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3 Legal Lessons From Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 30, 2016 12:01 PM

Gene Wilder, the legendary comedic actor, passed away yesterday, at the age of 83. As we like to do when someone of note dies, we've tried to distill some wisdom from their life and work, as our way of paying respects and taking lessons from interesting lives. And few had a body of work as interesting as Wilder's. Wilder spent decades charming his way into our lives, alongside Richard Pryor in "Stir Crazy," as a gunslinger in "Blazing Saddles," and as the doctor himself in "Young Frankenstein."

But one of Wilder's defining roles, as the insane, eccentric, endearing Willy Wonka of "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory," deserves, perhaps, the most attention here. That film didn't just epitomize Wilder's unconventional style, it was also uniquely legalistic. It is certainly one of the most popular children's movies to ever have its climax turn on contract interpretation, for example. So, here are some legal lessons from "Wonka," to remember Wilder by.

1. Don't Let a Bunch of Kids Loose in Your Very Hazardous Factory

In case you forgot, the premise of "Willy Wonka" is that a recluse candy magnate selects a handful of youth, plus one guardian for each, to tour his candy factory.

What ensues is like a 1L final exam on acid. And while the legal themes touch on everything from contracts to corporations to property, the main strain is torts. There's the intentional infliction of emotional distress, as Wonka and his Oompa Loompas take the children on a nightmarish tunnel ride. There's assault via snozzberry. There's the negligent storage of fizzy lifting drinks in a giant, deadly turbine. There's endless products liability risk. In fact, the whole factory itself is one big attractive nuisance.

If Roald Dahl had been a lawyer, the sequel to "Wonka" would have been a courtroom thriller, and the candyman would have lost. Badly.

So, live vicariously through Hollywood's fictional hazards. When it comes to your own life, keep the snozzberries out of reach of the kids.

2. You Can Bend a Little

Before the children's tour of Wonka's factory begins, they sign quite a long waiver of liability. And after sending most of this children to their sugary ends, we come back to that contract. Indeed, the whole story depends on it.

Though we doubt the waiver would have stood up in court, Wonka relents. Following the beautiful rant you see above, Charlie proves his worth when he refuses to give a purloined gobstopper to Wonka's archrival. The lesson: you don't always have to turn a conflict into a knock-down, drag-out fight. Sometimes a little compromise is the best way to get to that glass elevator in the sky.

3. Cultivate Talent, Find Someone to Mentor

Let's not forget that the whole reason for Wonka's candy lottery: to find himself an heir. As Wonka knew, and Wilder certainly did as well, we aren't here forever. So weed out the Veruca Salts and Mike Teavees in your professional life and find someone who you can mentor, someone worthy of taking your place someday.

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