In honor of Ingrid Goes West, Alamo Drafthouse is running a series of films picked by Ingrid director Matt Spicer called Tales of the Obsessed. You can check out the lineup here. And get your Ingrid Goes West tickets here!
The story of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one of obsession. The kind of all-consuming obsession that can make even a misunderstood eccentric uproot his life for the object of his desire. In the case of this movie, the object of that desire is, of course, an immaculately restored, cherry-red 1947 Schwinn racing bike. The eccentric is Paul Reubens himself.
In the wake of his successful Pee-wee Herman stage show, Reubens was hired by Warner Bros. to develop a feature film. Reubens spent weeks on the Warner Bros. studio lot, toiling over an unauthorized remake of Disney’s Pollyanna, with Pee-wee Herman in the title role. The script wasn’t really going anywhere.
“In between writing, whenever I would take a break, I would walk around on the lot with the producers of the movie and complain about not having a bike,” Reubens told the audience at Hammer Museum Bike Night in 2010. "Everyone on the lot was riding a bicycle, and I kept going, 'What do you have to do to get a bike? How do I get a bike?’”
Hoping to keep their talent’s mind on the task at hand, the producers made Reubens a gift. One day when he came back from lunch, Reubens found the now-iconic vintage Schwinn racer chained up outside his office, along with a sign that read “Parking for Pee-wee Herman Only.”
“I ran inside and pulled the paper out of the typewriter,” Reubens said. “I pulled the paper out and literally started typing ‘Pee-wee Herman loves his bike more than life itself.’ And the movie wrote itself in about three weeks.”
Paul Reubens may have thrown his first feature film script in the trash on account of that bicycle, but his alter ego Pee-wee Herman goes even further. Pee-wee’s obsession with his bike sends him on an adventure so far outside his comfort zone that it fundamentally changes his outlook on life.
From the first few minutes of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, it’s clear that while Pee-wee is a peculiar, mostly solitary fellow, he is not lonely. He awakes each morning to a complex series of Rube Goldberg machines that prepare a meal of fresh-squeezed juice, pancakes, eggs, and bacon—arranged into a smiley face. Herman cheerfully addresses the meal as “Mr. Breakfast,” and starts a conversation with it. He performs both sides of the conversation, of course.
His wild imagination might satisfy his need for company, but Pee-wee himself is pretty isolated. His beloved Schwinn is easily his best friend, and he essentially uses it as a proxy for real human relationships, allowing him to keep everyone else at a distance. Pee-wee’s bike mechanic Dottie obviously harbors a hopeless crush on him, and when she musters the courage to ask Herman on a date to the drive-in movie theater, he shuts her down. “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me,” Pee-wee tells her in all seriousness. “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”
Pee-wee’s bicycle is his world, and so all is right with the world. Until his bike goes missing. At that point, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure plunges headlong into the kind of feverish, whimsical nightmare that would later become the hallmark of first-time collaborators Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. Pee-wee becomes unhinged with grief at the loss of his bike, and stages a town meeting to review the more than 217 pieces of dubious evidence he’s gathered. His friends and acquaintances can’t relate to Herman’s obsession, and are confused by the intensity of his reaction to a pretty common situation. Pee-wee is frustrated, and when Dottie offers to help him, he pushes her away: “I don’t want your help. I don’t need the police and I don’t need you! I don’t need anybody!”
Help is exactly what Pee-wee needs, though he can’t see it through the haze of his fixation on the Schwinn. He understands in time, with the help of a motley cast of strangers. A charlatan psychic named Madam Ruby tries to reassure him by saying his bike is safe in Texas—at the Alamo, in fact. When Pee-wee sets out for Texas, he gets some help from Mickey, an escaped convict who finds Herman on the side of the road and agrees to drive him. After Mickey, Pee-wee hitches a ride with Large Marge, a perfectly helpful and courteous woman who just happens to have died some 10 years before. Shaken by his encounter with a ghost, Pee-wee stops for a meal and meets the waitress Simone.
Simone and Pee-wee are kindred spirits: They are both obsessed by something they cannot have. For Pee-wee, of course, it’s the bike. For Simone, it’s her love for Paris, France. Heartbreakingly, she’s stuck in her small town, trapped by her controlling boyfriend Andy. Pee-wee is moved by Simone’s circumstances, and shows her a remarkable amount of empathy. Herman gently encourages her to chase her dreams, boyfriend be damned. It’s more unselfish kindness than Pee-wee has shown anyone in the movie to this point, though their conversation is cut short by Simone’s boyfriend running Herman out of town.
When Pee-wee finally makes it to the Alamo, he is bitterly disappointed by what he finds there. Utterly dejected, he heads to a bus station to buy a ticket home. There, he encounters Simone for a second time, and she is transformed from the meek, lonely woman he met at the diner. Dressed in what is doubtless the most fashionable outfit she owns, Simone tells Pee-wee that she left Andy and is headed to Paris. Despite his own sadness, Pee-wee seems genuinely happy that Simone has been able to make her own dream come true. She bolsters Pee-wee this time around, cheerfully encouraging him not to give up on his bike before she bids him a fond au revoir.
After experiencing for himself the power of a true, reciprocal friendship, Pee-wee’s attitude takes a subtle shift for the better. He immediately calls Dottie back home and apologizes for rejecting all her offers to help him earlier. He needs her help now, and asks if she’ll wire enough money for a bus ticket back home. Dottie agrees and seems a little excited by this turn of events, since she’s been putting effort into their friendship for some time now.
And it’s not just his old friends that Pee-wee puts renewed energy into winning over, either. On his journey home, Pee-wee Herman finds himself at a tough biker bar, in the clutches of a gang of tough bikers. They plan to stomp, tattoo, hang, and then kill Pee-wee, but they’ll allow him a “last request.” Naturally, Herman chooses a song on the jukebox and spends the next minute and a half dancing his odd little heart out to “Tequila” by the Champs. His dancing is so strange, honest, and unexpected that all the bikers go crazy for Pee-wee. They accept him into the group, loan him a motorcycle, and encourage him to find his bike.
Pee-wee does find his bike in the end, not long after the biker bar. By then, the Schwinn has essentially become a movie star in its own right, and all of Hollywood seems to be obsessed by it. He steals the bike off a set at Warner Bros. Studios and makes a break for it, evading security guards in a delightfully improbable bike-speed chase all over the studio and right out the gates.
Just when it seems that Pee-wee is in the clear, reunited with his bike and free to go back home to his normal life, Herman’s resolve is tested. He passes by a pet store, which is unattended and on fire. With admirably little hesitation, Pee-wee ditches his bike and runs into the burning building again and again until every puppy, kitten, gerbil, goldfish, chimpanzee, and fistful of snakes is safely out of harm’s way.
Pee-wee’s bravery and selflessness is at its peak here, but stalling cost him the escape. The police arrive and bring him back to the studio to face the consequences. It’s all for the best, as it turns out, because the president of Warner Bros. just loves Pee-wee Herman and his bike, and wants to make the story of his big adventure into a movie. He gives Pee-wee a small role in his own very loosely adapted biopic, returns the Schwinn, and sends him home.
By the time the “P.W. Herman” spy thriller hits theaters, Pee-wee Herman’s life has drastically changed for the better. Opening night finds him at the drive-in theater with Dottie, distributing thoughtful snacks to all his new friends who came to the screening, including the whole biker gang, Mickey from inside a prison bus, and Simone along with her new French boyfriend.
Once, Pee-wee’s obsession with his bicycle made it difficult for him to make real friends. Losing the object of his obsession forced him to appreciate that anyone who would help him on a wild goose chase was a friend worth having, that being kind to people and animals will get you what you want in life, and that some bikes are worth more than a hundred million, trillion, billion dollars.