Since 2016 has apparently become the year that any artist you remotely cared about is going to die, of course the great Gene Wilder had to be added to that list, because life is horrible and unfair. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that he was a staple of my childhood; my family watched Young Frankenstein, in particular, so many times that quotes from the film became ingrained in our conversation, particularly where running gags and inside jokes were concerned (for example, my grandmother got an indecent amount of mileage out of “what knockers!”). When I got a little older — though I’ve admittedly not slowed down my annual viewings of Young Frankenstein — other Wilder titles joined it: Blazing Saddles, The Producers, The Little Prince, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, and so on. This might be cliched to say, but unlike some of the other major figures who have passed this year, Gene Wilder just doesn’t feel gone.
His brilliance as an actor and comedian also makes it easy to forget that he was also an accomplished writer and director — he co-wrote Young Frankenstein with Mel Brooks, for instance — and two of the films that he directed, wrote, and starred in are often unfairly overlooked: The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986). They’ve both recently been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and would make a perfect double feature to add to any Wilder memorial (or just the annual tribute you should already be practicing).
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother was Wilder’s first film in the director’s chair and, as a result, it suffers from a few issues but will still appeal to any fans of Wilder — or Sherlock Holmes spoofs. Wilder plays Sigerson Holmes, the smarter, but unrecognized younger brother of Sherlock, who has helped solve many of his brother’s important cases. Sherlock, whose name he pronounces as “Sheer luck,” sends him a recent pickle involving a stolen royal document, the contents of which are a mystery. He teams up with a Scotland Yard detective (Marty Feldman) with eidetic memory — meaning he can remember and repeat exact conversations — and Jenny Hill (Madeleine Kahn), a singer and compulsive liar being blackmailed by a lascivious opera star (Dom DeLuise). Though she won’t say why it first, it becomes clear that she’s connected to the missing document…
Admittedly, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is a complete mess and has a number of flaws that kept it from performing particularly well critically or with audiences. For starters, it’s clearly the work of an inexperienced director and is all the hell over the place, ranging from madcap scenes of physical comedy to moments of romance, sexual farce, musical numbers, and so on. There is no tight sense of pacing as in Wilder’s collaborations with Mel Brooks, like Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles, and the film sort of ebbs and flows haphazardly. I can’t deny that I found certain scenes dull and I could die happy if I never have to hear “The Kangaroo Hop” again. And if you’ve seen Young Frankenstein as many times as I have, it’s easy to pick out the handful of gags that are subtly repeated throughout this film, though that didn’t necessarily keep me from enjoying those moments.
But with that said, I do genuinely enjoy the film, primarily thanks to the incredibly tight casting, a charismatic roster that reads like the who’s who of ‘70s and ‘80s comedy: in addition to Wilder and Young Frankenstein alums Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn, Leo McKern and Roy Kinnear nearly out perform everyone as a math-challenge Professor Moriarty and his frustrated assistant. The cast, combined with some genuinely laugh-out-loud funny moments, more than makes up for the occasional comedic lulls, though now would probably be a good time to admit — unashamedly — that I’m incredibly biased. Any combination of Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, and… drumroll… the great Dom DeLuise is enough to keep me happy and I would probably find it entertaining if the three of them stood around watching paint dry.
Although whether you’re obsessed with these actors or not, there are plenty of hilarious moments in the film. There are two scenes in particular that I still can’t watch without becoming a little hysterical; the first involves a ballroom dancing scene that takes the ripped dress moment from Bringing Up Baby to a whole new level. The second involves an opera — both the film’s climax and its apex — where Dom DeLuise effectively rips the film out from under everyone else. The man is a treasure and for any fellow Americans reading, I move to replace Columbus Day with Dom DeLuise Day, where, as a nation, we put our differences aside and come together to eat massive portions of Italian food and watch reruns of The Dean Martin Show and hours of nothing but DeLuise films.
And speaking of Dom DeLuise, he (not coincidentally) also steals Haunted Honeymoon out from underneath an equally talented cast. Larry Abbot (Wilder) and Vickie Pearle (the radiant Gilda Radner in her last film before her death) are radio performers on a beloved murder mystery show. They’re just about to get married — in the foreboding Gothic mansion Larry grew up — when it becomes clear that he’s suffering from some sort of panic disorder, though Vickie begins to wonder if it’s really something worse. He lives in a sort of permanent state of terror, aggravated by strange goings on at the mansion and the behavior of his eccentric family, including the family matriarch, his great-aunt Kate (DeLuise, who is utter perfection), his sneaky and broke cousin Charles (Jonathan Pryce), his psychiatrist uncle (the underrated Paul Smith of Pieces) who is trying to frighten him to death to cure his anxiety, the drunk and exasperated butler (Bryan Pringle), and so on. But it soon seems that a murderer — and a werewolf — are also running around the estate and it’s all Larry and his family can do to survive till the wedding.
It can be said that while I like The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother overall and adore certain moments, I have a genuine love for Haunted Honeymoon. Certainly, it does have its share of flaws (though far fewer than Sherlock); it can’t compete with another horror comedy like Young Frankenstein and borrows pretty openly from Murder by Death (1976) and Clue (1985), both of which are superior films, but it’s just so warm and delightful that I can’t imagine anyone not having a good time with Haunted Honeymoon. The majestic Dom DeLuise makes the entire film as Aunt Kate and plays the part completely straight, which is also how all the other actors respond to him, as if no one has any idea that he’s a man in a dress. There is a gag that references this early on, when another cousin is murdered in Aunt Kate’s place because he is fond of crossdressing and was sneaking about the house in Aunt Kate’s clothing. And to think that DeLuise won a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress for this film. It almost makes the whole thing even more enjoyable.
Financially and critically, the film was a disaster and I have absolutely no idea why. It’s filled with the same kind of loveable if quirky side characters from Young Frankenstein and overall, the enthusiasm everyone acting in the film as for it — and assumedly, each other — is infectious. It’s the sort of horror-comedy that blends together spooky themes with a murder mystery and some very funny physical comedy, making it sort of an ideal choice for anyone looking for lighter fare this Halloween. It belongs alongside other neglected horror comedies like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, some of Abbott and Costello’s more ignored titles from the ‘50s, and even Roger Corman’s The Comedy of Terrors, which is one of my favorite films of all time.
I can’t say that either The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother or Haunted Honeymoon represents Gene Wilder’s finest hour, and certainly there are people (monsters) who will hate both of these titles, but they’re both delightful and it’s nice to see such neglected films finally making an appearance on Blu-ray. The releases are a little bare bones, with decent looking prints and generally just trailers standing in for special features, but there’s a commentary track from Wilder included with The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and it’s always wonderful to hear his voice. And I think that’s actually the real takeaway here — well, outside of the fact that Dom DeLuise stole both of these films away from Wilder and everyone else in the cast — that it’s important to seek out as much work as possible from the artists we love, rather than only celebrating a limited amount of their best work. Not that I’m trying to apologize for the annual viewings of Young Frankenstein that I will continue to hold until my own death.