Milwaukee Film Festival

The Life Story of Gene Wilder

New documentary on Milwaukee-born movie star is breezy fun, with delightful clips and interviews.

By - Apr 8th, 2024 01:08 pm
Remembering Gene Wilder. Sill courtesy of the Milwaukee Film Festival.

Remembering Gene Wilder. Sill courtesy of the Milwaukee Film Festival.

My fondness for Jerry Silberman – as he was known in Milwaukee – extends back to his 1963 Broadway role in Mother Courage and Her Children. I saw Gene Wilder (his name by then) in a small but memorable part with already established star Anne Bancroft. Later I learned the story about how she introduced him to her boyfriend Mel Brooks (later her lifelong husband), pushing him as the perfect hysterical and wide-eyed accountant in Brooks’ working script then called “Springtime for Hitler,” later changed to The Producers.

The film, along with Bonnie and Clyde (also 1967) established Wilder as an acting star and an lovable but easily crazed mensch, with other unfolding films like Willie Wonka (still a unique performance), Young Frankenstein (a still magical comedy, this one co-written with Brooks), not to mention Blazing Saddles, The Frisco Kid, Stir Crazy and Hanky Panky.

I knew even more about him, since I talked with his co-workers in the community theater group known as the Milwaukee Players where he started. Much later as film critic at the Milwaukee Journal, I interviewed him when he made his triple debut (director, writer and star) in 1975’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. We talked at length about his Milwaukee roots, his surprising rise from bit player to acknowledged acting genius and even the way studios were charging TV media interviews to the production costs of an underperforming film – like Holmes unfairly proceeded to be.

I sympathized with his suffering through the death in her forties from cancer of his beloved Gilda Radner, one of the most famous SNL comediennes, and was saddened several years later by his physical decline and death from Alzheimer’s in 2016.

So I was halfway home with inside knowledge, hearing tales I heard before, even before the Milwaukee Film Festival wangled a screening for me of Remembering Gene Wilder, with many Wilder interviews leading the way through an affectionate 2023 journey. There are also many star friends interviewed, plus delightful clips from his movies and even some unseen footage. It breezes along at 92 minutes as a comprehensive memory of his life, personality and career.

I hadn’t realized how much of it was already familiar, but I tried to measure the documentary as it would be taken in by viewers who didn’t know as much as I did about the stories, the warm view of colleagues, the famous movie scenes and his partnerships onscreen and off.

I think audiences will be taken not just by the Milwaukee roots and family, but the power of the anecdotes. There are interviews with Brooks on Wilder, Wilder on Brooks, stars he knew like Alan Alda, celebrities he worked with and insiders still shocked into laughter by his manic energy. Just the memory of Wilder with Richard Pryor, or Wilder with Marty Feldman, brings a smile.

The documentary is smoothly done and doesn’t attempt to cut new ground. Frankly, the less you know about Gene Wilder, the more you will enjoy discovering him in this film.

The festival will show Remembering Gene Wilder at 3:15 p.m. Saturday, April 13 at the Oriental Theatre and at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday April 16 again at the Oriental.

The general public can call 414-755-1965 or stop by the Oriental box office for tickets. Prices range from $15 to $8 depending on the age category and there is limited seating depending on the event and place.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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