Friday, February 23, 2007


TCM* recently showed a very strange movie called Pepe. In the wake of Around the World in 80 Days, there were a number of light-hearted films with all-star casts; the most famous of those is It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but Pepe has to be the weirdest. It's a vehicle for the Mexican superstar Cantinflas, who was Passepartout in 80 Days and here graduates to his first starring role in a U.S. film. He plays a lovable idiot who has adopted a horse as his son, and who spends most of the movie trying to get his horse back and/or pining after Shirley Jones, who just thinks of him as a friend. (She winds up marrying the alcoholic washed-up Hollywood director played by Dan Dailey, because this is Hollywood, where white chicks marry white dudes, even if they're old and drunk white dudes.) Cantinflas is nowhere near his best here, uncomfortable with the language -- even in scenes with direct sound recording, he frequently has to re-dub his own dialogue to make it more intelligible -- and playing a character who's so dumb and childlike as to be infuriating; the characters he played in his Mexican films, while often innocent, were nowhere near this stupid.

It was produced and directed by the MGM musicals veteran George Sidney, who recruited some key MGM people like Andre Previn and Roger Edens to work on the film, and drew mostly on people he'd worked with before to create the pool of guest stars: Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis and Frank Sinatra are among those who had made films with Sidney before and turn up in cameos here. Other stars, like Jack Lemmon, Maurice Chevalier and Bobby Darin, turned up out of a combination of respect for Cantinflas and, some speculated, an attempt to improve their box-office standing in Mexico (much as European stars would try to improve their U.S. standing by appearing with U.S. superstars).

The movie looks quite good, maybe better than average for a Hollywood production from 1960; Sidney was among the few directors left who knew how to stage a musical number, and he had the services of the great cinematographer Joe MacDonald (My Darling Clementine, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter) shooting in 'Scope. But the picture doesn't even have the basic spine of plot that 80 Days or Mad Mad World had. It's basically just Cantinflas wandering around pining after his horse and/or Shirley Jones, mangling the English language (he buys a ring and confuses "carats" with "carrots," hilarity ensues) and smiling while the guest stars do their thing. And it's really, really long: the original version was 195 minutes. 195 minutes devoted to almost nothing. This was a strange period in Hollywood movies, where excess -- huge budgets, huge star casts -- was more important than an actual story.

Like many of these mega-extravaganzas, Pepe was cut down for a non-roadshow version, which runs about 150 minutes. TCM tried to get the complete version, but the distributor, Sony, sent them the short version instead; it has a bunch of awkward and abrupt fade-outs, but it's hard to know whether the cut scenes would cause the picture to make more sense than it does.

And yet, for all that, I kind of enjoy the picture. I'll go further than that: I actually enjoy it more than Mad Mad World or a lot of these other all-star films. In many of those films, the guest stars are regimented, forced into costumes or unsatisfactory roles or generally forced to conform to the demands of the plot. Here, because there is no plot, the guests mostly just play themselves (often literally), and they don't seem to have rehearsed much, so there's a certain charm in seeing them act natural and unforced. Kim Novak comes off especially well this way.

Here's one of the film's many musical numbers, where Maurice Chevalier (as himself) performs his trademark song "Mimi" (from Love Me Tonight) with Cantinflas and Dan Dailey.

*It's amazing how the availability of TCM -- it only recently came to Canada -- changes your TV viewing patterns. You keep checking the schedule until you realized that you've started planning your whole life around what's on TCM on a given day.

1 comment:

Wisewebwoman said...

Oh my, what a pleasure, I saw this in the theatre at the time it was released (1960, I think). I agree, an odd little effort but had a kind of eccentricity that endeared. Huge publicity around it then because of that long list of cameos. Is that Dan Dailey in the clip as well? I forgot how graceful he was. Thanks for the memories.