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The Oompa Loompas Were African Slaves In The 1964 Book

Entertainment | December 13, 2017

Left: Gene Wilder and Oompa Loompas from the 1971 film 'Wily Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.' Right: An illustration of the Oompa Loompas from the first edition of Roald Dahl's book 'Charlie And The Chocolate Factory,' 1964. Sources: IMDB; processhistory

The Oompa Loompas are the short factory workers in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which starred Gene Wilder and was based on a book by Roald Dahl. Wonka was known as a mysterious, reclusive and eccentric candy maker who owned a factory that produced chocolate and other confections, and his Oompa Loompas were odd little creatures who sang songs and danced. While the 1971 Oompa Loompas, with their orange skin, green hair and green-and-white factory costumes, bring back fond memories for those of us who recall the film, Dahl's original concept for the imported laborers wasn't ready for the big screen, or any screen at all.

The Oompa Loompas we know from the film were mischievous natives of Loompaland, in the region of Loompa, which was represented to be a small, isolated island in the Hangdoodles. Willy Wonka discovered them and realized that they were being mistreated by the Whangdoodles, Hornswogglers and Snozzwangers. Wonka took them home to work in his factory and to give them a better life, making his Gobstoppers and other sugary treats. He rescued them but they also rescued him because he needed their help. There was a mutual and loving respect that they shared. Beneficial to both sides was the fact that the Oompa Loompa’s diet consisted mainly of cacao beans which were rich in chocolate flavor.

But The Movie Oompa-Loompas Weren't The First Oompa Loompas

In the first edition of Roald Dahl's book, published in 1964, the Oompa Loompas weren't fantastic or supernatural beings; they were slave laborers imported from Africa. The website RoaldDahlFans.com quotes this description from Jeremy Treglown’s Roald Dahl: A Biography:

In the version first published, [the Oompa-Loompas were] a tribe of 3,000 amiable black pygmies who have been imported by Mr. Willy Wonka from ‘the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before.’ Mr. Wonka keeps them in the factory, where they have replaced the sacked white workers. Wonka’s little slaves are delighted with their new circumstances, and particularly with their diet of chocolate. Before they lived on green caterpillars, beetles, eucalyptus leaves, ‘and the bark of the bong-bong tree.'

The Pygmies Become Hippies

Joseph Schindelman's 1973 depiction of the 'hippie'-style Oompa Loompas. Source: hear-the-boat-sing.blogspot.com

The excuse for this version of Oompa Loompas was that the story had a "Victorian" theme and was a "very English fantasy." In Victorian times, the backstory of the Oompa Loompas might have seemed fairly reasonable. (After all, who wants to eat the bark of the bing-bong tree?) But in 1964, it was pretty racist. Still, the African Oompa Loompas persisted for years, until their depiction came under attack in 1972. Note that is after the movie -- the producers evidently had better taste than Roald Dahl. Here's what went down, as told by Jeremy Treglown via RoaldDahlFans.com:

To those growing up in a racially mixed society, the Oompa-Loompas were no longer acceptable as originally written. The following year [1973], to accompany its new sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, a revised edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory appeared, in which the Oompa-Loompas had become dwarfish hippies with long ‘golden-brown hair’ and ‘rosy-white’ skin.”

Was Roald Dahl Forced To Alter His Book?

Author Roald Dahl in 1954. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When push came to shove, Dahl made the decision to change the Oompa Loompas. Another post at RoaldDahlFans.com contains this quote from the author himself:

I created a group of little fantasy creatures…. I saw them as charming creatures, whereas the white kids in the books were… most unpleasant. It didn’t occur to me that my depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was racist, but it did occur to the NAACP and others…. After listening to the criticisms, I found myself sympathizing with them, which is why I revised the book.

The Movie Oompa Loompas Were An Improvement

But the filmmakers, as we mentioned, had the good sense to create Oompa Loompas who weren't African slaves. 

So... back to the film.

We never heard or saw the Oompa Loompas have on-screen conversations. They did, however, sing witty, rhyming songs. The tune of their songs was always the same and the lyrics of their songs always mimicked whatever the current situation was. They were known to cleverly make up songs on the spot.

The movie was filmed in Munich, and producers had a difficult time finding actors that spoke English. Finally, they assembled a group of 10 actors to play the Oompa Loompas, which included Brittish, Maltese, Turkish and German actors;  only one being a female. Because of a language barrier for some of the actors, filming proved to be somewhat frustrating because everything had to be explained in several languages.

The Dance Routines Were Hard To Perfect

Because most of the actors who portrayed the Oompa Loompas did not speak English, they found it difficult to learn the words to the songs. If you look closely, you can see some of their lip-syncing to be “off”. Because of this, songs recorded in the movie reportedly took countless takes. 

Choreographers for the film had all of the dance scenes planned out only to find out that most of the dances had to be changed. The average height of the Oompa Loompas was somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 feet. Their legs were so short that they physically couldn’t pull off the dance moves that had been originally planned.

The Oompa Loompas Also Enforced The Rules

The doomed Violet Beauregarde is approached by Oompa Loompas who will roll her away. Source: Pinterest

In the 1971 movie, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa Loompas were portrayed by Rusty Goffe, Rudy Borgstaller, George Claydon, Malcolm Dixon, Ismed Hassan, Norman McGlen, Angelo Muscat, Pepe Poupee, Marcus Powell and Albert Wilkinson. Their characters were, surprisingly, very in tune to the (mostly) ill-intentions of the children that had possession of the golden tickets. (Even our hero Charlie, remember, cannot resist sampling the forbidden Fizzy Lifting Drink.) 

One Actor Played Them All In 2005

In the 2005 production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Johnny Depp portrays Willy Wonka and Deep Roy was all 165 Oompa Loompas. Deep Roy reportedly had to take Pilates and dance classes to perfect his role.

Tags: 1971 | A Brief History Of... | Gene Wilder | Oompa Loompas | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.