The 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory didn't come without controversy. Following the film's release, Wonka author Roald Dahl -- who was replaced as screenwriter on the film by David Seltzer when Dahl couldn't meet deadlines -- didn't care much for the finished version at all because it focused too much on Wonka and not enough on Charlie (among other reasons), which is why he refused to ever sign over the film rights to the Wonka sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Focusing on Wonka wasn't such a bad thing, though, because Gene Wilder's take as the eccentric candy factor owner is such a memorable one.
Dahl originally wanted Spike Milligan for the role of Wonka, but thankfully Wilder won over producers at his New York audition. From there, Wilder added a tremendous amount to the character -- offering up notes and suggestions (like giving Wonka a cane and a limp during his entrance so the audience would never know whether he was lying or not) -- as well as writing quirky, detailed letters to the film's director, Mel Stuart.
Letters of Note recently unearthed one of those letters, written after Wilder received some initial sketches of his costume. We love how particular his opinions are; how he not only takes into consideration what the outfit says about who is character is, but also how it'll look on camera. Some really great insight here from a master performer on the verge of delivering one of his most memorable performances.
Check it out below ...
I've just received the costume sketches. I'll tell you everything I think, without censoring, and you take from my opinion what you like.
I assume that the designer took his impressions from the book and didn't know, naturally, who would be playing Willy. And I think, for a character in general, they're lovely sketches.
I love the main thing — the velvet jacket — and I mean to show by my sketch the exact same color. But I've added two large pockets to take away from the svelt, feminine line. (Also in case of a few props.)
I also think the vest is both appropriate and lovely.
And I love the same white, flowing shirt and the white gloves. Also the lighter colored inner silk lining of the jacket.
What I don't like is the precise pin pointing in place and time as this costume does.
I don't think of Willy as an eccentric who holds on to his 1912 Dandy's Sunday suit and wears it in 1970, but rather as just an eccentric — where there's no telling what he'll do or where he ever found his get-up — except that it strangely fits him: Part of this world, part of another. A vain man who knows colors that suit him, yet, with all the oddity, has strangely good taste. Something mysterious, yet undefined.
I'm not a ballet master who skips along with little mincy steps. So, as you see, I've suggested ditching the Robert Helpmann trousers. Jodhpurs to me belong more to the dancing master. But once elegant now almost baggy trousers — baggy through preoccupation with more important things — is character.
Slime green trousers are icky. But sand colored trousers are just as unobtrusive for your camera, but tasteful.
The hat is terrific, but making it 2 inches shorter would make it more special.
Also a light blue felt hat-band to match with the same light blue fluffy bow tie shows a man who knows how to compliment his blue eyes.
To match the shoes with the jacket is fey. To match the shoes with the hat is taste.
Hope all is well. Talk to you soon.
All my best,