“I know you are but what am I!”
If you don’t know where that line comes from, you need to be slapped silly and sent to bed, because that line of brilliance hails from the best movie of ALL TIME (don’t you dare argue with me!), 1985’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Based on actor Paul Ruben’s successful TV series The Pee-Wee Herman Show, the film was the first time the character appeared on the big screen. Directed by visionary Tim Burton in his feature-length debut, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was a box office force to be reckoned with. It became a cult classic nearly overnight– in fact, I can’t think of one person I know who hasn’t seen, and quoted, favorite lines such as “Look out Mr. Potato Head”! Ah, the joy of the classics!
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure tells the story of one eccentric man-boy and his quest to reclaim his bike that ends up taking him across America. Pee Wee lives in a child-like house, filled with gadgets, games and toys galore, but his favorite toy by far is his shiny big red bike. But when it’s stolen in broad daylight, Pee Wee decides that he has to do everything in his power to find it and bring it back home. When a fortune teller hints that the bike could possibly be in the basement of the Alamo, Pee Wee takes off to reclaim it, encountering all kinds of crazy Middle-America adventures along the way. A hottie named Dottie, a ghost named Large Marge, a gang of suggestively homophobic Hells Angels and metal gods Twisted Sister all make memorable cameos in the movie, bringing Pee Wee’s adventures to life.
Due to his eccentricities, Pee Wee is a character all his own, which is made obvious almost immediately due his dashing style. An homage to rockabilly with a touch of surrealism, Pee Wee’s plaid gray tuxedo with legs cropped short enough to show off his white socks and matching white vinyl creepers became his signature. His hair was shaved down perfectly and his face whitened up a bit, with a thin layer of pinkish-redish lip coloring added for a surreal clown-like effect. He always had a little white hankie in his pocket square, and Pee Wee was never ever (and yes, that means EVER) seen without his teeny red bowtie. A mash up of Buddy Holly geek and clown-school chic, Pee Wee’s style was all his own, and influenced a slew of fashion designers in the 80s and 90s who imitated his high armholes, shrunken suit cuts, and even his white creepers!
In fact, the creepers eventually become platforms–and a major plot-point–in the infamous hilarious “Tequila” dance scene. Even the toughest of bikers cant resist their hilarity. Oh, Pee Wee!
Because Burton wanted to show a sharp contrast between the absurdity of Pee Wee’s world and the “real world” he encounters on his adventures, the various characters he runs into are styled in classic Middle America, Heartland-proofed looks. Sporting nothing too adventurous, Pee Wee’s love interest Dottie (Elizabeth Daily) sticks to basics like standard issue overalls and floral button ups. When Dottie does dress up for a date at the Drive-In, Burton lets a bit of his surrealist vision come to life. He styles her in a gorgeous lipstick-red ’50s inspired frock, complete with high-belted empire waist and sweetheart neckline. She looks like a vision of prom perfection, topped off with her lacy elbow-length gloves and traditional pearls. The absurdity of the plot line and the classic Americana reflected in the looks makes for a bombastic combination. Check out Pee Wee’s “I’m a rebel” scene– Dottie’s innocent look just makes it even more ridiculous that someone as silly as Pee Wee can paint himself a “rebel”!
Other characters, like Large Marge, all wear similar Middle-Class gear. Pee Wee’s arch enemy Francis Bean is decked out in a periwinkle blue suit that reminds me of a cross between my dad’s old school PJs and a prison issue fit, as classic American as the come, right? Similarly, Large Marge’s scary beehive updo and plain-yet-awesome flannel are such absurd interpretations of classic Americana that you can’t help but chuckle. Loudly.
Burton and Ruben’s commentary becomes as plain as a Pee Wee-less day– no matter how standard, perfect and “All American” the middle-class tries to make American culture, there is always an undying quirk of absurdity, a streak of eccentricity, and a semblance of the bizzaro that refuses to fade. Celebrating the individuality of the “freak”, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure transforms the bike riding man-boy from a weirdo into an everyday guy just like the rest of us, except one who happens to have a little more fun that average with his bike.
If you haven’t see this amazing classic, I guess I can’t make you. But I can sure try! After all, “I don’t make monkeys, I just train em!”
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