Gene Wilder Insisted On Improvising One Of Willy Wonka's Most Famous Scenes

As a child, my favorite part of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" was always watching Gene Wilder glide around in his purple velvet coat and puffy bow tie. He was captivating in a way no other adult had ever been, and never once did I feel frightened of him. It also never dawned on me that the children, bad seeds that they were, may be disappearing to their deaths at the hands of this charming candy man. But watching him now as an adult, I realize just how terrifying Willy Wonka is. He's soft spoken and not quick to anger, but beneath his seemingly gentle personality is a tricksy man who you can never really trust. 

I recently had the pleasure of watching "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" with my young niece and nephew. They had never seen it before, and I found myself in awe over how easily they bought in to not only Wonka's world, but also Willy Wonka himself. It's almost as if they completely disregarded Wonka's darker side, seduced instead by chocolate rivers, Everlasting Gobstoppers, and Wilder's buttery singing voice. I wondered why the terrifying tunnel scene didn't make them recoil from Wonka in abject fear, or why they seemed to so easily trust this curly haired, top-hat wearing man. Was he really that elusive as to appear harmless to young children but not adults?

In the documentary "Pure Imagination," Wilder explains why children love Willy Wonka:

"The children understood the movie very well. That there are limits, and they want to know the limits. And it's reassuring to know that someone can tell you what the limits are, and that's what Willy Wonka did."

I think he is on to something here. The Willy Wonka you get is dependent entirely on who you are as a person, and the brilliance of Wilder's portrayal of Willy Wonka lies in this complicated persona. Wilder understood this from the moment he read the script, which is why he insisted upon one of the film's most memorable moments, refusing to take the part if he couldn't film it. And truthfully, this single famous scene, invented by Wilder himself, is the reason Wonka is so captivating while also being terrifying.

Deception and the importance of limits

When we first meet Willy Wonka, he walks towards the camera with a cane in hand. He has a pronounced limp, and he appears old and fragile. This is not the man we expected to see emerge from the greatest chocolate factory on Earth. Suddenly, his cane gets stuck in the cobblestone street. Wonka takes a few more unaided steps before stopping. He gives a slight look of concern before falling forward. We panic because we think the man is going down, only to find him tucking himself into an effortless somersault that ends with the audience cheering. 

This is a classic scene, a favorite for many, and it was also created by none other than Gene Wilder himself. In fact, he was so adamant about including this moment in the movie that he refused to take the part unless he was guaranteed this shot. In "Pure Imagination," he talks a bit about his reasoning behind wanting to present Wonka in this way, saying, "No one will know from that time on whether I'm lying or telling the truth." This decision to present Wonka as deceptive from the very beginning laid the groundwork for his entire character.

What makes this idea so brilliant is that even though we find ourselves questioning everything Wonka says, there is always one thing that remains steadfast in his personality and that is the idea of limits and rules. As long as you follow the rules, you have nothing to fear. In this way, Wonka takes on a parental role as he guides his guests through his candy factory. Parents lie to their children all the time, usually (and hopefully) to protect them from harm. And Wonka is really no different in this way. He is deliberately deceptive in order to teach his guests important lessons, but when he tells you not to do something, he is always telling the truth. Perhaps this is why children find Willy Wonka so enticing. They see fragments of their own adult parents in his vibrant personality, and they recognize, much like Wilder says in the documentary, the importance of adhering to rules. It's kind of incredible that all of this hinged on one seemingly insignificant scene thought up by the ever-brilliant Gene Wilder and his deep understanding of a mad man running a candy factory.