Spending September with Gene Wilder.

When I found out Gene Wilder passed away a month ago, I was thrown for a loop. Although it makes absolutely no sense, I had always assumed he would be around. A world without Gene Wilder? That's insane -- but it's what we have now, and because I'm a sentimental fool, I've been trying to fill my life with as much Wilder as I could. Reading all of the dedications to him made me realize that I had only seen a small portion of his filmography, the usual suspects if you will: Bonnie and ClydeWilly Wonka..., and his three with Mel Brooks. The only outlier was Haunted Honeymoon, a flick I had checked out of my local library years ago when I had finished Wilder's autobiography and was curious to see what he and Gilda Radner were like together. Practically all of my September has been devoted to Gene's films and the big takeaway is this: I love Mr. Wilder more than ever. Below are short reviews of all of the movies I watched, plus where I found them if you want to host your own Gene marathon (which I highly recommend).

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes's Smarter Brother (1975)
I am an absolute nut when it comes to Sherlock Holmes. I adore the books and during my overseas adventure this summer, I got to actually visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221B Baker Street in London! I grinned like an idiot the whole hour I was in line. So, finding out that Gene made his own contribution to the Holmes canon was exciting. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes's Smart Brother is what its title says, as it follows a case that Sherlock throws to his brother Sigerson, an angsty fellow who resents his more famous sibling, dubbing him "Sheer-luck."

Hearing the premise, you would think that Sigerson is a bumbling fool who clearly can't keep up with his brother, but you'd be wrong. Sigerson is fully capable and indeed has many of Sherlock's qualities, such as swordsmanship, quick thinking, and being able to size people up. Sigerson, however, is easier to relate to. He's very intelligent, but as a character tells him near the end, he isn't as great as Sherlock because he can't stay two or three steps ahead of the criminal like Sherlock can.

Sigerson's characterization doesn't meet the almost-superhuman heights of Doyle's Holmes, which is why Sherlock decides to pass a case on to him; it requires seducing the client, a singer named Jenny Hill (played by the fabulous Madeline Kahn), and as many of us know, Sherlock doesn't do romance. (Irene Adler was never a real romantic interest in the original story. She outsmarted Sherlock and he greatly admired her for it, but that was basically it.) The film's villain is the popular choice of Mr. Moriarty, but here, we get maybe the silliest version of Sherlock's foe that I've ever seen. I mean, he's bad at math, despite Doyle making him one of the world's best mathematicians. Also joining the fun is Marty Feldman as a Scotland Yard detective that Sherlock sends to help Sigerson.

While the movie is a comedy, it plays things straighter than what you would think...sometimes. For example, there are some terrific fight scenes between Sigerson and two baddies on top of racing hansom cabs, and between Sigerson and Moriarty. Doyle's mythology can be ripe for parody, but Wilder, who wrote and directed the film, holds back and doesn't always go for the obvious joke.

One aspect that surprised me was the old Victorian-style songs. Madeline Kahn had a wonderful voice, having studied singing for years. Her collaborations with Mel Brooks often demonstrated her singing, and with Sherlock Holmes's Smarter Brother, she gets to do a good amount of it. My favorite parts usually included these moments, such as when Sigerson is trying to determine if Jenny is who she claims to be. He goes through a whole repertoire of songs, trailing off in the middle of them to see if Jenny can finish them. It doesn't sound very humorous, but Wilder and Kahn absolutely sell it.

Sherlock Holmes's Smarter Brother came to be during production of Young Frankenstein. Wilder had co-written YF with Mel Brooks and came up with the original idea, which led to an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. On the set of that film, Wilder was busy writing his next project, leading Brooks to warn him that he would soon be doing his own directing in order to protect his material. Wilder realized he was right, making Sherlock Holmes's Smarter Brother his directorial debut.

This film actually contains one of my new favorite cinematic moments: Wilder, Kahn, and Feldman doing "The Kangaroo Hop." It comes out of nowhere, but I find it brilliant. It's such a delightful expression of joy. You can watch the film in full on YouTube here.

Silver Streak (1976)
Because this was Gene Wilder's first film with Richard Pryor, it's one I've heard about a lot. However, once again I was a little misled. Pryor doesn't come into the movie until its halfway point; his scenes with Wilder proved so strong, though, that they became an official team in subsequent films. Silver Streak is also sure to remind you of Hitchcock a lot, particularly The Lady Vanishes and North by Northwest. This isn't a bad thing -- in fact, I count it as one of the movie's strengths, but that's because my favorite director + Gene = Michaela's heart explodes. Usually I roll my eyes at Hitchcock ripoffs, but here, I had fun picking out the similarities. Maybe it's because Silver Streak knows exactly when to play things straight and when to be silly. It isn't a laugh a minute like Gene's Brooks comedies, but it doesn't need to be, especially with someone who could glide between drama and comedy as naturally as Gene could.

So, what's the movie about? Gene plays a book editor who decides to take the Silver Streak train from Los Angeles to Chicago to get to his sister's wedding. Things start well enough -- he makes a new acquaintance in a vitamin salesman played by Ned Beatty and by dinnertime, he's eating and flirting with a professor's assistant, the beautiful Jill Clayburgh. They retire to her compartment for the night, but as things become steamy, Gene sees a murdered man hanging from the top of the train outside of the window. Clayburgh thinks he's just seeing things, but as the trip goes on, it becomes apparent that Gene is a witness to something nefarious.

There are a few little twists and turns in this film, some of which I didn't see coming. (I don't want to spoil anything so I'll just say that not all of the action takes places on the train.) I think what I appreciated the most about Silver Streak was, no surprise, Gene. His first few scenes with Jill Clayburgh have real heat to them. I've always considered Wilder attractive, but this script makes him a bona fide romantic lead. Their conversation over dinner and their subsequent canoodling in Clayburgh's room is obviously a nod to North by Northwest, and I would compare it favorably to Cary and Eva.

Silver Streak's most infamous scene, however, is perhaps its most dated. Through spoiler-y circumstances, Gene has to hide from the police and gets Richard Pryor's help in doing so. Pryor suggests he wear blackface and encourages him to do an exaggerated imitation of a black man. Some find it problematic, some think it's funny. I'll let you decide for yourself on that one.

Directed by Arthur Hiller and scored by my favorite composer, Henry Mancini, Silver Streak is a fun comedy-thriller, and Gene gives a terrific performance. You can rent this film on Amazon Video like I did, or you can rent it through YouTube.

The World's Greatest Lover (1977)
"I will win that screen test! Not because I'm the best actor in the world! Not because I'm the sexiest man in the world! Not because I'm the most handsome man in the world! But because I am unique!" This outburst by Wilder's character basically sums up Wilder himself, although I would argue that he was indeed handsome and an incredible actor. But what makes Gene stand apart is his uniqueness, his thoroughly magical way of making the most uneventful scene suddenly come alive with possibilities. What's he going to do here? What's coming at the end of that pause? Will he go crazy, or stay cool? This live wire aspect of Wilder is part of what makes him so entertaining; his reactions were consistently perfect. So, while not every film he made was a masterpiece, I find ways to enjoy them through watching Gene.

That brings me to The World's Greatest Lover. It's definitely not a Great Comedy, but I can't find fault with Gene. I can with his character, but not with his performance. TWGL, written and directed by Wilder, takes place in 1920's Hollywood during the height of Rudolph Valentino's fame. Fictional Rainbow Studios wants to rival Valentino's studio, Paramount, so they send out an advertisement to find the next Valentino. Milwaukee baker Rudy Hickman answers the call and takes his new bride (Carol Kane) with him. What he doesn't know is that his wife has fallen for the real Valentino, having watched him on the screen and having received a reply from him to her fan letter. Feeling that her ambitious, overbearing husband doesn't understand her like Valentino does, she leaves Rudy, just moments before he is to do his screen test. Which will Rudy choose: his dream or his wife?

I wouldn't exactly call this film a parody of the silent era. I'm not even sure I would dub it a tribute. Really, if it weren't for the information pertaining to Valentino, this film could almost be set in any time period. It doesn't try to do the stereotypical silent movie tropes, which is refreshing. I guess TWGL's biggest problem is that it isn't as funny as it could be, but to be honest, I'm not sure it wants to be. At some point, it becomes about Carol Kane and what she wants, with Wilder's character having to grow up and recognize that marriage is a partnership. There is a genuinely moving moment at the end of the film when Rudy begs his wife to come back to him, allowing Wilder to showcase his dramatic talent.

After his passing, Carol Kane spoke to the Associated Press about Wilder, who gave her her first comedic role with TWGL. Up until then, she had been known for drama, and although she had received an Oscar nomination in 1975, for a year afterwards, she had no film offers. Until Gene called. "He was a gentle man and a gentleman ... a true, true artist," Kane said. "We never saw anyone like him before or after." You can read the rest of the actress's thoughts here. You can also see TWGL in full on YouTube here.

Stir Crazy (1980)
After Silver Streak, Wilder and Pryor were put together again for Stir Crazy, a comedy that has the men mistaken for bank robbers and sent to jail. The guys try to navigate their new territory, which is made more difficult by the warden and his henchman, a guard played by Craig T. Nelson. This movie and Silver Streak are frequently considered the best of the four Wilder/Pryor teamings; I haven't watched See No Evil, Hear No Evil or Another You (Gene's last theatrical film actually), but I'm sure I'll get to them soon.

Stir Crazy is fun because Gene's character is a little unbalanced -- he lives in his own world and it throws people off. The best part of the film for me is when the warden is trying to convince Gene to compete in the upcoming rodeo, a crooked competition between the warden and another jail's warden. The men bet against each other and pocket the prize money instead of using it for the inmates like they are supposed to. Wilder, Pryor, and their two new inmate friends are wise to the warden, so they hatch their own scheme by having Wilder refuse the warden in order to gain leverage when he finally accepts, leverage that helps the guys plan their escape. Craig T. Nelson's guard throws all of the horrible punishments he can think of to break Wilder down, but nothing works. Hanging him by his arms for a long time fixes his back problem; putting him in a cell with the scariest inmate just gains him another ally; and so on.

I found Stir Crazy on Amazon Video, but it's also available for renting on YouTube. Interestingly, Stir Crazy was directed by Sidney Poitier. Poitier began directing films in 1972, Stir Crazy being his sixth picture. He would direct Wilder again in my next film...

Hanky Panky (1982)
If you're a fan of Gene, I would consider this required viewing. Why? It was on this movie that Gene met Gilda Radner. Hanky Panky has been described as Hitchcockian, but I think a film has to follow certain rules to justify that adjective. Not every thriller or suspense film is Hitchcockian. I think Hanky Panky is called that just because Gene plays a man who gets caught up in a tale of intrigue. He shares a cab with a mysterious woman and later when she is murdered, he is named as the killer and he has to go on the run to clear his name. Gilda (seemingly) stumbles into the plot and tries to help him. Of course, there are a few plot twists, but for the most part, the film has a pretty straightforward narrative. Wonderfully, the villain is played by Richard Widmark, whose presence adds some serious weight. Widmark was always great at being the bad guy, so when he threatens a character or goes after someone, you feel a little frightened -- that's how it should be.

I watched this movie on Amazon Video, but you can also find it for renting on YouTube.

The Woman in Red (1984)
This was probably my least favorite this month. Gene plays a married man who becomes obsessed with a beautiful model he sees one day in a parking garage. Throughout the film, Gene's character gives no thought to cheating on his wife. His lies to her are executed disturbingly well, despite this being his first attempt at an affair, and his group of friends are the same way -- two of the three are actually caught cheating themselves! There are four saving graces to this film: Charles Grodin, Gilda Radner, Gene, and Stevie Wonder.

Grodin is one of Wilder's friends and easily the most interesting of the bunch. The audience doesn't realize that Grodin's character is gay until midway through, when his partner confronts him with his adultery. What's nice is that the other characters, particularly his male friends, don't condemn him or judge him for his homosexuality. It's treated very matter-of-factly -- this character is just like everyone else. So, that's nice, especially for 1984.

The film's biggest mistake, however, is not using Gilda Radner to its full advantage. She plays a co-worker of Gene's; he accidentally invites her to dinner, thinking he is speaking to the woman in red. When he is forced to stand her up, she becomes livid, but calls him to give him a second chance. Still believing he is talking to the model, he goes to the bar Radner is at, but instantly leaves when he sees her -- after all, he can't be meeting a woman who isn't his wife in front of someone from work. Jilted again, Radner goes on a revenge spree, keying Wilder's car and more during a funny montage that finds Wilder absolutely confused as to why Radner suddenly hates him. After all this, though, Gilda fades to the background and disappears altogether with maybe 30-35 minutes left to go in the movie.

The Woman in Red's main distinction is its music. Its music was done by the one and only Stevie Wonder, with some songs also featuring Dionne Warwick. The mega-hit "I Just Called to Say I Love You" is actually from this film! Unfortunately, I don't think Wilder utilized it as well as he could have as the movie's director and writer. You really just hear the chorus twice as Gene calls/lies to his wife on his way to see the model. "I Just Called.." won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and deservedly so.

Although it is not without its charms, The Woman in Red is the weakest film I've seen from Gene yet. I wouldn't let that deter you from seeing it, but I wouldn't expect you to go rushing to see it, either. I caught it on Amazon Video, and it looks like YouTube has it for renting too. If you want to ascertain whether renting is worth it, I would suggest checking out clips on YouTube.

I still have two more Wilder films sitting in my DVR, The Frisco Kid with Harrison Ford and Start the Revolution Without Me with Donald Sutherland, but school suddenly got a lot busier and I haven't had the time. What's been interesting for me to see is how popular Gene's movies suddenly became with the news of his passing. I know it's not a rare thing for that to happen when there is a celebrity death, but still, it was kind of touching to see my local Barnes and Noble cleaned out of a number of his films, as well as the amount of DVDs that were backordered online. (It was sweet, but it also super frustrating for this writer, who was trying to complete her own Wilder collection.)

We'll miss you, Gene, but thanks for always being you.

With love,
Michaela

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