Thursday, October 26, 2017

cinema obscura: George Sidney's "Pepe" (1960)

It was a missed opportunity. But it was really no opportunity at all.

More than a decade ago, the truly die-hard among movie buffs were eagerly awaiting Turner Classic Movies' screening of the seemingly long-lost, full-length version of George Sidney's 1960 Cantinflas extravaganza, "Pepe" - all 195 minutes of it. Turner had scheduled it for February 19th, 2007, starting at 9:45 a.m. (est) and running until 1 p.m. Actually, the movie was listed originally on the Turner web site in a 10-to-1 slot. But when TCM revised that to 9:45 on its site, that pretty much assured everyone that "Pepe - The Uncut Version" would indeed be presented.

Matters, however, did not look hopeful when the film opened without an overture, which was par for the course for a 1960s roadshow movie.

No problem - Turner ocassionally screened "Oliver!" sans its overture.

But things grew even less promising when the intermission break, following a dance number to "Tequila," featuring Cantinflas and guest star Debbie Reynolds, was elminated. Uh-oh. This was not what was promised by TCM but the usual truncated 157-minute version of the Columbia film, albeit this time in wide screen, a television first for "Pepe" back in 2007.

It was a VCR-alert moment that never happened.

OK, I'm fully aware that "Pepe" is not even a remotely good movie. I'm not sure it could be called a movie at all. What it is in an amiable, shambling hodge-podge of cameo appearances - with co-star Dan Dailey bumping into a bunch of celebs, a lot of them the stars of Columbia's '60s TV shows, such as Donna Reed and Jay "Dennis the Menace" North.

The dialogue in such moments is strained, such as Dailey congratulating Reed on her family-oriented show and wishing her family his best.

"Which one?," she asks, coyly.

The ostensible star of the film is the remarkable Mexican clown Cantinflas who apparently had been encouraged by Sidney to (1) behave like child, (2) agree to be shunted aside and insulted by Dailey in scene after scene and (3) be generally condescended to by the array of guest stars, most of whom call him Poncho - as in Poncho Villa. All-American racist fun.

Sidney was pretty much a hit-or-miss filmmaker, just as capable of ruining "Bye, Bye Birdie" for the sake of showcasing the grotesquely miscast Ann-Margret as he was of making a perfect film version of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" or a good melodrama like "The Eddie Duchin Story." Here, he squanders the talents of a star who he clearly wanted to celebrate.

That was the general feeling when the film premiered in its roadshow form in New York, Los Angeles and Miami during the Christmas 1960 holiday, as evidenced the The New York Times' scathing review by Bosley Crowther.

By the time it arrived in other cities in early 1961, "Pepe" had been trimmed from three-hours-and-fifteen-minutes to 157 minutes, which seemed to be the only version to survive.

Among the trimmed bits was a much-publicized animated "Don Quixote" fantasy sequence, prepared by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, in which the title character dreams that he is Quixote. Vicki Trickett, a popular Columbia contract starlet at the time, played Lupita, Pepe's girlfriend in the film. Even though her footage was entirely removed from the film, her name remains in the credits for the movie's general release.

"Pepe" is a likable bad film which may explain why so many film buffs have been obsessed with seeing the full version. Needless to say, when Turner aired the usual short version, the disappointment was palpable.

Turner apologized for the mix-up, running the following explanation: "We requested the longer version, and Sony originally told us they had it (in fact they said that was the only version they had). However, last week they told us that the longer version was in bad condition and hadn't yet been trasnferred to video. So we ended up with the shorter one."

This is probably true, although the long version of "Pepe" was part of a 4-track mag stereo festival, put together 15 years ago by film restorer/historian Jeff Joseph, for Los Angeles' Egyptian Theater in November and December of 2002. "Pepe" was screened at 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 8 of that year and was listed as: "'PEPE,' 1960, Columbia, 195 min. Dir. George Sidney. Uncut Technicolor print!"

So does the complete "Pepe" still exist and, if so, does its condition make it a candidate for future DVD/BluRay consideration?

Note in Passing: FYI. Turner's web site offers the following notes about that long version of "Pepe": "Although various reviews list the film's length as 190 or 195 minutes, studio records reveal that the actual running time was 180 minutes, 29 seconds. It is possible that the running time in the reviews included the film's intermission." And probably the overture, too.
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~One of Columbia's newspaper display ads for "Pepe"

~Cantinflas in the animation sequence deleted from the film
 ~photography: Columbia Pictures 1960©


Tim K. said...

Hi. I'm one of those nerds who has been longing to see "Pepe" uncut, even though, as you say,it ain't very good. I hope, some day, Turner manages to get the long version from Columbia. Thanks for printing that neat still!!!

Mike Schlesinger said...

Sony would like to restore PEPE to its roadshow length, but all their elements are of the truncated version, and that single uncut print is in too rough shape to use to fill in the gaps. I was at that screening, too; my feeling is that Cantinflas is the problem, and that everything else is pretty darn good.

joe baltake said...

Wow, Mike, I love your contrarian stance. It has never occurred to me that the film weakest link is, ironically, the star that it was built around. Makes sense. Or could it be the way the role was written? Either way, the performance is in question.

Joyce said...

I LOVE Pepe! Saw it in the movies and can still sing the song. ..Who has a heart as happy as Pepe!

joe baltake said...

Joyce! I love “Pepe,” too, although I’d never say it’s a good movie. Maybe it is on its own terms. That said, I still have the soundtrack album. -J

Mike Schlesinger said...

Boy, now you've taken me back: Duane Eddy's cover of "Pepe" was one of the very first 45s I ever bought with my own money. Never did see the movie, though, until that Egyptian screening.