For many years, Haunted Honeymoon has been my go-to movie for fixing a bad mood. Written, directed, and starring Gene Wilder (along with Gilda Radner, Dom DeLuise, and Jonathan Pryce), it is a silly thrilling tale set in the 1930s. Radio actors Larry Abbott and Vicky Pearle are the stars of the wildly successful Manhattan Mystery Theatre and are engaged to be married, but Larry’s recent erratic behavior has their sponsor ready to cancel the show. Larry’s uncle, Paul Abbott is a “famous psychiatrist” who claims that Larry’s recent engagement had opened a crack in Larry’s mind which can only be cured by forcing Larry to confront his worst fears—to scare him “to death.” Which he’s going to attempt to do while the entire Abbott family is gathered at the country estate of their Great-aunt Katherine.
Aunt Kate (played hilariously by Dom DeLuise in drag), meanwhile, has recently changed her will so that Larry inherits everything. Unless Larry predeceases her, at which point the inheritance goes to all the other Abbotts equally. And someone is stalking Kate’s home in a cheesey werewolf mask, and has already killed one person…
I can’t explain why the show works so well for me. Is it the banter and onscreen chemistry between Gilda and Gene (this was the last movie they made together; mysterious pain she kept feeling during filming was later diagnosed as the ovarian cancer that eventually killed her)? Is it Dom’s hysterical performance as Aunt Kate? Especially the song and dance number Kate and Vicky perform in the music room after dinner? Is it Jonathan Pryce’s delicious performance as the slightly sleazy cousin Charlie? Or Eve Ferret’s vampy turn as Charlie’s girlfriend (and Larry’s ex-) Sylvia?
I don’t know. But I love the movie. My husband always makes certain that we have a copy on more than one of our computers when we go on long trips, in case I wind up in a dismal or vicious mood because things go awry.
Last night I watched it, and I enjoyed it as always. But for the first time I was crying at the end. Because yesterday the world learned that Gene Wilder had died the night before.
I love other movies Gene made. I was ten years old when Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came out. The town we lived in at that time didn’t have a movie theatre. But a mere thirty miles away, just over the border in neighboring Colorado, my grandparents lived in a town that did have a theatre. And I and my sister and Mom all went to see the movie along with my paternal grandmother one summer evening. I loved it, of course. I had read book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a couple of years previously. I remember early on in the movie thinking that they weren’t following the book very faithfully. But once Wilder came out and started playing the mad, bewildering Willy Wonka, I decided that the movie got it right.
I don’t watch this movie as often. Although many people love Wilders’ Willy Wonka even more than I do, my husband had a very different reaction to the film as a child. It gave him nightmares—severe enough that he just can’t watch the show even now as an adult.
And of course I re-watch Young Frankenstein at least once a year. Quoting along and laughing throughout. It’s a brilliant comedy and parody.
The only other of his films I currently own is Blazing Saddles which I hadn’t watched in a long while, so I watched it as well, last night. Gene was good in that, though with not nearly as much screen time as I’d have liked.
I love Gene isn so many of his roles: Willy, Dr. FRON-ken-STEEN, Larry, the Waco Kid… We have his movies to enjoy again and again. And we need to remember the sentiment his family expressed in their official announcement, along with the explanation for why Gene didn’t publicly reveal his health problem: he couldn’t stand the thought of even one less smile in the world. He put many smiles into the world. And yes, many of us shed some tears yesterday, but I know re-watching his movies will bring smiles and laughs instead of tears again. Just not today.