The man-child playroom has been a fixture in films for decades. When did filmmakers first introduce this merry and cozy little place?
George Cukor’s classic film Holiday (1938) may be a good place to start. Holiday is a film in which the protagonist, Johnny Case (Cary Grant), wants to avoid a man's usual social responsibilities and enjoy his life to the fullest. Johnny develops doubts about his pending marriage after he meets his fiancé's free-spirited sister, Linda Seton (Katharine Hepburn). He is pleased when Linda takes him up to the fourth floor of the Seton family's Park Avenue mansion and reveals to him a playroom hideaway. Ed Howard wrote fondly of this room on his Only Cinema blog:
The film is a tribute to remaining youthful, and there's a childlike spirit to the way Grant and Hepburn play here: riding tricycles, doing somersaults, putting on Punch and Judy shows, not to mention the witty verbal banter and playacting of their conversations. The centerpiece of the film is a New Year's Eve party where Grant and Hepburn retreat to an upstairs room, away from the snooty society crowd, along with Grant's friends (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon) and Hepburn's drunkard brother (Lew Ayres). This small, intimate party takes place in the only comfortable room in a palatial mansion, the only room with a normal sense of scale. Throughout the film, Cukor isolates Grant in long shots of rooms that seem to have been built for eight-foot tall giants, emphasizing his discomfort with the luxury and opulence that seems to await him if he marries into this family. It's only in the upstairs playroom, with its cozy fireplace and leftover childhood toys, that Grant and Hepburn can relax and be themselves.When this film was released, Depression-era audiences reacted with scorn at the notion of spoiled rich people who willfully shunned work. However, the film was later rediscovered by a more affluent generation, which better related to the goals and desires of the film’s free-spirited and fun-loving characters.
Still, Holiday’s playroom is more a temporary refuge than a permanent living space. It is a room that Linda long ago outgrew and has now come to again so that she can briefly retreat from the torments and miseries of adult life. The comic man-child could often find relief in a little hideaway. But it is different today.
The modern man-child playroom is more than a brief hiding place. It is a bulwark against adulthood. A man could become lost inside of this place and not be sure if he will ever emerge again. That type of situation is definitely evident in the French comedy Le Jouet (1976). François Perrin (Pierre Richard), a struggling journalist, is coerced by his newspaper tycoon boss (Michel Bouquet) to act as a playmate to the boss' neglected young son, Eric (Fabrice Greco). Richard regresses to a childlike state once he becomes trapped with the boy and various superhero icons in the boy's extravagant playroom. It becomes the central conflict of the story if Perrin will ever escape and return to the adult world.
Without reluctance, Laurel and Hardy drifted into a child’s world when they found themselves having to care for a little girl in Pack Up Your Troubles (1932).
Nearly two decades later, Adam Sandler expanded on Murray’s Stripes abode in Big Daddy (1999).
Just a month after the release of Stripes, another man-child domain was introduced in Arthur (1981).
This trend reached a fine peak with the boldly childish haven of Pee-wee Herman in Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985).
Let us step inside for a closer look. To start, this is Pee-wee’s bedroom.
Then, we get to see his kitchen.
One critic compared Pee-wee's home to the highly stylized home that appeared in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
It is interesting that this brightly colored comedy could, in any way, be compared to a spooky old black and white film. But there is an underlying creepiness to Pee-wee Herman and his man-child ilk. The true forerunner to Bill Murray's home, Arthur's home and Pee-wee's home was, in fact, Norman Bates' musty living space in Psycho (1960). Let us examine screen captures of Norman Bates' bedroom.
The man-child man-cave was further established in the public consciousness with Big (1988).
It is no longer a novelty today.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Step Brothers (2008)
I Love You, Man (2009)
Last year, a number of filmmakers explored the Bates-like side of the man-child. We saw this in Foxcatcher, Buzzard and The Almost Man. Screen Crush's Nick Schager identified Carell's Foxcatcher role as a "dark flip-side" to the comic actor's trademark man-child character. The childlike man that Carell portrays is based on real-life heir John du Pont. As it turned out, du Pont was led by his social awkwardness and stunted emotional state to commit a brutal, cold-hearted murder.
I welcome you to read more about this subject in my new book, I Won't Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present.