Saturday, May 23, 2020

Bike Safety 101: The Ballad of the Battered Bicycle

Welcome back to Bike Safety 101, where I pick apart old bike safety "educational" films and other materials - most of which would generally leave a person with the idea that they'd be much better off if they never threw a leg over a bicycle again. I haven't had a Bike Safety 101 post in a long time, but I recently watched a particularly dreadful old film that demonstrates that Americans weren't the only ones cranking out corny anti-bike propaganda. Today's film: The Ballad of the Battered Bicycle, a British film from 1947. The film features British stage and screen actor Stanley Holloway (maybe best known for My Fair Lady) as the rhyming narrator.

For reasons I can't quite fathom, the first full minute of this 9 ½-minute film is a montage of circus/carnival scenes:

And then we get to our narrator, Holloway, as some kind of carnival sideshow barker:

"I'll tell you now a dreadful tale of sorrow and of woe
about a wicked crime committed not so long ago. . .

. . . And that's it for the carnival, never to be seen again in this film. At this point, the film cuts to the bike shop where Henry, the hapless subject of the story, gets a new bike.

As his father pays for the shiny new bike, Henry immediately heads off on a path of destruction. "Now Henry's face lights up with joy - the bike shall be his pride - his father stays behind to pay - but he jumps on to ride."
Goofing off with friends and riding no hands, Henry and his new bike take the first of many spills.

Little Henry can't ride a straight line to save his life (literally and figuratively). Weaving down the middle of the road, he runs afoul of cars, lorries (that's trucks to us Yanks), produce carts, and buses.

. . . not to mention riding double - a staple of corny bike safety films.

Gradually Henry's bike gets shabbier and shabbier - with wobbly wheels, missing parts, and fenders held on with string.

And it all leads to this: careening through a "halt" sign, into the path of a bus - cutaway to the face of fear - and the tragic outcome.

Luckily for Henry, he's alive, but the bike is toast. The bus driver and all the passengers gather around him to point and jeer. "The passers by all gather round with faces hard and grim - and Henry understands at last what people think of him. Now every mouth spits out his name - whispers on every breath - that is the boy, young Henry Brown, who rode his bike to death."

And at this point, Henry is put on trial for "murdering" his bicycle.

"The judge and jury stare at him with pained and saddened eyes - while on the table cold and still, the battered cycle lies."
One by one, witnesses come forward to testify against Henry for reckless riding and for not taking good care of his bike. The jury finds him guilty, and the judge (also played by the narrator, Holloway) sentences him to two years walking.

"The moral of this yarn is clear - to stress it I should like - you have a duty to the world when you ride on your bike."

So, the film begins with a carnival - and ends in a courtroom. And the barker becomes the judge. Makes perfect sense (?).

Other than showing some examples of bad riding behavior, there isn't really a lot of rider education in the film. There is no depiction or discussion of what better riding might look like, or how to share the road properly and safely. And the biggest concern in Henry's trial is NOT that he ruined what seemed to be a pretty nice bike, or that he nearly got killed - but rather, that he might have "upset the bus."

The overall message of the film might have something to do with its producer - the Petroleum Films Bureau, which produced "informational," and "instructive" documentary films about the petroleum industry and automotive-centered topics, in addition to a few other "general interest" subjects.
Not that you're likely to learn anything from it - but if you enjoy corny old films as much as I do (or even just enjoy picking them apart) - you can watch The Ballad of the Battered Bicycle here:


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