When the news broke on July 31 that Paul Reubens had passed away following a private struggle with cancer, I'm not sure what was more difficult to believe — that Pee-wee Herman had died or that he was 70 years old. Icons of our youth tend to remain ageless in our minds, especially Pee-wee, the hilariously stunted man-child who hovered somewhere circa puberty for a four-decade career. This manic, 98-pound weakling was a confoundingly unique creation honed by Reubens in the 1970s Los Angeles underground comedy scene. A demented Captain Kangaroo bouncing off the walls on pop rocks and soda, sneering twerpy comebacks and shouting in silly voices; Pee-wee was our untrammeled infantile id — petulant, obnoxious and improbably endearing. And he'd probably respond to such a description with his famous catch phrase that has, alas, become the cornerstone of contemporary political discourse: "I know you are, but what am I?"
Gutted by the loss of a childhood hero, the good folks at the Brattle Theatre will be holding special screenings of "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" on Friday, Aug. 18 and Saturday, Aug. 19. It's one of those movies that when you think about it, you can't stop smiling. Or quoting it — incessantly. But back in 1985, director Tim Burton's dazzling feature debut so perplexed the studio heads running Warner Bros. that they initially dumped the film into limited release, only rolling it out wider after being even more baffled by the big box office returns. (You can watch Pee-wee touting the early grosses while he excitedly reads his reviews during one of his countless appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman.”) Today, the film is widely accepted as a classic, but a little confusion was understandable at the time.
The movie springs forth from its opening moments as a fully realized, lunatic vision. We watch as this prancing, alarmingly overgrown boy engineers an army of Rube Goldberg contraptions into making his breakfast, which he promptly buries in a pile of Mr. T cereal. Reubens' character had become a familiar staple of the variety and talk show circuit, especially after his Roxy Theatre stage hit, the semi-ironic, children's television send-up "The Pee-wee Herman Show" was filmed for an HBO special in 1981. Given the popularity of fish-out-of-water formula comedies at the time, the logical choice would have been to make a movie that brought the Pee-wee character into our realistic, modern world. Instead, Reubens and Burton made a movie that brought us into his.
"Pee-wee's Big Adventure" is an enchanting parade of oddballs and surreal interludes that takes place in a highly stylized, egalitarian America full of loveable weirdos and eccentrics. Traveling cross-country in search of his stolen bicycle, our hero befriends escaped convicts, toothless hobos, ghost truckers, biker dudes and a diner waitress who dreams of moving to Paris. In its wholehearted embrace of misfits on the margins, "Big Adventure" is basically a John Waters movie for kids. Reubens had originally conceived the picture as a remake of Disney's "Pollyanna," but changed his mind after Warner Bros. provided him with a souped-up Schwinn. That's when he decided that the story should instead be modeled on Vittorio De Sica's 1948 neorealist masterpiece, "Bicycle Thieves." (Speaking of classic Italian cinema, Danny Elfman's score for "Big Adventure" is a pretty brazen lift of Nino Rota's circus theme from Federico Fellini's "8 1/2")
Reubens enlisted Michael Varhol and a pal from the Groundlings comedy troupe, future "Saturday Night Live" legend Phil Hartman, to write the script with him. The three of them freely admitted they had no idea what they were doing and followed Syd Field's 1979 textbook "Screenplay" to the letter. One could easily make an argument that Field's manual — as well as similar bestsellers by storytelling guru Robert McKee — are at least partially responsible for why most Hollywood films are so boring and predictable, limiting an expressionistic art form into a mathematical formula of story beats. Except in the case of "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," where such rules provided a rock-solid structure for the movie's wild flights of whimsy.
The then-26-year-old Burton was an animator who Disney had just fired for directing the vaguely traumatizing short film "Frankenweenie." His half-kidding, macabre sensibility and outsider empathy were a perfect match for Reubens' signature creation. The film's splashy, vibrant colors and mid-century junk shop décor embodied a retro-camp sensibility that was part of the weirdly 1980s obsession with embodying and undermining 1950s archetypes. "Back to the Future" was playing to blockbuster business across the multiplex hall. But whereas in that distinctly Reagan-era fantasy, George McFly toughened up and got rich after he stopped being such a goofy nerd, Pee-wee saved the day and got the girl while staying true to himself, even if his movie-within-a-movie big-screen doppelganger had to be played by TV hunk James Brolin.
Reubens parlayed the film's success into Saturday morning stardom, shepherding five seasons of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" for CBS, bringing an anarchic energy and cross-generational appeal that hadn't been seen in children's television since "The Muppet Show." (The program had an unexpected superfan in Martin Scorsese, who had tapes of the show shipped to Morocco for him and his crew to watch during breaks from filming "The Last Temptation of Christ.”) But 1998's "Big Top Pee-wee" was a lackluster follow-up, with "Grease" director Randall Kleiser unable to recapture Burton's madcap mania. The film featured a considerably hornier Pee-wee than we saw in "Big Adventure." He and co-star Valeria Golino shared what was intended to be the longest kiss in movie history, beating the three-minute and five-second record held by Jane Wyman and Regis Toomey in the 1941 film, "You're in the Army Now." Cooler heads prevailed after disastrous test screenings, and the smooch was snipped to a still-uncomfortable 90 seconds.
Reubens had always teased a winking, naughty-boy element to the character. (In seventh grade, a certain aspiring film critic might have tried to mimic Pee-wee's "shoe mirrors" trick from the HBO special and was deservedly bonked on the head with a textbook for his efforts.) But that all came crashing down in the summer of 1991 when the star was arrested for indecent exposure at a Florida porno theater. Pee-wee immediately became a pariah and a national punchline, but I've personally always wondered what those Sarasota cops thought was going on in that place the other 364 days a year when they hadn't been tipped off that there was a celebrity in the house whose career they could ruin. Reubens handled the scandal as gracefully as was probably possible under the circumstances, and I remember watching with delight when he was the surprise opening act at that September's MTV Video Music Awards, basking in the adoration of a roaring crowd before asking, "Heard any good jokes lately?"
He didn't pop up in as many movies as I'd have hoped, but you always felt a little electric jolt in the audience when he appeared. In Burton's 1992 "Batman Returns," Reubens was the first face you saw, playing the Penguin's father in a touching show of solidarity from Hollywood's hottest auteur to an old friend whose career had hit the skids. I'd assumed that his terrific turn as debauched drug dealer Derek Foreal in Ted Demme's 2001 "Blow" would have led to more cretinous character turns, but it's understandable that Reubens didn't want to make a gimmick out of leaning into the more sordid aspects of his reputation. 2016's intriguingly queer-coded "Pee Wee's Big Holiday" was a respectable attempt at a comeback, if a little too thin to linger in the memory.
Still, we'll always have "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," with its brash leaps of imagination that taught entire generations of kids how to dance to "Tequila" and the important history lesson that there's no basement in the Alamo. I can't think of a better way to celebrate the life of this singular artist than gathering together with a room full of strangers and howling with laughter. Tell 'em Large Marge sent you.
"Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" screens at the Brattle Theatre on Friday, Aug. 18 and Saturday, Aug. 19.