Yes, it’s true, the classic film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is 40 years old. To celebrate, Warner Home Video has reissued the movie in a very attractive Blu-ray/DVD combo box complete with golden ticket, book and discs packaged in a Wonka Bar case.
On Monday, October 17th I had dinner at Rue 57 in Manhattan with director Mel Stuart and actors Julie Dawn Cole (who played Veruca Salt), Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde), Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee) and Rusty Goffe (one of the beloved Oompa Loopmas) to discuss the legacy and behind-the-scenes tales of this legendary film. (Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie Bucket, had to return upset to his veterinary practice after a day of promotion. Gene Wilder retired from acting years ago.) We chatted for a collective Wonka story for NextMovie, and I got some amusing stories from Cole and Stuart for a separate piece about Veruca Salt.
Something that many people may not know about the film is that it is one of the first (maybe the first?) product placement movies, at least from the standpoint of promoting a product consistently (see comment #3 below). Back then director Mel Stuart and producer David L. Wolper did documentaries for Quaker Oats, who funded many documentaries at the time. “We went to see them after my daughter Madeline had screamed and yelled at me that I had to do this [book] as a movie,” recalled Stuart of how Willy Wonka the movie was born from Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “I said, ‘I don’t make kiddie movies, I make serious documentaries like Making Of The President and Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’ She said, ‘I don’t care, daddy! You have to make this into a movie!’ So I read the book and thought it was a nice story for kids. She said I had to tell Uncle David too. I told David that the kid wants us to do this movie. I explained it to him. He never read the book. I hardly read it, but I did it because of my daughter.”
In their subsequent meeting with Quaker Oats, one executive asked them, according to Stuart, “‘What have you got about chocolate? We’re thinking of making a chocolate bar.’ So David goes into his act: ‘We’ve been working for years on this movie…’ He goes into this whole pitch about how they could make Wonka Bars and sell them” — which they later did after buying the rights to the book — “and they gave me $2.8 million to make the movie. Today you couldn’t open the door for that money, and that wasn’t much then. I just had to figure out how to do it for $2.8 million. So we went to Munich because we didn’t have to pay as much for the studio and the sets and everything.” Thus there was no studio interference during production. Paramount distributed the film but did not renew its deal years later because the movie did not fare well at the box office upon its 1971 release. Warner Bros. bought up the rights from Quaker Oats in 1977 and has owned them ever since, during which time Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has become revered and highly profitable thanks to television and home video.
Now you know why the Wonka candy line exists on top of this classic film.
Following are some photos of my evening with the Wonka cast, most of them taken following a dinner with approximately 15 people attending. Watching Stuart, Cole and Goffe chat about special memories at the tail end of the evening was endearing and fun, especially as some of us were a bit tipsy.