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The Most Illuminating Gene Wilder Movies Are the Ones He Made Himself

The four films Wilder wrote and directed were simultaneously funny and sad

In 1975’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, Gene Wilder plays Sherlock Holmes’ brilliant, prickly brother Sigerson, an intellectual dynamo doomed to forever live in the shadow of his more famous sibling. The film marked Wilder’s directorial debut, and it’s hard not to see autobiographical overtones in a guy trying to emerge from the enormous shadow of Mel Brooks and the three classics they made together (The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein).

Even before Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and Young Frankenstein, which Wilder co-wrote with Brooks, Wilder had worked on some un-produced scripts. And after he retired from acting, Wilder published novels and memoirs; writing was clearly important to him, and a big part of how he saw himself as an artist. The knock on him as a filmmaker, however, was that he made movies that were like Mel Brooks movies, but not as good. There’s certainly an element of truth to that.

In fact, Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother owes so much to Brooks that it feels less like a new start than an extension of Brooks’ work. This is partially attributable to a cast rich with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein veterans (namely Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman). Kahn, in particular, is magnetic and heartbreaking in Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, playing a daffy woman of mystery who comes into the life of Sigerson Holmes and tells him, “My name is Jenny Hill, and I am simultaneously funny and sad.” It’s a line that could easily be in a Wes Anderson movie. It’s also a line that obviously applies to Wilder, a guy whose life and work gave people so much joy yet who endured so much public heartbreak and pain (most notably the death of his third wife, Gilda Radner).

As for Wilder’s performance in front of the camera, the role of a detective as mercurial as he is incisive plays to Wilder’s genius for barely suppressed rage. For a man revered as a nice guy and a friend to children everywhere, Wilder spent a surprising amount of his onscreen life exploding with anger, or keeping anger at bay. That’s particularly true here. In true Sherlock Holmes tradition, ol’ Sherlock’s brother is kind of an asshole, but because he’s played by Wilder, he’s also lovable in spite of himself.

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother was a modest hit and Wilder’s masterpiece as a filmmaker. Wilder’s follow-up, 1977’s The World’s Greatest Lover, was also a box-office success, but the critics were understandably, and justifiably less impressed. The film took Wilder’s willingness, even eagerness to take his characters in strange, abrasive directions to a punishing, perverse extreme.

The film is an extended riff on the legend of Rudolph Valentino and a quasi-remake of Fellini’s The White Sheik (Fellini is thanked at the start of the end credits) that casts its writer-director as a Milwaukee schmuck who heads to Hollywood to screen-test to become the next exotic onscreen lover. Accompanying Wilder on his West Coast adventure is a long-suffering wife played by Carol Kane.

Wilder is, if anything, overly committed to a role that’s less a character than a collection of manic actorly tics. When the protagonist gets nervous, he sticks out his tongue, acquires momentary laryngitis and begins twisting his words into wacky Spoonerisms. He also begins screaming at his wife. Alas, not even a human being as charming as Wilder can make exploding with rage toward a character played by Carol Kane seem anything other than off-putting.

The movie lovingly recreates the silent era and old-timey movie slapstick Wilder would seemingly be perfect for. So it’s ironic that the film’s biggest flaw is that it’s way too loud. It’s a hollering, manic mess that might have been better off if Wilder had gone the route of Brooks’ Silent Movie and made a silent movie homage that’s also a silent movie. The toxic dynamic between Wilder and Kane is nearly redeemed by a late-film monologue where a teary-eyed Wilder earnestly professes his love, but by that time it’s too late.

While Wilder’s next film, 1984’s The Woman in Red, was his first non-period piece, it was still rooted in cinema’s past. The film is a remake of the French hit Pardon Mon Affaire but also feels like an unofficial remake of 10 and The Seven Year Itch, which it repeatedly references.

The half-forgotten box-office hit and Oscar winner (thanks to Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You”) casts Wilder against type as an unassuming businessman whose complacent existence as a family man is shaken up when he spies a gorgeous, mysterious dream woman played by Kelly LeBrock in the performance that kicked off her two-year reign as a preeminent sex symbol. The Woman in Red is so derivative of 10 that it might as well be called 8 or 9. LeBrock, especially, follows Bo Derek’s and that film’s strategy for playing impossible dream girls, which involves:

  1. Being incredibly sexy.
  2. Saying very little.

Like 10, The Woman in Red is about a selfish, deeply flawed man’s attempt to cheat on his perfectly lovely wife with someone as unattainable as LeBrock or Derek. That should render the protagonist unlikable, but considering that in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, Wilder generated pathos out of his character’s sexual obsession with a sheep, it’s not surprising that the writer-director-star is able to imbue his quest to get laid with a disarming romanticism.

The film’s best moments, though, are at the margins. Gilda Radner is underutilized in the small, thankless role of a co-worker with a crush on Wilder’s character — a thinly conceived subplot that’s far more compelling than most of the rest of the film. And Charles Grodin is wonderful, if also underutilized, as one of Wilder’s best friends. His character also happens to be one of the few positive, non-stereotypical depictions of homosexuality in 1980s mainstream comedies.

The Woman in Red is an outlier in Wilder’s directorial work. He was such a unique presence physically that he seemed at once deeply human and otherworldly. So it’s fascinating to see him play an everyman. Wilder became a legend playing characters who are larger than life, from Willie Wonka to Dr. Frankenstein, but in The Woman in Red, he’s hauntingly, compellingly life-sized.

Wilder returned to the cartoonish world of genre comedies with his final directorial effort, 1986’s Haunted Honeymoon, which ended both Wilder’s career as a writer-director-star and Radner’s as a film actress on a shitty note. Wilder and Radner star as Larry Abbott and Vickie Pearle respectively, superstar radio performers on Manhattan Mystery Theater and lovebirds who head off to the spooky estate where Larry grew up after he has an on-air freakout. The trip proves less therapeutic than traumatizing, however, when all manner of ghouls enter the equation. The live-radio setting is enormous fun, as is the production design. Wilder initially has a blast making his version of something that might run as the first half of a double bill with cartoons and newsreels on a 1941 lineup.

Then, alas, Dom DeLuise shows up in a dress as our hero’s aunt, and the film takes what can only be described as a sharp turn into Nothing but Trouble territory. DeLuise functions as a comedic black hole, sucking all the life out of his scenes, and Wilder and Radner sink into the background as the horror elements come to the fore.

I enjoyed rewatching Haunted Honeymoon the other night not because it’s “good,” but because it’s a movie starring Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner, performers whom I love and who are, objectively, the best. There just aren’t enough of those.

The same holds true of the other three movies Wilder made as a writer-director-star. They might not live up to his collaborations with Brooks, but just about nothing does. So even if they weren’t as great as The Producers, Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein (or even great on their own merit), more Wilder directorial efforts would have meant more Wilder in the world, more Wilder to re-watch and memorize and introduce to our kids. And that can only be a good thing, especially as our supply of Wilder has come to a dignified and universally mourned end.

Nathan Rabin was the first head writer of The A.V. Club, where he continues to write today. He’s written a number of books, including one about his childhood (The Big Rewind) and one about falling in love with Insane Clown Posse (You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me).

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