Friday, February 23, 2007

My Review of the 1960 Movie "Pepe"

On President's Day Morning I leapt out of bed like a kid, hurrying to see what Uncle Sam had left under our plastic, flag-bedecked Liberty Bell. When I saw that the living room was as barren, lifeless and bottle-strewn as usual, I realized that my President's Day fantasy had merely been a fever dream brought on by my second bout of stomach flu in 2 months. (That last part's true. Thank god this case was much milder than the last.)

In lieu of a patriotic bounty, I found a cinematic oddity on cable. My choice to watch this film was determined by its status as a musical (as indicated by the DIRECTV on-screen guide) and the involvement of Shirley Jones. I've greatly admired her work for just over a year and a half now, since first I had the pleasure of watching her in Oklahoma!, Carousel and The Music Man. She has a beautiful voice. Plus, she was dreamy back then.

The star-studded project Ms. Jones chose to lend her name to is entitled Pepe. It's a love story, specifically, the love between a man and a horse. Cantinflas, the Mexican Charlie Chaplin (but for the talking and the moustache that exists only on the edges of the lip and not at all in the middle, the polar opposite of the Chaplin/Hitler), plays the titular character, a horse trainer who leaves Mexico for L.A. when Don Juan, the magnificent white stallion he has raised from infancy and calls his "son," is sold to a movie producer. Pepe can't bear to be separated from Don Juan, so he goes looking for the horse's new owner in La-La Land.

Thus begins a long string of luminaries who are confounded by the simple, linguistically-challenged Mexican. The first victim is Ernie Kovacs as the border security official who is thoroughly flummoxed to learn that Pepe's son is a horse. Even Kovacs' legendary, world-weary mug can't salvage this routine. Unfortunately, the bits don't improve much on the first one, and there are roughly 5,000 cameos in this film. Paying all those celebrities must've taken up most of the budget. It doesn't seem like there was much left over for the script.

Clearly, this isn't a movie meant to be savored for its plot. It's like a Three Musketeers bar in which the star-gazing represents the fake-mousse filling and the musical comedy represents the chocolate shell. My problem with the picture is that it lasts TWO-AND-A-HALF HOURS! Sure, there are many intriguing scenes, which I will shortly relate to you, but nothing that justifies a running time of ~150 minutes. The plot would be blown away at the slightest breath. The characters would fall flat at the softest touch. It's just amazing to me that they would make a piece of celluloid so long and yet so thin. Oh well. It's still way better than Gigli. (Or so I've heard.)

So anyhoo, Pepe goes to the backlot of the studio where the producer who bought Don Juan works. There he meets Shirley Jones, a hardened waitress whose parents failed to realize their showbiz dreams. It's kinda funny listening to Shirley give a bitter, street-smart screed on the naivete of Hollywood hopes, given her peaches'n'cream screen persona and the fact that her career is proof of the (albeit rare) fulfillment of big-screen ambitions. Pepe soon runs afoul of Bing Crosby and Jack Lemmon, who's in drag, presumably for Some Like It Hot. The best reference to a star's screen work comes when Pepe delivers flowers to Janet Leigh while she's taking a bath. I found it an amusing nod to her shower scene in Psycho.

Pepe visits Shirley at her cafe, a subterranean cavern full of beatniks where the coffee is hot and the jazz is hotter. Bobby Darin entertains the crowd with a cool tale of love and murder. I don't think real beatniks found Bobby Darin all that "hep," but their silver-screen facsimiles really seem to "dig" him. The next number is a modern dance piece that bears an uncanny resemblance to West Side Story, with chain-link fences, back alleys and desperate, attractive youth. Shirley portrays a girl on the short end of a love triangle. Just when the tension between her suitors starts to heat up, a concerned Pepe intervenes to "save" Shirley. This throws the entire club into chaos, forcing Bobby Darin to cut the epilogue of his song short as projectiles whiz by his head and smash the windows behind him.

At this point I'm going to drop all attempts to reconstruct the plot. As I said before, it's not worth the effort. I'll just stick to the interesting scenes. One highlight is when the movie producer is trying to write the script for his new film. It's important to note here that he's a recovering alcoholic, and, in a moment of weakness, he removes the cap to a rubenesque liquor bottle covered in a wicker(?) mesh. Two tiny Mexicans emerge from the bottle and float down to the tabletop. They're wearing big sombreros that hide their faces, but in the course of their dance we discover that it's Cantinflas and Debbie Reynolds. The song they're dancing to is "Tequila," and I must say the scene rivals Pee Wee's Big Adventure for best dance number ever performed to this song. The Mexicans dodge a huge pencil and other giganticized objects in a drunken, acrobatic dance as the leviathan face of the producer looms over them in a state of stupefaction.

Pepe hitches a ride to Las Vegas to find the producer, who's embarked on a bender after his plan to direct his script was rejected by Edward G. Robinson. (The "producer" seems to be more of a writer/director, but I've been calling him the "producer" for too long to stop now. I thought that's what he was called in the movie.) Pepe finds the producer and learns that he needs $250,000 to make his movie. With the money in his piggy bank (Yes, he brought his piggy bank to offer it to the producer. That's Pepe!), Pepe proceeds to win $250,006 at the Sands (I don't remember what the extra 6 bucks was for. He gives it to Frank Sinatra, one of the owners of the casino, as a thank-you gift.) while driving the entire Rat Pack (plus Jimmy Durante) to distraction.

Now that the producer has the money for his movie, he begins filming in Acapulco with Shirley Jones as the star. (Earlier, Pepe managed to bring together the producer and Shirley on this project. It was quite a feat, too, considering their stubbornness, her distrust of showbiz types and his alocoholism. But Pepe's a people person. SPOILER ALERT: Shirley and the producer's relationship will evolve beyond its initially professional scope ;-) The triumvirate (Pepe, Shirley and the producer) take in a show at a fancy club in Acapulco featuring Maurice Chevalier and a bevy of beauties. Pepe and the producer join M. Chevalier on stage for a dance, after which Pepe asks the Frenchman for advice in love. Unfortunately, this leads Pepe to believe he has a shot with Shirley, an utter absurdity to anyone with half a brain. (Sorry, I didn't mean to be so mean. I'm kinda bitter when it comes to romance.)

After picking out an engagement ring with help from Kim Novak, he goes looking for Shirley only to find Edward G. Robinson, who tells him that Shirley and the producer are engaged. Pepe tells Robinson to give Shirley the ring and that he's going back home. Robinson quickly runs into Shirley and the producer and gives them the ring and the news. The couple feels understandably awful about their treatment of Pepe, and try to catch him before he leaves. Predictably, they do, and the whole sha-bang is wrapped up in a funny, touching, heartfelt denouement which I can't recall. The final scene is Pepe leading Don Juan (the horse, remember?) and his foals (including a cute little burro) down the dusty dirt streets of what appears to be a shantytown. So, even though Pepe has achieved financial security, he seems to be back where he started. But isn't that what we all hope for, really?

I realize that I broke my promise about not discussing the plot, but, in my defense, the problems with continuity in this essay mirror the movie's. To dig myself deeper I'll describe another scene in the film. It takes place in Acapulco, before Pepe buys the ring, I think. The producer yells at Pepe for interfering with the filming of his movie, and Pepe wanders off glumly with a concerned Shirley in hot pursuit. They stumble onto a street festival of floats and kids in their Sunday best. Pepe forlornly paces in the entrance of an old Spanish basilica while Shirley watches from the steps. Taking matters into her own hands, she gets a stick puppet from a vendor and begins singing the praises of her Mexican friend to a gathering of adorable local children, using the puppet as a stand-in. Pepe is heartened by the kind words, but can only beam from between black iron pikes, as the basilica's gate was shut behind him. Eventually, the entire festival is swept up in the song. Pepe somehow manages to escape the basilica grounds and joins in the chorus:

Children: "P-E-P-E!"
Pepe: "Pepe! That's me!"

The scene sounds better (and funnier) than it is. But it's still pretty funny.

You may be asking yourself, "If you can't believe that 2 1/2 hours of celluloid were devoted to the recording and preservation of this film, then why did you waste so many words commenting on it?" I wish I could answer that question. I really do. The best I can do is admit that I'm fascinated with pop culture of previous decades and that my life is quite boring.

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