Willy Wonka Is Not The Best Gene Wilder Performance

By Brian Myers | Published

chocolate rescue

The cult following that developed for the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of the films most attributed to its star, the late Gene Wilder. But fans of Wilder who have followed the entirety of the actor’s career throughout the 1970s and 80s will argue that, though Wilder’s portrayal of Roald Dahl’s eccentric and zany factory owner, there are a number of other roles that put the full range of his talents on display. The film that truly captured Wilder in his best form was the 1974 horror-comedy Young Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder Is Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein was the brainchild of Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, who concocted the idea while they were filming the comedy Blazing Saddles earlier in 1974. The plot centers around an ancestor of Dr. Frankenstein, a surgeon named Frederick, who denounces his ancestor as a lunatic. But after he travels to collect an inheritance from a deceased relative in Transylvania, he stumbles across Victor Frankenstein’s lab notes and becomes convinced that he will be able to reanimate a human corpse.

An Over The Top Performance

The variety of comedic stylings Gene Wilder had mastered were showcased throughout the film’s 105-minute running time. Wilder’s character, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, was a vehicle for the actor to portray a wide range of exaggerated emotions. His animated exasperation at the mere mention of his family’s history by a student sends him from zero to 60 as he goes from a mild-mannered lecturer at a medical school to a raving lunatic.

A Song And Dance Man

Gene Wilder’s comedic expertise was not the only talent brought to the production by the actor. Wilder also sings and tap dances like a pro in one scene (alongside his monstrous creation played by Everybody Loves Raymond’s Peter Boyle), a series of rare moments on screen where he doesn’t upstage his co-stars.

There’s No One Like Gene Wilder

Young Frankenstein shows Gene Wilder’s ability to portray a character with a seemingly gentle nature, only to have his hidden rages quickly bubble up from the surface in moments of excitement, aggravation, or sheer madness. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein has the vocal cords of Willy Wonka, the gentile nature of the Waco Kid (his role in Blazing Saddles), and the neurotic outbursts of Leo Bloom (The Producers). Trying to imagine another actor from that era replacing the wild hair and wide eyes that Wilder brought to the screen is an exercise in futility.

A Truly Unique Film


The film itself utilizes a combination of comedic stylings, leaving a finished product that is part slapstick and part deadpan. Young Frankenstein is a dark comedy, but also a farce that was humorously intended to be a continuation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. In command throughout the film is Gene Wilder, playing off his onscreen counterparts with unmatched comedic timing and facial expressions that could contain a page of copy to decipher.

Oscar Nomination With A Catch

Gene Wilder earned an Oscar nomination for Young Frankenstein, but not for acting. He co-wrote the screenplay with Mel Brooks but ultimately lost the Academy Award to Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo for The Godfather Part II.

A Wildly Successful Film

With Young Frankenstein under his best as a giant box office success, Gene Wilder eventually teamed up with Richard Pryor for a series of four comedy films. While successful endeavors, none of the work quite captured the essence of his array of talents quite like his part playing one of the Frankenstein family.