Like a wave of fresh, spring air following one of the rottenest winters on record, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE wafts into the Brattle like a warm rain, green grass, fun and flowers. Its bright candy colors are sure to wake you from your long black-and-white hibernation. Its non-stop frivolity will cause you to skip and run and jump. It is food for the soul, and what fool is going to turn that down after all the rain and hail, cold and snow of Old Man Winter, 2014.
What a gift the Brattle is giving us!
A simple story of a boy, his lost bike, and the road trip across a Gothic America to find it. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE rose from the success of “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” an early ’80s children’s comedy program developed by actor, Paul Reubens, who first conceived of the glorified man/child character in the basement of his parents’ home when regular acting gigs and job callbacks simply weren’t coming as often as he wished.
Reubens fashioned his very own screenplay for BIG ADVENTURE and when Warner Bros. studios scooped it up, asked that they hire a very young Tim Burton to direct. Originally a Wunderkind of first efforts, like the stop-motion shorts “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie,” Burton changed the face of moviemaking by bringing his own personal vision to his work. “Why?” he asked, “does my movie have to look and behave like the movies others have already made?” Burton brings this unique storytelling dynamic to BIG ADVENTURE and does so winningly, spinning a tale of perfect pacing and power. The success of it put him on the map, and he went on to direct such macabre comedy classics as BEETLEJUICE, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and THE CORPSE BRIDE.
But I would like this essay to be a hymn to Paul Reubens’ eternal alter ego, Pee Wee Herman.
Has anybody come closer, before or after, to capturing the double duty schizophrenia of a boy trapped inside a man’s body, or should I say, a man trapped inside a boy’s body?
In PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and then in the wild and wildly popular “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” on TV, Reubens goes for broke manufacturing his own Frankenstein of a monster, setting Pee-wee loose among the natural world, without apology, without regret. No one had ever seen anything like him. Childhood heroes Big Brother Bob Emory, Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room’s Miss Jeanne, and even Bozo are left behind in the dust made by Pee-wee’s race to the Land of Zany (Mister Rogers isn’t to be found anywhere in this crazy landscape).
Like Alice swallowing the small pill, we take Pee-wee’s hand and are down the bunny hole faster than you can say, “Jack Rabbit!” and so very happy to stay there for always (or at least until Mom calls us in for supper).
It is hard to describe Pee-wee’s sound, that hot fudge-and-marshmallow sundae voice, that voice that takes us all over the place like a roller coaster stuck forever in “Go” mode.
Equally hard is any attempt here to describe his look, the look of him—sexy and sexless at the same time. With a glance, a dirty crook of the mouth, or an arching of the penciled eyebrow, he summons up the genderless, crotchless wonders of being a lifelong youngster. And yet, there is also something of the insurance salesman who has been out on the road too long and has forgotten his purpose—the too-tight suit, the too-tiny bowtie, and the demonic laugh. Pee-wee is a combination of Rudolph Valentino, CABARET’s Weimer Republic Emcee, and Shirley Temple on both crack and LSD.
I have never taken acid, but I imagine Pee-wee Herman is what it must be like—an unbridled float into the upper reaches of uninhibitedness, colors and lights and funny companions (Miss Yvonne, Jambi the Genie, Cap’n Carl) taking you skyward, or downward, depending on what the day or mood calls for. Like Maurice Sendak in the literary world, Reubens and Burton understand that the mind of a child is a dark, cruel forest full of spooks, hidden agendas, and secrets stranger than the night. (I taught junior high school for a number of years and trust me; a child’s mind can be a very wicked place!)
Reubens’ own mind is an absolute zoo of chaos and mayhem; happily he does nothing to keep his animals caged. Witness, as an example, the brilliantly zany struts he takes across the bar of a bikers’ watering hole in what has to be the highest platform pumps ever designed, his promenade perfectly synced to the tune of “Tequila.” If you don’t pee your pants with laughter at this scene, have your doctor check your funny bone because brother, it has to be out of order!
That year—1985, the Year of Pee-wee—and for years after, the catch phrases “Large Marge” (which people would use to describe their awful bosses or ex-girlfriends) and “I’M TRYING TO USE THE PHONE!!” were on everybody’s lips and in everybody’s bag of favorite movie lines to quote.
Believe me—Reubens’ childhood role models, Howdy Doody and Pinky Lee, never went this far out.
And yet, Pee-wee is not all about “the jokes.” Like all the great clowns, such as Emmett Kelly, Popov, even Carol Burnett’s and Bette Midler’s “Charwoman” characters, there is a lost, lonely pathos to Reubens’ hollow, over-rouged face, hiding from a world that doesn’t want him, a bottomless longing that the world would come join him in celebration of being different, of Pee-wee’s differences, of all our own differences.
You will come out of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE feeling really good. After seeing Pee-wee Herman, you realize the word ‘madcap’ might need redefining. ‘Madcap’ might not even be the right word. There is more than a slight degree of madness when he hits the screen, not unlike cattle stampeding through a small, suburban neighborhood. Look out!
Here is an interesting aside; for my friend, Joe Markiewicz’s birthdays, I used to write and ask celebrities he liked to send him their autograph, as a surprise. Some celebrities obliged with a scrawl across a loose leaf page, a signature stamp—you could see it wasn’t real. Paul Reubens sent Joe a special handwritten message from “Pee-wee” and an actual miniature replica of the BIG ADVENTURE bicycle! Joe still has the message and bike mounted on his living room wall.
I have often heard, too, that Paul Reubens accepts any invitation fans extend—will go to your home, no matter where you live, for dinner, if asked. So fire up that grill, people! Let’s have Pee-wee over for hot dogs and Hawaiian Punch. Let the party (and PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE) begin!