A few days ago, the great comedic actor Gene Wilder died. One of his most popular roles is as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067992/). Yet, it’s not my favorite of his and I find the movie a little boring. It looks like it was done on the cheap… all that is for another post. I want to take a look at a single moment in the movie.
The scene I want to discuss is a scene in which Gene Wilder doesn’t appear, the opening scene, the candy shop scene.
From the perspective of a child, its a magical moment. What child doesn’t want to rush to the candy shop immediately after a long day at the classroom. And when you arrive at the store, the candy is plentiful, the clerk is cheery and knows the latest thing in confections. Later, as an adult, there’s something unsettling about the whole thing.
The main reason why I find it interesting because it establishes a couple rules of this particular reality. To be clear, the world in which Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka live is askew from ours, very eccentric.
There is a clear delineation of class and credit in this world. At the very beginning of the show, the school bell rings and a group of kids crowd into Bill’s Candy. Immediately he spots a few faces as though he had a register of who they are and what treat they get when they enter they door. None of the kids request any specific confection, they simply crowd in, shout, jump, and stay excited. It’s as though the candy shop is part of some sort of after school program.
It’s obvious these kids come from, at least, middle class families. Their clothes are clean, brilliantly colorful, almost brand new. The fact is, the are connected to money and are blithely ignorant of the relationship between credit and business. Have enough, or access to enough of it, and one could get away with damned near anything and the business owner will gleefully participate. So gleeful, in fact, they’ll sing a song to reinforce the status quo and further the divide a child’s perception of reality from the world of adults.
The bright, cheerful,and privileged children never seem to fork over a single penny and the shop keeper showers the kids with candy and allows them unrestricted access to all his stores. It’s a childhood fantasy come true, if you have the proper parentage.
The scene ends with the shot of our outsider hero, Charlie Bucket, literally on the outside, longingly peering, the wish for what the connected kids seem to access so easily. However, he has to eschew his childhood for the benefit of his family. He comes from a destitute family that can’t earn the level of income that permits him to indulge in the lifestyle we just witnessed. Charlie Bucket is a member of the other class.
Nowhere are the attitudes shown towards his class made more poignant than, after he lucks out by finding a coin in the sewer, he goes to the same candy shop we experience at the top of the movie, and Charlie ultimately buys the fateful golden ticket. Just before he leaves the shop, but after he orders the Scrumdoubliumptios bar, that same clerk, who, at the beginning of the movie was joyously throwing candy around, singing songs, and letting the well connected/credited kids have run of the shop, is suddenly a stickler for the rules of the transaction.
I don’t know if he got a reprimand of some sort for his conduct with regard to the merchandise, or got a look at his finances just before Charlie walked in, but this clerk certainly has a different attitude about money this time around.
I believe that this change is an expression of this particular culture’s attitudes towards people of a lower class. Charlie obviously very rarely comes into the candy shop. His request for a candy bar is awkward. Still, even though he’s polite and avuncular, the clerk still hasn’t given Charlie the credibility that has others. This is a cold and heartless world in which Charlie lives.