Posted tagged ‘Silent Movies’

Pee-wee Herman: Bridge to the Past

April 11, 2010

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure/ Rated PG/ 90 mins

At four and six, my oldest kids know they love movies. We love going to the theater together, watching DVDs at home, and my son says he wants to be a “movie maker” when he grows up. Santa gave him a Flip camera for Christmas, and he did indeed become a movie maker. Now it’s time to give him something that many wannabe filmmakers forget about, an education.

No matter how interested we are in movies, whenever we show our kids an “old” movie we are giving them a film education. Every movie we show them holds some importance. Sometimes it is as simple as nostalgia, giving them a glimpse of our childhood. Other times it is because a film is deemed important. Exposing them to classic animation is easy. Six year olds love Disney films today just as much as fifty years ago. However, some genres are a little more difficult and require the use of a rule that all parents know: sometimes you need to trick your kids into doing something that is good for them.

To give my kids a proper film education I want to go all the way back to the beginning, the silent film. Silent films can be a challenge for six year olds, as kids generally don’t’ like black and white, they are beginning readers so won’t be able to comprehend the title cards, and most of the storylines will be over their heads. However, they will understand a great deal of a silent comedy. They will recognize the slapstick humor that has been assimilated into nearly everything they watch, from “Bugs Bunny” to “High School Musical”. Of course I want to show my kids the silent greats like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, but first, I decided to try and trick them with something a little more modern. I began with Pee-wee Herman and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”.

“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” tells the story of Pee-wee and his beloved bicycle. The bike is stolen, leading to a cross country journey that takes him to the Alamo, a biker bar and, ultimately, the Warner Brothers Studio Lot. Pee-wee’s is an abnormal world, one where someone as eccentric as him, can be considered the straight man at times.

Pee-wee is a classic silent film character. His crew cut and red bow tie are as distinct as Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat and cane. There is no need for elaborate character building with either of these two. The audience knows them as soon as they see them.

Pee-wee’s predicaments are also classic silent film set pieces. Two scenes in the film feel directly removed from a silent comedy. The first is when Pee-wee wakes up and uses an elaborate contraption involving pulleys, hamster tubes and anvils to prepare his breakfast. Buster Keaton would be proud, as he made his meal with a slightly less involved system in his short, “The Scarecrow”. The other is towards the end of the film when Pee-wee comes across a burning pet shop. Pee-wee risks his life to save the animals. Using little dialogue, the scene escalates from Pee-wee saving a group of puppies to his reluctant rescue of a handful of snakes (and subsequent fainting, of course).

A way of testing your kids’ tolerance for silent movies would be to turn the sound down during these scenes. While “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” has a number of memorable lines, the majority of the comedy can be enjoyed without the distraction of the soundtrack.

Step one of my master plan seems to have worked as my kids were engrossed by the movie. They rooted for Pee-wee to find his bike, yelled at him to save the snakes, and were mildly frightened by Large Marge, the “dead” trucker. Ultimately, my son captured the essence of Pee-wee when he asked, “Is he a grown up?” Alas, I had no answer to this, but the introduction was complete.

The success of step two of the plan is still to be determined. I will need to show them a real silent comedy. I’m contemplating using the storm scenes of Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” or maybe parts of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”. Whichever film I choose, I will preface it with the same invitation, “Do you guys want to watch something kind of like Pee-wee?”

Have ideas of silent movies I should test on the kids?

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