Wednesday 10 February 2016

One Got Fat (1963)

Director: Dale Jennings
Stars: Charles Hagens, Dick Hutto, Kevin Lindsay, Janice Powell, Dan Whitehead and Lucie Hagens

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

I got a pleasant surprise when I played this bicycle safety short because it turned out that my better half had seen it. It was screened to her and her class in school, somewhere between kindergarten and second grade, perhaps a decade after its original release. Over four decades later, it had stuck in her mind to the point that she remembered it immediately, just from the opening shot of a odd huddle of kids with rather immobile tails. Yes, that will become clear shortly, I promise. The film didn’t traumatise her, she says, but then she didn’t ride a bike! She remembered the film as merely creepy, but probably funny to her too, at least as a six or seven year old kid. I’d only read about it, so this was a first time experience for me and I have no idea what the filmmakers thought they were doing. Why would they set up something so surreal just to make one meaningless punchline work at the end of fifteen minutes, especially given that it hurts the points of the film, which, the more we think about it, are really horrible life lessons.

The logical explanation for the film is that the folk at Interlude Films wanted to tell kids how dangerous it could be to ride their bikes without following safety precautions. Nobody has a problem with that, right? I fell off my bike as a kid, breaking one bone in my left arm and bending the other, so I know what it’s like to get hurt. Then again, I didn’t break any of the cardinal rules that are outlined in this film; I just fell off and landed on the kerb. Anyway, I’m all for this film in principle. But then I watched it. So now I wonder if anyone actually benefitted from the intended message. Did anyone avoid an accident on their bike after remembering to abide by the rules they learned in One Got Fat? Or did kids get into more accidents after emulating the bad behaviour of the monkeys on bikes. And there, I said it. The ten kids who get together and decide to go have a picnic in the park nine blocks away aren’t really kids. Well, one is. The others are all monkeys, wearing a variety of monkey masks and curiously immobile monkey tails.
Why? Well, I’m going to spoil the joke because it’s an irresponsible joke that gets worse the more we think about it. The title refers to the one real human boy, who makes it to the park safe and sound just because he isn’t, get this, a monkey! So what’s the lesson? Is it that monkeys make terrible cyclists? Is it that kids have no peripheral vision when they ride their bikes while wearing monkey masks? Nah, I’m just kidding. Surely it’s that when all your friends die horrible deaths all around you, you should carry on regardless so you can eat their lunches and get fat. Don’t call 911. Don’t make a responsible adult aware. Don’t stay to comfort your dying buddies in their last moments on earth. Just think about all those packed lunches and the carnage won’t even register. Then again, not acknowledging what’s going on while you’re riding down the road sounds pretty dangerous. And hey, didn’t ‘Slim’ Jim McGuffney’s bike collapse under his weight? Eat up all those lunches, Orville Slump, because you’ll be next, kiddo, you’ll be next!

I was actually as flabbergasted by the narration as the visuals, courtesy of Edward Everett Horton, one of the gems of thirties Hollywood. Each time I tried to figure out why I was watching a bunch of monkeys on bicycles, he’d throw out a new line of inappropriately chipper monologue to grab my attention back. For instance, the reason why Orville has all ten lunches defying the laws of physics on his bike’s back rack is because, ‘Slim thought that his sack would be hard to handle.’ Did Dale Jennings write this deliberately? He certainly aimed to fit as much humour as he could into this morbid monologue of mangled monkeys, so perhaps he did. Just look at the names of the characters! Just watch the cartoon explosions and listen to the squishing sounds! Just think about how cheerful Horton sounds after each accident! His dismissals of each character after their horrible deaths is reminiscent of the dark wit that Vincent Price got to use so frequently when making horror pictures for William Castle. ‘Phillip Floogle is no longer bored.’ Oh yeah.
I won’t run through all the deaths, because you should certainly watch this surreal how-not-to yourself. I’ll just illustrate the comments above with some examples. First up is ‘Rooty Toot’ Jasperson, described as ‘a slam-bang go-getter headed for big things in life.’ Like a car, when he gets fed up of making hand signals when he wants to turn and swerves into traffic. ‘At this point,’ enthuses Horton, ‘Rooty Toot Jasperson left the party.’ We can only assume that he was so far ahead of the pack that the emergency services cleaned up the road before the rest of them caught up. Otherwise, why wouldn’t these monkeys stop and gawk in horror at the bloody remains of their friend? Those damned dirty apes! They just carry on and continue to make mistakes. Tinkerbell McDillinfiddy (seriously, where did these names come from?) is just a forgetful soul and, in this film, that leads to being hit by a big frickin’ truck. Worst is maybe Filbert Bagel, who gets squished by a steamroller because he can’t swerve, I mean doesn’t do maintenance so his brakes fail.
Best of all is Mossby Pomegranate, who doesn’t even have a bike, because he didn’t register it and failed to obtain a license, so the cops couldn’t do anything when it got stolen. He’s the first monkey not to die in a horrible fashion, which perhaps leaves us with the lesson that the safest way to ride a bike is to get the frickin’ thing nicked so you can’t get into an accident on it. All he ends up with is fallen arches because a few blocks of jogging was apparently deeply unhealthy in 1963, albeit not as deeply unhealthy as riding a bike in an ape mask. Of course ‘Slim’ Jim McGuffney gets his, as does Trigby Phipps and Phillip Floogle, Nelbert Zwieback (who’s a girl, by the way) and Stanislaw Hickenbottom, who rides his bike into a tunnel without lights or reflectors and apparently exits into the Twilight Zone. ‘Picture this: a world populated by apes, who ride bikes and drive cars and do all the things that we do, except adhere to the safety rules of cycling in traffic.’ That’s what it felt like. Right? Right!

One Got Fat can be and, frankly, should be watched for free on YouTube.

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