1971’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is, quite possibly (cue arguments), the best non-animated children’s film ever made, a vivid, colourful excursion into the weird and wonderful that bristles with black humour and social comment. When it comes to apportioning credit for the film’s true brilliance, it is usually rained upon the great Roald Dahl (the famed children’s writer, who also co-penned the film’s script, with David Seltzer) and the equally great Gene Wilder, one of the most perfect, but not exactly obvious, casting choices in cinema history. It is far less common, however, to see director Mel Stuart on the receiving end when the metaphorical golden tickets of praise are being handed out.
And if you think a movie based on Roald Dahl’s seminal novel Charlie & The Chocolate Factory can somehow just direct itself, the only evidence you need is how superior Mel Stuart’s 1971 film is to the 2005 version directed by the far more high profile Tim Burton, which is still entertaining, but nothing compared to the first take. If, like many, you are unfamiliar with the work of Mel Stuart, you might expect that this will be a celebration of an unheralded children’s filmmaker, with a host of little known family-flavoured gems to his credit.
That is decidedly not the case. Despite unquestionably being his most famous and important film, 1971’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is very much the anomaly on the filmography of the fascinating Mel Stuart. A director of many documentaries and a handful of features, it was, in fact, Stuart’s decidedly adult-minded cinematic sensibilities that gave Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory its famously dark elements, and prevented it from ever tipping over into sentimentality. Never a fan of Disney movies (he famously said that too many of The Mouse House’s characters were “annoying”), Stuart’s intention was to never pander to his young audience. “I’m not talking down to children and giving them squirrels with funny faces and all that stuff,” he said of the film.
Born in 1928 and graduating from New York University in 1949, Mel Stuart originally had dreams of becoming a composer, but quickly realised that his talents lie elsewhere. He eventually drifted into the world of 1950s television, which was becoming increasingly powerful and popular. He also made his start in the cutting room by editing a number of underground avant-garde films for experimental filmmakers. Stuart’s first big break came with the historical television series Twentieth Century, which was produced by the company of US broadcast legend Walter Cronkite, and looked at the major personalities and trends of the century through archival footage.
Stuart served as a researcher on the programme, and worked in various capacities on many of its key episodes. It was while working on Twentieth Century that Mel Stuart forged his most important career relationship, meeting prolific producer David L. Wolper, who suggested a move to Los Angeles. Throughout the 1960s, Stuart produced and directed a host of television and feature documentaries for David L. Wolper, on a wide range of political, economic and social issues. The most notable of these is unquestionably 1964’s utterly essential Four Days In November, an expansive, well-wrought and Oscar nominated investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
He made the jump into feature films in 1969 with the Wolper-produced If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium, a biting, amusing satire about Americans travelling abroad in Europe. “Because I had made so many documentaries, where there is no script and where you have to know what you’re doing, the studio trusted me as a first time director with a feature film,” Stuart told The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. “I knew about producing, shooting and editing, but the one thing I needed to learn was how to work with actors, but that came naturally to me.”
Along with a host of television movies-of-the-week, Stuart made a number of distinctly of-their-time features in the 1970s, including two infidelity-themed companion piece curios (1970’s I Love My Wife, in which Elliott Gould’s successful surgeon abandons his wife and family for a string of one-night-stands and 1972’s One Is A Lonely Number, which sees Trish Van Devere reassess her life when her husband leaves her) and the 1978 rural prison drama Mean Dog Blues, a memorable piece of b-movie rebel cinema starring Gregg Henry, George Kennedy and Kay Lenz. Truly essential for Stuart, however, was 1973’s Wattstax, a searing but celebratory documentary which brilliantly captured the Stax Records-sponsored all-day concert at the 1972 Watts Summer Festival. A vital artefact of the African-American experience, the film features incendiary performances by Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Albert King, Richard Pryor and many more. Pulsing with energy and excitement, the importance of Wattstax cannot be understated.
Stuart’s key film of the decade, however, is of course 1971’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. “It was my idea,” Stuart told The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival of this seemingly unusual career move. “My daughter had just read the original Roald Dahl story. I had already made two features so the studios could see that I could handle a bigger production. David Wolper was able to sell the idea to a studio with the participation of Quaker Oats, which was going to produce a chocolate bar and were ready to finance the movie to promote this new product. Well, in the end, that never happened, and the film rights were sold to Warner Brothers. I worked really hard on that film to make it appeal not only to children but to adults. However, when the film first came out, it was not a big success, but only found its audience later when it was sold to television and was one of the first films sold to cable TV. It also became available on video, when the video rental industry was just starting to happen. So, this was one of the first films that made more money after its initial release because of these new formats.”
Visually stunning, perfectly cast, richly imaginative, wonderfully warm but never saccharine, occasionally shocking (the notorious “boat ride” scene remains one of the most bizarre and psychedelic things you’ll ever see in a kids’ film), and very dark (we never do see all those naughty children again after they’ve been ejected from the chocolate factory), Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is about as close to perfect as you can get…except, of course, for the moment when The Candy Man hilariously and accidentally wacks a young girl in the chin during the execution of his magical musical number. The film is a masterpiece of children’s entertainment, and Mel Stuart is deserving of great thanks for holding true to his vision of creating something dark and unconventional.
Until his sad passing in 2012, Mel Stuart directed a long list of television documentaries (including several about Hollywood and the arts), TV movies-of-the-week, series episodes, and one more feature film (the 1981 Africa-set nature drama The White Lions, starring Cloris Leachman). He had a wide range of creative interests, and this is perhaps why Mel Stuart has never really received the praise that he deserves, despite directing two vital pieces of American cinema. “I’ve been very lucky, and have been able to work in a lot of different genres over my career….documentaries, fiction features, comedies, even a musical. I’ve managed to jump back and forth all my life. How I was able to do this had to with luck.”
And in the case of Mel Stuart, a hell of a lot of talent, tenacity and imagination too…
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.