2016 has been a brutal year for the entertainment world. The death tolls began a few days shy of New Year’s when rock legend Lemmy Kilmister died on December 28, 2015 and R&B queen Natalie Cole passed just a few days later on New Year’s Eve. Just 10 days after that, the stakes were raised when Ziggy Stardust himself took his last breath. And less than a week after that, the world lost Hans Gruber, Professor Snape, and the “voice of the one true God” when Alan Rickman shuffled off this mortal coil.
This trend hasn’t let up. We’ve seen 2016 deliver the final appearances of Anton Yelchin (at only 27 years old), the enigmatic Prince, Jon Bunch (lead singer of influential rock band, Sensefield), pioneer BMX biker Dave Mirra, the incredible character actor George Kennedy, Merle Haggard, Garry Marshall, Gary Shandling, Muhammad Ali, Michael Cimino, and an exhaustive list of other actors, directors, musicians, and other entertainment personalities. Many have resonated with the nation, with names like Bowie, Prince, and Rickman topping the list of people whom the nation has grieved and mourned over at a nearly universal level. Another such name of grand importance and immense worthiness of tribute was added this week when Gene Wilder joined his the cast on that big soundstage in the sky.
As we begin our Cinapse Selects journey on the week of Willy Wonka’s death, it struck me that never on Cinapse has there been a discussion about the 1971 family musical that 3-4 generations have grown up with. Writing about a film that has been everpresent and beloved in my life, such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, is quite tempting, especially when that film is synonymous with the man I’m eulogizing with this inaugural entry into Cinapse Selects; however, Gene Wilder’s filmography is wide reaching and filled with many lesser known gems. One such gem is the other family musical of the early ’70s featuring the talents of the late Mr. Wilder, The Little Prince.
Directed by Stanley Donen, classic musical director known most for his seminal work Singin’ in the Rain, The Little Prince is an ensemble piece featuring Broadway star and multiple Tony winner Richard Kiley, renowned musical choreographer/director/actor Bob Fosse, A Chorus Line‘s original “Cassie” Donna McKechnie (also known for her role of Amanda Harris/Olivia Corey in the original run of ABC’s Dark Shadows), Sir Joss Ackland (most well known to genre fans as one of the main villains in Lethal Weapon 2, but was a very well known British actor on stage and screen long before his days fighting Murtaugh and Riggs), and several other actors Donen had worked with before. There are notable similarities to many of the musicals of the ’50s through ’70s in both look and feel, but with a more fantastical twist. The main character, The Little Prince, accompanies a stranded and lost pilot wandering the desert. through their time together the prince tells the pilot morality tales about the characters he encountered prior to coming across the pilot. The Little Prince came to Earth from another planet and returns home to his planet with some “help” from the snake he encountered earlier in the film. The prince disappears, leaving the pilot to believe he may have been experiencing a hallucination of sorts. While the audience never knows for sure if it was indeed a hallucination or it was real, the man finds some comfort in the end when he hears the laughter of the boy coming from the stars and is able to get his plane off the ground for the first time since becoming stranded in the first place.
Our dearly departed Mr. Wilder plays the role of a wily old fox, whom actually befriends the boy prince. His musical number is endearing and he shows every bit of the screen presence that Wonka fans have come to expect. He also provides some very strong insight in the words he shares with the prince:
Little Prince: I don’t lie.
The Fox: Then you’re inhuman.
While he plays a larger role in many of his other films, this film reminds us that Wilder can represent magic and wonder, as well as love and sincerity. His embrace with the prince is as warm an embrace as any. Even as a magnificent actor, that type of feeling cannot simply be acted, it can only be shown by someone that truly filled with genuine love and care.
Whether you choose to enjoy this or any of his other gems, try to carve out a little time this week to pay some honor to one of the greats. Willy, Dr. Frankenstein, Jim, Leo, Skip, Abe, Lord Ravensbane, Rabbi, Dave… by whatever name you know the late great actor, Gene Wilder will be missed but his mark on American cinema won’t fade anytime soon.