Sunday’s Oregonian included a reprint of an article from The Washington Post about something I cannot believe I missed. And you know I enjoy writing about pop culture.
June 30th marked the 50th anniversary of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book. The story is about an eccentric, reclusive candy manufacturer, Willy Wonka (played by Gene Wilder), and five children who find golden tickets offering an opportunity to tour the factory. Of course, the naughty children get picked off the tour one-by-one.
The movie has plenty of Jewish connections. Gene Wilder (born Jerome Silberman) shines as the whimsical Willy Wonka. The movie is directed by Mel Stuart (born Stuart Solomon). David Seltzer did uncredited work on the screenplay (more on that below). And Jack Albertson played the role of Grandpa Joe.
What is so odd about so many Jews involved in the movie is that Roald Dahl was a known anti-Semite. In a 1983 interview Dahl said, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” And in 1990 he told The Independent, “I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.”
Interestingly, in Dahl’s memoir, Going Solo, about his time in Britain's Royal Air Force during World War II there is a chapter about being stationed in Haifa, then in the British Mandate of Palestine. At nearby kibbutz Ramat David, he met a group of Jewish refugees from Germany. He discussed with them the nature of Zionism and admitted he did not know much about Jews or much about World War II beyond the larger mission to defeat Hitler. Reading the chapter gives one the impression Dahl had no opinion about Jews – yet that certainly changed.
I encourage you to read this article by Michele Landsberg in Lilith magazine from 1998. It provides an insightful and hurtful analysis of Dahl’s writing and examples of anti-Semitic imagery in his books.
Last December, the family of Roald Dahl publicly apologized for “the lasting and understanding hurt” caused by anti-Semitic comments the author made during his lifetime. “We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words,” the statement added.
Here are some insider notes about the movie:
- When filming began, no screenplay existed. Dahl was to write the script and instead turned in an outline pointing to different sections of the book. Producer David Wolper called David Seltzer, with whom he had worked previously, to ask if he would finish the screenplay, uncredited, in exchange for Wolper’s company producing Seltzer’s first film (which was The Omen). The filmmakers were worried they would lose credibility if another writer’s name appeared beside Dahl.
- Gene Wilder agreed to play Willy Wonka on one condition. Wilder told the director he wanted the scene when Wonka first greets his guests at the factory changed. The director was perplexed by the request and asked Wilder why. Wilder said, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” Wilder's reconstructed scene became Wonka walking out of his factory with a cane, slowly and unsteadily, before falling and performing a somersault, revealing he is not as feeble as he first appeared.
- Apart from his children’s books, Mr. Dahl wrote the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice.
- Peter Sellers begged Dahl for the role of Willy Wonka and Sammy Davis Jr. wanted to play Bill, the candy store owner. (Both actors were Jewish.)
- The Quaker Oats Company financed the movie as an experiment in providing high-quality family entertainment.
- The wallpaper did not actually taste like snozzberries. Julie Dawn Cole, who played Veruca Salt, said, "No, it did not taste like snozzberries. It tasted of wallpaper. They did paint a little bit of jam on for the first take. I was reluctant about licking the spot that somebody else had licked.”
- As for the five children in the film (all now in their 60s): Peter Ostrum (Charlie Bucket) became a veterinarian. Paris Themmen (Mike Teavee) started several businesses and continued acting in small roles. Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt) became a psychotherapist. Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop) became a CPA in his native Germany. And Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde) continued acting and sadly died two years ago.
The original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory stands the test of time. Roger Ebert, the famed movie critic, predicted this in his movie review written in 1971, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is probably the best film of its sort since The Wizard of Oz. It is everything that family movies usually claim to be, but aren't: Delightful, funny, scary, exciting, and, most of all, a genuine work of imagination.” Amen!
A few community notes:
- Please welcome Joey Endler to the Jewish Federation professional team. Joey is a graduate of University of Oregon and will work with Jodi Simon, our director of marketing & communications, on our marketing efforts and expand our social media outreach.
- Mazel tov to Jacob Steinmetz, 77th overall selection in the Major League Baseball draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Elie Kligman, selected in the 20th round by the Washington Nationals. Both are the first known observant Orthodox Jewish players to be drafted. While Steinmetz will play on Shabbat — albeit in walking distance of his hotels on the road, so he does not have to use transportation — Kligman does not. We look forward to watching their careers.
- Tisha b’Av, which begins Saturday night, commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem (586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively), and many other travesties in Jewish history. On Tisha B’Av, Eicha (the Book of Lamentations) is read and it is customary to fast, refrain from bathing, wearing leather shoes, and having sexual relations.