Pee-wee's Big Adventure
Most of the screen's memorable comics achieved their success in part by parodying traditional male social roles -- sometimes exaggerating them via excesses of stoicism (Keaton) or misanthropy (Fields), sometimes instead parodying male fears of failure, be they of status (Chaplin), courage (Hope), or sexual competence (Allen). And every 30 years a comedian emerges who goes further to upend the adult heterosexual status all of those comics had or sought by offering up an infantile screen character as alternative. In the 1920s the "adult baby" Harry Langdon was briefly popular; in the 1950s and '60s Jerry Lewis' bizarro Boy Scout had legions of fans; and in the mid-1980s Paul Reubens' "Pee-wee Herman" character starred in two feature films and an extraordinary TV series.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure, a surprise hit in 1985, made a star of Herman and also of director Tim Burton, whose junkshop aesthetic and love of lonely outsiders work at least as well here as in his later hits Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Ed Wood. Unlike most of Burton's later heroes Pee-wee is not a figure of pathos; rather, he's a triumphant outsider who gets to remake the world in his own image. While his search for his lost bicycle wrenches him away from his kitsch-filled cocoon, it's as much for the benefit of the America he crisscrosses as for his own. Perhaps in the 2010s another comic will emerge whose effect will be as potent in its impotence as Pee-wee's briefly was.