Book Review: My French Whore by Gene Wilder

mfwBeing a bit saddened over the death of Mr. Wilder, I was quite happy to find his novella My French Whore at a display at my local library. I always knew Wilder was a great actor, but I didn’t know he was also a talented writer.

My French Whore tells the tale of a gentleman named Paul Peachy. It is 1918, Peachy is living in Milwaukee. He works a thankless job as a street car conductor and his marriage is less than pleasant. He tries to get a bit of spark in his life by acting in local theater, but feels his life is nothing and he’s a mere cog in the machine, just taking up space.

To add some spark to his dull life Peachy, in the latter days of World War I, decides to enlist in the military. Peachy is deployed to France. It isn’t long before he and some of his fellow soldiers are captured by the Germans and soon will face execution. However, the every-quick thinking Peachy wiggles out of this deadly predicament using his acting and language skills. Fluent in German (his parents are immigrants from Germany) Peachy assumes the identity of a German spy named Harry Stoller and is immediately welcomed among the German soldiers.

It’s not long, as Stoller, Peachy is welcomed like a long-lost relative amongst his German “comrades.” They share fine meals together and drink the finest of wine. Peachy’s new friends bequeath him a lady of ill repute, a French prostitute named Annie Breton.

But Annie is so much more than the standard trope of “whore with a heart of gold.” Yes, she is a vessel for Peachy’s more lusty desires, but she soon proves to be so much more. She is nurturing, kind and charming. Annie, not beautiful but makes everything from cutting Peachy’s hair to serving him a beautiful meal to the art of l’amour an act of true femininity and sensuality.  And like Peachy, she has a past filled with heartbreak and disappointment, and together they share tales of woe, but find happiness in their fleeting time together. As a whore Annie often wears the war paint identified with her particular profession. But once stripped of the outer trappings of heavy cosmetics, Peachy sees how truly lovely Annie is, both on the outer exterior and what lies in her true heart and soul, which leads to one of the most beautiful passages I have read of a man speaking his true feelings to a woman:

“Well, I don’t know what you think ‘beautiful’ means, I suppose everyone has a different idea. I think it’s something that’s half on the outside and half on the inside. Without all that makeup on your face, I can see the inside a little better….”

As someone who has often felt she needs to apologize for her less than “hot” looks, this simple gathering of words brought tears to my eyes.

Away from the lovely Annie, Peachy frets, wonders how long he can keep up this ruse as Harry Stoller, and soon he finds out and his fate is sealed. But of course, you have to read My French Whore to find out what Peachy’s ultimate fate.

My French Whore is written in plaintive and believable way (and often reads as a diary of sorts). Wilder writing style is rich, yet unpretentious, and his characters ring out true, which probably has a lot to do with him being an actor. He empathizes with his cast of characters, and I greatly appreciated how he made Annie a fully-developed individual. In fact, I’m now aching to read a novella told from Annie’s point of view. Sadly, with Wilder’s demise, this won’t happen. Perhaps, this is why fan fiction was created.

I really enjoyed My French Whore (yes, I can see it being made into a movie), and it was a delight to find out writing was amongst the late Gene Wilder’s immense talents. He will be missed.

Reading to Reels: Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

838488For Gene Wilder (RIP). Thank you so much Mr. Wilder for being a wonderful memory and an icon of my pop culture loving childhood. You will be missed.

Can you believe the much beloved movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is now over 40 years old? It seems just yesterday my sister and I were sitting in front of the television, transported to a world of candy, Oompa Loompas, bratty kids who get their just desserts and of course, the mysterious Willy Wonka. My sister and I loved this movie and we watched every broadcast.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is based on the classic Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Played by Gene Wilder in the film, Willy Wonka is the reclusive proprietor of a world-famous chocolate factory. In the beginning, Willy Wonka makes a huge announcement. He is granting five lucky people a chance to tour his factory, learn some of his tricks of the candy trade and win a lifetime of free chocolate. The catch? You must first purchase a chocolate Wonka bar, and if one of those bars has a golden ticket, you are a winner. The world loses its collective shit and the media goes wild for the story (and this is the pre-Internet days). Who will win the golden ticket?

One person who would love to win a golden ticket is Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum). Charlie is good hearted but his family is broke. Even buying a simple candy bar could put a dent in the Bucket family budget. But somehow Charlie gets the money, and he purchases a Wonka bar. Charlie rips open the chocolate bar with anticipation, and low and behold, there lies a shining golden ticket!

However, before Charlie arrives at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, he is offered a proposal by the devious Arthur Slugworth, the owner of a rival chocolate factory. Slugworth wants Charlie to steal Wonka’s secret recipes, most ideally, Wonka’s recipe for his latest creation the everlasting gobstopper. Will Charlie succumb to Slugworth’s shady plea, or will he stand by his convictions and not steal the recipe?

Being a minor, Charlie has to bring along a chaperone to tour Wonka’s chocolate factory. Charlie brings along his beloved Grandpa Joe played by the irascible Jack Albertson (yep, the “man” from Chico and the Man). Along for the tour are four other rather vile children, and their equally vile parents. First there is the gluttonous Augustus Gloop who doesn’t say much but sure loves to stuff his face. Violet Beauregard talks a mile a minute and is always chomping on a piece of gum. Mike TeeVee is obsessed with television and pop culture (wait, this is a bad thing?). But most odious of all is Veruca Salt, a spoiled, entitled brat. Hmm, if Veruca existed today she’d probably have her own reality show on Bravo.

Willy Wonka meets the winners and their adult chaperones at his factory’s elaborate gates. After freaking everyone out by pretending to be feeble, falling, and then finishing his “fall” with the perfect somersault, Wonka invites Charlie and the gang into the factory. Before anyone can go further they must read and sign a very elaborate contract, which pretty much looks like the contract you had to sign when you got your credit card. Now it’s on to the tour of the magical Wonka factory.

The first room the winners visit is a totally edible garden with flowers, mushrooms and a chocolate river. The winners also meet the Oompa Loompas, Wonka’s vertically-challenged, green-haired, orange-skinned helpers. Veruca Salt tells her daddy, “I want an Oompa Loompa right now” because she’s a snotty bitch, and you pretty much realize she is going to work your last nerve. However, it is Augustus Gloop who is the first to be eliminated from the tour when he falls into the chocolate river and gets sucked up in a large tube.

Still, the tour goes on. The winners and their chaperones visit magical room after magical room. They even go on a crazy boat road right out of a bad acid trip (it was the 1970s). Throughout the tour, the kids misbehave and are punished. Even Charlie gets up to some mischief. He and Grandpa Joe sneak into a room to try some Fizzy Lifting drinks, and start floating up towards a menacing whirling fan on the ceiling. Will they be beheaded? Fortunately, Charlie and Grandpa Joe find out belching will help them get their feet back on the ground, and they join the others on the tour.

At the end of the tour, only Charlie is left. However, Wonka finds out about the Fizzy Lifting drink fiasco, and he is pissed! He denies Charlie the ultimate prize because he defied the contract’s rules. Charlie turns to leave dejected, but not before he hands Wonka the Ultimate Gopstopper he swiped to give to Slugworth.

But all is not lost! Wonka turns to Charlie and tells him, “You won!” It turns out Slugworth is not rival and a spy; he’s actually one of Wonka’s employees and his name is Wilkinson. The Everlasting Gobstopper predicament was actually a test, and Charlie passed!

As the movie ends, Wonka leads Charlie and Grandpa Joe to the “Wonka-vator.” The Wonka-vator is an elevator that goes up, down and in all other directions. The Wonka-vator blasts through the factory’s ceiling and flies over the city below. It is at this time Wonka tells Charlie that the factory is his once Wonka retires.

I loved Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a kid, but I saw it again as an adult and I loved it even more. There is something so subversive about it, but at the end the good kid wins out. Sure, Charlie isn’t perfect but his heart is in the right place. And the bad kids are punished which totally fills me with schadenfreude. Jeff Gordinier even covers this in his book X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep from Everything Sucking.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was later remade in 2005 and starred Johnny Depp; but to me, Gene Wilder owns the role of Willy Wonka.

And while doing research for this piece I found out some interesting trivia. Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt) and Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregard) totally crushed on Peter Ostrum. I can’t say I blame them. He was adorable. And speaking of Peter Ostrum, Charlie Bucket was his first and last film role. He’s now a veterinarian.

What else? The flower-shaped cup Willy Wonka drinks from in an early scene was made from wax (ew). However, many of the props found on the set like the giant mushrooms were edible. Jean Stapleton was slated to play Mike TeeVee’s mom but had to back out due to another acting role. You probably know her best as Edith Bunker from the 1970s classic TV show All in the Family. And Julie Dawn Cole admits to hating chocolate!

I don’t have kids, but I do have a niece and nephew. And I’d love to share Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with them. And I bet there are a lot of Gen X parents and aunties and uncles who have done just that.