From late childhood through my early adolescence, my summers were marked by weeknight (BMX) bicycle rides with my best friend, Jim, that either extended to sundown or, more often, derailed and morphed into a Contra III gaming marathon in his living room. In lieu of sidewalks, our neighborhood streets had uneven white lines to demarcate the pedestrian walking space from the roadway, not that it would have mattered — we were too engrossed in conversation to observe the rules of the road and our neighborhood wasn’t a high-traffic area. We instead relied on a simple alert system for that rare approaching vehicle, and we otherwise kept to ourselves. There were no parental lectures about tune-ups, nary a hand signal, and I can count on one hand the number of times I wore a helmet.
Only after living in crowded cities where car traffic intermingles with bike traffic, bus traffic, and even motorized wheelchair traffic, did I gain an appreciation for bicycle safety. This wasn’t an area of self-preservation about which I learned much in school, given that 90% of classroom finger-wagging was dedicated to warnings about unlocked liquor cabinets and the illegal narcotics scourge of the 1980s and early 90s. Had I been born a decade or two sooner, it’s likely I would have watched William Dale Jennings’s landmark 1963 bicycle safety film, ONE GOT FAT, which, no doubt, jolted countless students from their typical classroom movie boredom.
The film employs a simple but effective structure to illustrate bicycle safety rules. Ten adolescent riders are traveling nine blocks to hold an afternoon picnic. One of them gets saddled with carrying the bagged lunches of his friends. As they make progress, individual members are viciously sacrificed to the Bicycle Safety Gods as shining examples of what not to do while riding a bike. Rooty Toot Jasperson has a new bike and wants to be first to the park. He forgets to signal for a left turn and gets hit by a car. Giving his friend, Slim, a lift on his bike handlebars earns Trigby Phipps a one-way trip into an open manhole. Some chump named Filbert forgets to tune up his brakes and gets flattened under a steamroller for his neglect. On and on, nine of ten riders demonstrate various rule violations as a narrator provides running commentary for their stupidity-on-wheels.
Boiled down to its essence, this film is basically a slasher flick as safety film. Beyond the silly names and scenarios, all the riders who meet their demise are wearing tails and grotesque ape masks to provide the audience with some cognitive dissonance for the brazen brutality of the kills (the titular “one” in the group has no mask and is smart enough to follow the rules — his prize is the bounty of lunches from his dead friends). Despite the litany of rule violations spelled out in these scenarios, not a single one of the riders suffers for flouting the most obvious safety failure of them all: no one is wearing a helmet!
Perform a quick keyword search for “creepy educational film” and this film will rank pretty highly in the results. In comment sections across the Web, it’s cited as a source of nightmare fuel by both baby boomers who viewed it in the classroom, and millenials who stumbled upon any number of remixes during late-night YouTube surfing in college dorm rooms (the one featuring Boards of Canada is a personal favorite). The most obvious reason for its cross-generational scare appeal is the collection of bizarre ape masks, purportedly created from papier mache by art director Ralph Hulett, according to his son, Steve, in a 2006 note to Cartoon Brew. Similar to the make-up in PLANET OF THE APES and its sequels, the blending of primate features with human ones — including hats, sideburns, and side-parts — proves to be an unsettling formula. Here, though, the fact that the faces are unchanging and totally expressionless (save for a few instances of bulging eyeballs) offers an extra sense of discomfort. And then putting this swarming pack of freakish figures on bicycles under a layer of film decay? Good luck sleeping tonight.
The narration is supplied by character actor Edward Everett Horton, who appeared in dozens of films from the silent era through Hollywood’s Golden Age and would later perform voice work in radio and television, most notably as the narrator of the “Fractured Fairy Tales” series on THE ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW. Horton’s playful, cryptic tone is a good fit for the mostly horrific conclusions to each character’s story line. To accentuate the morbidity, each segment closes with a quip from Horton that lands somewhere between insufferable dad joke and Schwarzenegger action movie quote (e.g., “there seems to be a flaw in the buddy system”). This repetition toes a fine line, but the dark comedy works well on the whole.
—This content was originally published on The Archival Eye