Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of the most celebrated children’s films of all time. Infectious songs, eccentricities beyond compare and a surprising darkness that lingers in the mind, Willy Wonka holds its place in cult cinematic history. However behind the joyful madness on screen, the film’s off-screen stories fascinate, intrigue and entertain beyond your wildest imaginations.
From the start, the oddities emerge. The film’s opening finance did not arrive from a major Hollywood studios but from the most unlikely of sources: The Quaker Oats Company. Having spent two to three million dollars to push their real life version of a Wonka Bar, the company saw the movie as the ultimate form of advertisement. Behind the scenes, however, the company’s first steps into chocolate had been a complete failure. Unable to develop the correct formula, Quaker Oats bluffed their way through and pushed through with the finance of the film.
With the finance secured, the first creative move was to change the movie’s name from the book’s original title. One of the reasons was that, to director Mel Stuart, the term “Charlie” denoted a derogatory term for a white overseer of slaves; Roald Dahl disagreed. Tensions grew further as Dahl’s original script was ‘extremely troublesome’, according to the producers. David Seltzer, who had worked with producer David Wolper on several shows before, was brought in and rewrote almost 30%. Seltzer later admitted that he shouldn’t have taken the job considering he had no prior screen writing experience. In the end, Dahl is noted as the sole screenwriter.
Next, Stuart began to recruit his cast and it is the story of Gene Wilder’s recruitment that intrigues the most. During Wilder’s first audition, the director knew the actor was the man for the part and was determined to secure his services immediately. So much so that when Wilder left the audition room, Stuart chased him down the hallway, grabbed his arm and told him “You’re doing this picture, no two ways about it! You are Willy Wonka!” Producer David Wolper was furious because he hadn’t yet had the chance to negotiate a fee, which would now be significantly higher.
Wilder himself was keen to become involved yet would only sign on under one condition: that he could somersault in his first meeting with the children. Wilder believed this immediate misdirect by Wilder would keep everyone on edge, unsure of what Wonka would do next. It worked as Julie Dawn Cole, who played Veruca Salt, thought Wilder was genuinely injured, as the director had not informed any of the actors the somersault was to take place.
These pre-production shenanigans were just the beginning. the production more than equaled the early eccentricities. The film opens with Charlie Bucket living a miserable life. His father has died, he is bullied at school and he must care for four bedridden grandparents. The most notable of the grandparents is obviously Grandpa Joe played by Jack Albertson, yet it is Grandpa George who provides the greater intrigue. Ernst Zeigler, who is unrecognised for his role, was nearly blind from poison gas in the First World War and his actions were directed by a red light off screen.
Before his scenes, Ziegler would enter the house, take off his shoes, place them under the bed and get into position. However for the ‘I’ve Got A Golden Ticket’ routine, the underneath of the bed had to be cleared. Ziegler vehemently rejected this idea as he feared they would take his shoes away. These shoes held a great importance to the actor as they were his only remaining possession Ziegler had from before the Second World War. Only through lengthy persuasion did Ziegler agree to the move.
Upon winning the Golden Ticket, Charlie and Grandpa Joe head to Wonka’s wondrous factory. Entering Wonka’s Chocolate Room, the film enters its outlandish stride. For starters, the filmmakers decided to make the chocolate river out of real chocolate, water, and cream. However, the cream spoiled and infused the set with an off-putting rotten dairy smell delaying production by three days.
Next, the winning parties take a ride on the Wonkatania. Although presented as a real boat, the Wonkatania was on a track in the chocolate river. However no-one told the actor playing the Oompa Loompa at the the helm. For the sake of believability, Mel Stuart never told him the truth… This may link into the fact that all the Oompa Loompas did not speak English fluently. Production took place in Munich, Germany but they struggled to recruit enough actors for the Oompa Loompa roles; a legacy of the Nazi regime. In this scene and throughout their songs, many of the Oompa Loompas appear not to know the words and posture awkwardly. In fact, their last song took a patience-testing 50 takes.
Moving from the narrative’s curiosities to the outright bizarre, the film is littered with moments of hilarity. During the famous ‘Candy Man’ routine, the shopkeeper opens up the pass-through to hit one of the little girls dead on the chin. In a moment reminisce of the famous Stormtrooper head bang, see the moment @ 2:18.
That’s not all. Peter Ostrum clearly went through puberty during the film. His voice is high during the duet of “I’ve Got A Golden Ticket” yet during the Fizzy Lifting Drinks scenes, his vocals have descended a few octaves. Other instances of trivia gold involve Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca) who hated chocolate, the fact that the majority of chocolate bars were made of wood and the German make-up artist who described Wilder’s hair as like a ‘chicken’. Best of all, Denise Nickerson (Violet) was stuck in her blueberry costume throughout one lunch break and had to be constantly turned throughout to ensure she kept proper blood circulation.
The last scene of the shoot epitomises the mad brilliance above. It involves the technician who tries to impress three businessmen through his computer’s ability to predict where the remaining Golden Tickets are. Filmed at the last minute, several bags of luggage are scattered around the set as the cast and crew prepared to finish and wrap production.
It would be foolish to think that Wonka’s peculiarities stopped purely because the production did. The film was a flop upon release and many of those involved suffered different forms of negativity. On a lighter note, Denise Nickerson (Violet) suffered a real-life blueberry experience. One day in school, her classmates began mocking and laughing at her for no apparent reason. The teacher pointed out she was turning purple and it was discovered that the film’s make up had seeped into her pores and resurfaced during class. Many of the child actors attempted acting careers but only Julie Dawn Cole continues today. Peter Ostrum never made another film and changed careers to become a veterinarian. See Dr Ostrum in action here and here.
On a much more tragic note, the Boeing 707 shown during the news reel clips where workers unload Wonka Bars crashed in Bali, Indonesia in 1974 where 107 people lost their lives.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that it achieved wild popularity with audiences. However, Roald Dahl despised the film. He hated the changes to his beloved text and retaliated through in his 1979 adult novel, My Uncle Oswald. Remember this scene?
If you don’t have 36 seconds to spare, the children and their guardians begin to test Wonka’s lickable wallpaper. “Lick an orange. It tastes like an orange. The strawberries taste like strawberries! The snozzberries taste like snozzberries!” ‘Snozzberries’ never featured in Dahl’s original work and was just meant as a jovial nonsense word with no meaning. Dahl took it upon himself to define the word.
To add some context and full credit to Cracked, My Uncle Oswald is about Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, the “greatest fornicator of all time” who devises a get-rich-quick scheme by exploiting the best minds and men of Europe. To achieve this, his sexy accomplice Yasmin Howcomely seduces the men and sells their used condoms of spent semen to sell to women wishing to create future genii. The term ‘snozzberry’ appears during one recollection of a ‘romantic’ encounter:
“How did you manage to roll the old rubbery thing on him?”
“There’s only one way when they get violent,” Yasmin said. “I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung onto it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.”
“I’ll bet it is.”
“You can lead them around anywhere you want like that.”
“It’s like putting a twitch on a horse.”
So there you have it. One of the most beloved children’s author of all time, Roald Dahl, defined a ‘snozzberry’ as a penis to ensure he had the last laugh against the movie he loathed so much.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is recognised as one of the strangest and best children’s movies ever made. The film’s production sounds like the work of pure imagination, yet it is all gloriously real. The levels of amazing trivia produced not only intrigue but allows a childhood favourite to achieve a new level of charm and nostalgia.