In 1971, an unlikely cinematic classic was born out of one of Roald Dahl’s stranger, more colorful children’s novels. Under the direction of Mel Stuart, whose previous credits included the JFK assassination documentary Four Days in November, and with financing from the Quaker Oats Company, which hoped a box-office smash could sell a few candy bars, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory took a look at the British class system through the whimsical lens of a fairy-tale musical.
In the lead: Gene Wilder, one of America’s biggest comedic talents. Opposite him: a bunch of preteens who had never set foot on a movie set, let alone one as extravagant as the lollipop lands built for the film.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory captured the pure imaginations of countless generations, but for the kids of the cast, it was a demanding extracurricular activity that sent them off in every occupational direction. Forty years later, Peter Gardner Ostrum (Charlie Bucket) is a veterinarian; Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt) stuck around the acting world; Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee) is a bona fide entrepreneur; and Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop) went back to Germany to become a CPA.
But they all have clear memories of making Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. On the occasion of the film’s 50th anniversary and recent release on 4K Blu-ray, I spoke to the cast about one scene that has always haunted my memories, and that only became more fascinating as I learned how movies were made: Augustus’ ill-fated slurping from Wonka’s chocolate river.
Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop): It was actually not chocolate. It was terribly cold. It was stinky water! And it was all day long, jumping in and jumping out, and being around with wet clothes.
Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt): Michael had to fall into this disgusting stuff that had been sitting there for three weeks. It had the lights on it, and people were emptying their coffee cup dregs into it.
Bollner: The river was just 10 centimeters deep. And there was a hole about a square meter that I had to hit. So I was very scared that I would not hit the square meter, and would punch my head in the ground of the chocolate river.
Cole: I remember watching that and being quite afraid for Michael because they were very adamant that, you know, “Not 6 inches to the left, not 6 inches to the right.” Those were the shallow bits. There was a trough there that he could fall into. But, of course, you couldn’t see that because the chocolatey water masked it. So he had to really be specific on where he was going to tumble and hit that spot. I remember being quite anxious for him.
Peter Gardner Ostrum (Charlie Bucket): When I saw Michael do take after take after take of falling in the cold river, that cold, dirty river, I just thought, “I’m glad that’s him and not me!”
Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee): I’m playing some of that [genuine shock] in the lower left hand corner of the frame right around the time that he’s going in. It’s just about the time that Mike Teevee is figuring out that maybe not all is well at the factory. I’m looking at Gene blowing the pipe and calling the Oompa Loompa and talking about sending him off to the fudge room, and it’s dawning on me. You can watch the whole process going on in my little brain.
Ostrum: Mel didn’t do a lot of directing. It was more trial and error. And ... we realized when we erred.
Themmen: Not only was Mel sort of screamy, but he also did a lot of takes. I have a photo of me with a clapboard of 46 takes from one scene, where my dad had to say, “Not till you’re 12, son.” Simple line, uncredited. But I do definitely have recollections of discussing with Mel my motivation and how I feel about it. Mike generally was enjoying just about everything, except the tunnel scene.
Cole: Mel would let things roll and encourage us to be creative. Or maybe that was because he didn’t have an idea, so he just let us go [laughs].
Ostrum: But we were all smart kids, and so we figured it out very quickly.
Cole: Don’t forget, we’d all read the book. And you had your script, so you knew what was happening, and you knew what was required of you. But nevertheless, when you see it ... I did feel sorry for Michael. Up that tube. Stuck.
Bollner: It was a really tough thing because they took about 2 meters’ tube around me and filled it up with water up to my mouth. So I couldn’t move anything. I couldn’t do anything. I just had to rely on the guys that were around me that don’t drop me.
Ostrum: Looking back, that scene probably wasn’t OSHA approved.
Themmen: Peter was getting carried around on wires [during the bubble scene], which are never comfortable. That harness is not fun, and I’m sure [Grandpa Joe actor] Jack Albertson liked it even less. I was getting dragged into pots and pans falling down around my head in the Inventing Room. We all had our stories.