Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sabrina Parke: Cheer Up, Charlie

Whether you’re a fan of musicals or merely homosexual, you know when it’s coming. Your palms start to sweat. If you’re listening to a soundtrack, you leap across the room, forgetting your own safety. As a familiar strain begins to invade your eardrums you hit the ‘skip’ button. Silence. You’re safe. But, you are one of the lucky few. Anyone watching that musical has no such reprieve. They are about to take in the Whiny Female Song.

The Whiny Female Song is the extraneous part of a musical where a woman – usually a secondary character – sits and bitches. While the topics that these sirens bemoan in song-form differ from film to film, universally these problems are insignificant. Has her man left her? Is she about to give in to the advances of the antagonist? These are not the topics sung about in a WFS. Unfavorable weather, home shoe repair, and running out of starch before you finish the laundry – these topics are pay dirt for such lyricists and broads. Despite the fact that these laments are shoehorned into otherwise witty and insightful soundtracks, they share none of the humor or joy of their siblings. To make matters worse, nearly all of these sequences happen while something much more exciting and important is taking place. Perhaps it’s because these whiny females don’t get much screen time that they malevolently choose the worst possible times to air their grievances. You’ll hardly ever spot a gal singing about a ring around the bathtub after an act break. She’ll wait until her beloved is evading Nazi fire to unleash this ditty. Although the Whiny Female Song is a staple of bad musicals, a few have managed to worm there way into some of cinema’s most beloved classics.

While Mary Poppins’ ballad on the importance of feeding pigeons makes me antsy and the ragdoll’s lament during the frenzied third act of The Nightmare Before Christmas seems like borderline child-abuse, the worst WFS offender is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – the Gene Wilder classic, not the Burton abomination. While some people find other faults with Willy Wonka, namely the boat ride/acid trip, I think these scenes add to the film while at the same time saying, “Hey! This was made in the ‘70s!” The WFS, on the other hand, adds nothing.

By the time you see Charlie Bucket heading down a dark alley towards his mother’s boiling water emporium, you know you’re in trouble. You’ve already seen the hovel he lives in, his awful school, the search for the golden tickets, Violet, Veruca, and Slugworth. You aren’t ready to get to the chocolate factory – you’re frantic. If you’ve never seen the movie before, I imagine your ADD-ed addled mind is on the verge of an existential crisis. Repeat watchers know there’s still more than twenty minutes before they get to the factory. This is not the time for Charlie to pay a visit to his haggard-looking mother. Now, I’m sure that actress Diana Sowle is a lovely human being, but I’m just as sure that there’s a reason that she didn’t work again for 23 years – and that reason is “Cheer Up, Charlie.”

As her malnourished child begins to walk down a poorly-lit alleyway in the middle of the night, Mrs. Bucket does what any mother would do. She breaks into song. “You get blue like everyone, but me and Grandpa Joe can make your troubles go away, flow away. There they go… Cheer up Charlie...” Never has a song about juvenile depression been so tedious. What’s more, it’s pointless. She’s not singing it to Charlie – he’s already hightailing it back to their shack. She’s giving a musical pep talk to thin air. Perhaps, if she actually told her son all the reasons he should cheer up, he might. However, the vague lyrics would probably lead Charlie to realize that there really isn’t any reason for him to look on the bright side of life. “When the days get heavy never pit-a-pat 'em, up and at 'em boy.” What the hell does that mean? I’ve been trying to figure it out for twenty years and am still baffled. But, I am positive that it’s nothing to cheer up over – especially when you’re a gaunt 10 year-old whose four grandparents can only afford one bed between them.

While the rest of the film is filled with colorful candy and Oompa Loompas, this sequence consists of two long tracking shots capturing Charlie walking down alleys interspersed with medium shots of the scrub woman in a stained, ill-fitting dress. Without a doubt, this is actor Peter Ostrum at his most awkward. You can tell the director simply said, “Look sad and walk really slowly” before each take. Charlie looks like a zombie, methodically trudging down alleyways as he tries to hit the middle ground between sad, but not crying and not looking constipated. In all, the sequence only lasts two and a half minutes. But, it seems like an eternity – or perhaps limbo is more fitting – a horrifyingly bland middle ground somewhere between Charlie’s hellish hovel and the heaven that is the Wonka factory.


  1. This: "Never has a song about juvenile depression been so tedious" might be my favorite line of anything EVER.

  2. So Funny. Willy Wonka is one of the only movies we let our kid watch for the longest time (when she was tiny we skipped the tunnel scene - and when she was even tinier we just had a little mash-up of Oompa Loompa numbers). I didn't realize how in-denial I was about Cheer Up, Charlie until I read this. I glaze over and check out when it comes on, probably go to the bathroom etc... Such a shame they couldn't break the mold and let it go but, as you might point out, that could probably be said for most good musicals (oxymoron?).

  3. This made me laugh many times. I completely forgot Charlie's mother sings. Her entire role in the film is that song really-- she's not important to the story but they had to show for certain she's Charlie's mom.