Wilder performances. First there’s 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” (Yes, Gene Wilder was in “Bonnie and Clyde.”) Wilder played one of the outlaws’ hostages, who’s caught by surprise when his girlfriend confesses her real age.
The look on his face is priceless.
Then there’s the little-seen “The Frisco Kid,” from 1979, in which Wilder starred as a 19th-century rabbi trying to make his way to San Francisco from Philadelphia. Harrison Ford plays a bank robber who takes pity on Wilder’s character as he makes his way west. The movie was uneven, but there’s a classic scene in which Wilder refuses to ride on Shabbat, despite he and Ford being chased by a posse.
He finally settles on an interpretation of “sunset” he can live with, and the two take off.
I will say, despite Wilder’s comic gifts, when I was a kid he scared me. Who wouldn’t be scared by his Willy Wonka?
I’m glad “Blazing Saddles” cured me of that misconception.