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January 14, 2012

A Curious 1963 Bicycle Safety PSA: One Got Fat

One Got Fat is a short bicycle safety film from 1963. I love these old movies because it lets me show my children the movies I saw as a child, sort of a documentary of my own youth.

The movie emphasizes the modern "Vehicular Cyclist" paradigm expressed by John Forester: "Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles."

There's a few quirks in the movie and IMHO it's worth watching. It may surprise you.

The Public Service Announcements (PSA) of the time period were generally innocuous - wash your hands, be polite, stop-drop-roll, etc. The quirkiness of this 49-year-old short movie, and its position in the public domain, has led to its recent use in several music videos.

The film is sampled in "Everything You Do is a Balloon" by Boards of Canada, "Bloody Palms" by Phantogram, "20 Inches of Monkey" by Lamps, "Fool's Life" by Dr. Dog, "St Peter" by The Black Spiders, and "January" by Venetian Snares, and "Oh Me, Oh My" by Nerf Herder.

Like a lot of children's stories it may reveal more than originally intended.
  • Today the fat kid is a loser; in this movie, the kid who got fat was the winner.
  • Using injury as a motivator would be considered stigmatizing and unacceptable today.
  • And then there's the racism thing...

The plot relies on the Ten Little Indians theme from Agatha Cristy's 1939 novel and subsequent 1945 movie, And Then There Were None.

Let's review the provenance of this storyline. In 1864 Septimus Winner wrote a song called Ten Little Indians.

In 1868 the song was adapted and renamed (possibly by Frank J. Green) as "Ten Little Niggers" and became standard fare in blackface minstrel shows. It was a very popular, well known song.

Agatha Christie used the story in her novel of the same title, "Ten Little Niggers", about a series of killings on remote Nigger Island. This novel is the most successful (in terms of sales) mystery novel of all time.

Agatha Christie's novel was published as "Ten Little Niggers" in England and Europe. For the American market it was edited and renamed And Then There Were None. The brilliance of American marketing was to change the named "other" to Indians, (swapping out one exploited and deprecated group for another) and to make two of the victims into "good guys" that the audience could root for. One might claim that Indians held the same role in American history that the original title reflected in British perspective.

British versions of the book continued to use Agatha Christie's original title up until 1985. A 1987 Russian version used the title Десять негритят, or "Ten Little Negroes". Try to imagine a book and a movie called "Ten Little Italians", or "Ten Little Israelis".

Remarkably, the Ten Little Anythings storyline derives from a blackface vaudeville song dating from the Civil War. It's a racial song from the days of slavery. How can this possibly be the plot device used for a publicly funded, 1963 bicycle safety movie?

But wait, there's more.

Just like the American version of the book abandoned Agatha Christie's original title and used "Indians" as the "other", this 1963 bicycle safety movie abandoned the American Indian motif and instead uses monkeys for a metaphor.

All the stupid kids who can't follow the sensible rules are monkeys. The one kid who played the game by the rules turns out to not be a monkey at all; he's a white kid just like everybody else. Holy Happy Ending, Batman.

Monkeys have a special place in "our" coded narratives. Consider King Kong: black, taken from Africa against his will, shackled and chained, owned as an asset and seen as the key to fortune, entranced by a white woman and eventually shot down by the Army and the police. Can anybody deny that some aspect of King Kong's monkey is a racial metaphor? Does anybody believe that the whole "save the white woman from the black beast" narrative is just about explorers and show business?

"One Got Fat" was released in 1963. Something else that came out in 1963 was Pierre Boulle's book La Planète des singes. In 1968 the derivative movie, Planet of the Apes made its debut.

The Planet of the Apes book and movie series used astronauts and monkeys as a metaphor for racism, privilege, bigotry, and justifiable rebellion. During test screenings, reviewers noted out that black audiences drowned out much of the dialogue by cheering "Right on!".

Introducing the monkeys brought Agatha Christie's original title full circle.

That's a lot of stuff to find in one video. It really is a documentary of my youth.

If nothing else, it's interesting how modern music videos are connected to an 1864 slavery ditty. Fortunately, we've all moved beyond that now. Right?


Joe said...

"La Planète des Singes" is a fairly narrow satire on French academic politics. I only managed to finish it by constantly thinking back to the movie. Whoever figured out that the story also applied to American race relations was brilliant; s/he may deserve more credit than Boulle.

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