PEPE holds novelty interest as a pop culture artifact from 1960, a star-gazer enterprise studded with celebrity cameos. But as a comedy entertainment and showcase for its hapless star, it’s a legendary dog; witless, wasteful, endless. Apart from a handful of scenes buried in its hulk, it’s an elephant tranquillizer posing as a movie. A for Appalling.
Mexican ranch hand ‘Pepe’ (Cantinflas) is heartbroken when a beloved stallion is sold to an American film director (Dan Dailey). Pepe heads to Hollywood to find the horse, but has to navigate the director’s boozy surliness, be befuddled by assortment of modern conveniences, misread the gringo way of doing pretty much everything, inspire an actress (Shirley Jones) who needs an attitude adjustment, and suffer through encounters with dozens of the rich, famous and beautiful—all of whom are Just Like Real People. It. Is. Ex-cru-cia-ting.
Hugely popular in Latin America and Spain, Mexico’s comic powerhouse Cantinflas was introduced to wider audiences through the huge success of Around The World In 80 Days. That 1956 adventure epic was still raking in money when the idea was hatched to follow the 80 Days lead by surrounding the “Mexican Charlie Chaplin” with a host of guest stars. Let charm do the rest. A plot might have helped. Wars are edited better.
Anything would have been an improvement over the wretchedly unfunny script put together by ordinarily capable Dorothy Kingsley, Claude Binyon and George Sidney, who directed the $5,000,000 extravaganza. Cantinflas was ill-served: the stale jokes and painfully awkward situations are often offensive and the character of Pepe, meant to be charming, is so clueless it’s an insult to imbeciles. The episodic material wasn’t just weak, it went on forever. Originally 180 minutes (tack on 15 more for Overture and Intermission music), later cut down to 157, Pepe plods from one woebegone segment after another, like a mastodon looking for water in the Mojave Desert, ending up in the La Brea tar pits.
A trip to Vegas and ‘The Sands’ includes “cute” stuff with the casino’s part-owner Frank Sinatra and fellow Rat Packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, plus Sands manager Jack Entratter for the hell of it (and to keep Frank happy). There’s a booze-hallucination number that has a miniaturized Debbie Reynolds doing an insane drunken dance with Cantinflas to the wails of “Tequila”. Jack Lemmon in drag turns up from Some Like It Hot, Kim Novak is shown being ‘real’ buying jewelry, Janet Leigh showcases a “star at home” (she’s fun to watch, and does what she can to brighten up her addition). But wait—there’s Bobby Darin, Bing Crosby, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Maurice Chevalier, Hedda Hopper, Jimmy Durante, Charles Coburn, Billie Burke, Cesar Romero, Richard Conte, Ann B. Davis, Tony Curtis, Greer Garson, Ernie Kovacs, Jay North (as ‘Dennis the Menace’), Donna Reed, Andre Previn, Edward G. Robinson, William Demarest.
Needless songs are extra padding, belted, crooned or winced from Bobby, Maurice, Sammy, Shirley, Dan and Bing, with Judy Garland doing one on the radio. Jones, newly freed from goody-goodness by her same year hooker role in Elmer Gantry, unveils hot legs to steam up a dance segment with an impressively unlimbered Michael Callan, inspired by “West Side Story” (Callan had played ‘Riff’ on Broadway).
In further support: Carlos Montalban (Ricardo’s brother), Hank Henry, Suzanne Lloyd and Carlos Rivas. Grosses were actually more than decent at $9,600,000, 13th place for the year, but not enough to recoup costs: the movie’s reputation as dud owes less to money woes than professional embarrassment over the fizzled bang delivered for the bucks expended. Meanwhile, studio pressure—“defuse this bomb!”— is the only thing that could account for the garish wastefulness getting seven Oscar nominations: Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing (that nomination funnier than anything in the movie), Music Score, Sound and Song (“Faraway Part Of Town”, sung offscreen by Garland). Only the song rated a nod. No wins. Jones won Supporting Actress that year for Elmer Gantry. The Rat Pack scored in Oceans II. Janet Leigh took history’s most famous shower. With this 3-hour detour to Snoozeville, Cantinflas’ Hollywood ride careened to an off-ramp. He didn’t need it, his popularity secured below the border and beyond.