On Monday came news that actor Gene Wilder had passed away at age 83. The remembrances came pouring in, but one piece of ephemera in particular offers a line into Wilder’s comedic and sartorial sensibilities.
In 2012, the website Letters of Note published a letter Wilder had sent Mel Stuart, the director of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, in 1970, outlining what Wonka’s outfit should look like and why. The site’s curator, Shaun Usher, said on Twitter yesterday that it took him several months to get Wilder’s permission to publish the letter, but it was “worth every second.”
Even more illuminating is the bit Wilder proposed to introduce Wonka in the film, which was allegedly his one condition for accepting the role. He wanted Wonka to have a limp as he walks up to the children:
As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.
His reasoning? “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
It ended up in the film, of course:
Here’s the transcript of the letter:
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,
H/T Letters of Note