Fifty years after it premiered on June 30, 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory continues to treat kids and adults alike to a deliciously bizarre viewing experience. Here are a handful of facts you might not know about this candylicious classic.
The Movie Was Part of a Massive Advertising Scheme
At the time Willy Wonka was being developed, Quaker Oats was tinkering with a new chocolate bar. After discussions with the production company, Quaker realized that the movie could serve as a massive marketing machine for a new line of sweets. They went all in, funding the whole project. Quaker’s involvement is why the movie was called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory instead of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the title of the 1964 book by Roald Dahl); because of the $2.9 million investment, Quaker wanted the brand name right in the movie title. Ironically, Quaker ran into some issues with the chocolate formula they were developing, so their Wonka Bar wasn’t released until four years after the movie came out. The only Wonka-related products Quaker had on the market around the time the movie was released were Peanut Butter Oompas and the Peanut Butter Super Skrunch.
The Movie Wasn’t a Huge Hit
It’s hard to imagine Wonka as anything but a runaway success these days, but the initial response to it was a bit mediocre. After earning just $4 million at the box office (compared to a budget just under $3 million) and seeing little public interest in the film in the years that followed, Paramount failed to renew the distribution rights and Warner Bros. scooped them up in 1977. Warner Bros. knew just what to do with them — once they brought the movie to TV and VHS, the film gained a new audience and went on to become a cult classic.
Author Roald Dahl Was Not a Fan
It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for authors to be disappointed in the movie adaptations of their books. Roald Dahl, for one, called Wonka “crummy.” He didn’t care for the music, the director, or the casting choice of Gene Wilder. “I think he felt Wonka was a very British eccentric,” Dahl’s friend and biographer Donald Sturrock has said. “Gene Wilder was rather too soft … His voice is very light and he’s got that rather cherubic, sweet face. I think [Dahl] felt … there was something wrong with [Wonka’s] soul in the movie – it just wasn’t how he imagined the lines being spoken." It’s said that Dahl eventually grew to “tolerate” the movie, but never liked it. In turn, Gene Wilder wasn’t a fan of Tim Burton's 2005 remake of the movie, calling it “an insult.” He later clarified, “Johnny Depp, I think, is a good actor, but I don’t care for that director. He’s a talented man, but I don’t care for him doing stuff like he did.”
Director Mel Stuart Was a Documentarian
Stuart was well-known in cinema circles for films like 1963’s The Making of the President (the story of the 1960 U.S. presidential election) and 1968’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. So, how did he end up directing one of the most beloved children’s movies of all time? At the insistence of a child, of course. Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a favorite of his daughter Madeline’s, and she told him what a great movie it would make. She eventually even landed a small speaking role in the film. “I’m very proud of that movie,” Madeline said when her father died in 2012. “I think it’s absolutely brilliant and charming and a bit dark and very funny — and all those things describe my father.”
Much of the Chocolate Factory Set Really Was Edible
According to Gene Wilder, about a third of the candy factory floor set truly could have been eaten, including the chocolate river. But although the river certainly looked dreamy, none of the actors were too tempted to eat it, what with all the people walking through it during filming. One element that wasn’t edible? The yellow tea cup flower Wilder sinks his teeth into during the song “Pure Imagination.” It was wax, which Wilder had to chew on until the take was complete.
The Fake-Out Stumble Was Done at Gene Wilder’s Insistence
Many actors wanted the part of Willy Wonka, but director Mel Stuart desperately wanted Wilder. After reading the script, Wilder agreed to the role — but only if he could orchestrate Wonka’s grand entrance. “I will do it if I can come out, and all the crowd quiets down, and I am using a cane,” Wilder told Larry King in 2002, recalling his conversation with Stuart. “And I walk slowly and you can hear a pin drop. And my cane gets stuck in a brick. And I fall forward onto my face and do a forward somersault and jump up, and they all start to applaud.'”
Stuart agreed, but didn’t quite understand the motivation behind the grand deception. “I said, ‘because no one will know from that point on whether I am lying or telling the truth,'” Wilder explained.
Gene Wilder Was Very Specific About His Wardrobe
Wonka’s entrance wasn’t the only part of his iconic character that Wilder vividly envisioned. He also had very specific thoughts on Wonka’s wardrobe, which he revealed in a letter to director Mel Stuart after seeing the initial costume sketches. Some of the highlights:
“Slime green trousers are icky. But sand colored trousers are just as unobtrusive for your camera, but tasteful.”
“The hat is terrific, but making it 2 inches shorter would make it more special.”
“Also a light blue felt hat-band to match with the same light blue fluffy bow tie shows a man who knows how to compliment his blue eyes.”
“To match the shoes with the jacket is fey. To match the shoes with the hat is taste.”
Perhaps most revealing about how Wilder viewed his portrayal are his views on keeping the costume timeless: “I don't think of Willy as an eccentric who holds on to his 1912 Dandy's Sunday suit and wears it in 1970, but rather as just an eccentric — where there's no telling what he'll do or where he ever found his get-up — except that it strangely fits him: Part of this world, part of another. A vain man who knows colors that suit him, yet, with all the oddity, has strangely good taste. Something mysterious, yet undefined.”
Violet Really Did Turn Violet
Life imitated art when Violet Beauregard actress Denise Nickerson couldn’t seem to ditch her blueberry hue. Two days after shooting the famous scene where she goes full berry, Nickerson was sitting in math class when a friend looked at her, alarmed. “You’re turning blue,” she said. The blue makeup had been so thoroughly applied that it was resurfacing through her pores and took another 36 hours to disappear again. “Needless to say, I didn’t get asked out for a date in that school,” Nickerson later said. “They thought, ‘If I take her out, she could turn polka dots!’”
An Everlasting Gobstopper Prop Sold for $100,000
Despite the wondrous sets and countless mouthwatering props, not much from the movie survived. The actress who played Veruca Salt, Julie Dawn Cole, managed to nab a few keepsakes — including one of the famous Everlasting Gobstoppers. She sold some of her collection in the early 2000s, “before its price reached the dizzying heights of today,” she told CNN in 2011. She was right about dizzying heights: The Gobstopper was purchased for $100,000 in 2017 on the show Pawn Stars.