Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mel Stuart Passes On

Documentary and feature film director Mel Stuart died on 9 August 2012 at the age of 83. He is perhaps best known for the documentary The Making of the President (1963) and the feature film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Mel Stuart was born Stuart Solomon on 2 September 1928 in New York City. He studied music at New York University with the goal of becoming a composer. It was not long after graduation that he decided to become a documentary director. His first work in film was as an assistant to director Mary Ellen Bute in 1954. Later in the decade he went to work for CBS as a researcher for the network's documentary programme The 20th Century. It was in 1959 that he became part of David L. Wolper's  production company as a documentary director. He received his first directorial credit on the TV documentary The Rafer Johnson Story (1961), which centred on the Olympics star. Over the next few years he directed an episode of Biography and documentaries on D-Day and Willie Davis. It was in 1963 that The Making of the President was released, making Mel Stuart a name in the documentary field. The film won Emmys for both Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Documentary Programme and Programme of the Year.

For the remainder of the Sixties he would direct some of the most acclaimed documentaries in television and film. Among his documentaries were Four Days in November (1964), Wall Street: Where the Money Is (1966), A Nation of Immigrants (1967), and Sophia: A Self-Portrait (1968).  It was in 1969 that he broke into feature films with the comedy If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969).  Another feature film directed by Mel Stuart, the comedy I Love My Wife, was released in 1970.

It was in 1971 that the film for which he was best known, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, was released. A musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the film received good reviews from critics, but it did not do particularly well at the box office. It would eventually attain cult status after repeated broadcasts on television and is now regarded as a classic. For the remainder of the Seventies, Mel Stuart would direct the documentaries Wattstax (1973), Up From the Ape (1974), and Life Goes to the Movies (1976), as well as the feature films Two Is a Happy Number (1972) and Mean Dog Blues (1978), the TV movies Brenda Starr (1976) (TV), Ruby and Oswald (1978), The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal (1979), and episodes of Welcome Back Kotter and The Chisholms.

In the Eighties Mel Stuart directed the feature film The White Lions (1981), the documentaries Happy Anniversary 007: 25 Years of James Bond (1987),  and With Peter Beard in Africa: Last Word from Paradise (1988), as well as an episode of Casablanca. In the Nineties Mr. Stuart directed "Man Ray: Prophet of the Avant Garde" and "Billy Wilder: The Human Comedy" for the PBS documentary series American Masters. In the Naughts he directed the documentaries BBC: A Window on the World (2001), Anthony Hecht: The Poet's View (2001), Seeing Stars... with Hy Gardner (2001), Still Perfect: 20 Unforgettable Photographs (2002), John Ashbery: The Poet's View (2003), W. S. Merwin: The Poet's View (2003), Call of the Wild: Sex in the Animal Kingdom (2003), Louise Glück: The Poet's View (2004), and The Hobart Shakespeareans (2005).

Today Mel Stuart is best known as the director of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and it seems many of the headlines announcing his death described him as such, but in truth he should perhaps be remembered as a documentarian. Mr. Stuart's documentaries were always well made and very informative, relaying a good deal of information in a relatively small space of time. In fact, he may have made possibly the best documentary ever to deal with American presidential elections, The Making of the President, based on Theodore White's book of the same name. Of course, Mel Stuart did direct feature films and he was very good at those too. If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium remains one of my favourite comedies from the late Sixties and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is an unabashed classic, one of the best musicals ever made. Mel Stuart was the consummate filmmaker, a man who could make documentaries and features with equal skill.

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