Let’s Discuss Pepe Le Pew

Pepe and me

The Looney Tunes were a product of their time. Let’s not pretend they are not. Hell, Warner Bros. themselves don’t pretend they aren’t dated by today’s standards. Anyone who has ever bought a collection of classic cartoons on Blu-ray or DVD might have noticed that practically all of them come with a statement on the back stating that the collections are intended for adult viewers and “may not be suitable for children.” For the most part, a majority also all come with warnings on-screen before watching them. It may seem rather odd that old cartoons that were made with all audiences in mind specifically state that they are no longer meant for kids. Now, if you were born in the 1990s like I was, you probably grew-up watching all of the old cartoons on television where they did, indeed, play on children’s stations. What gives? Well, it is no secret that the Looney Tunes they air on TV and the Looney Tunes you buy on video are not the same as the TV copies have been cut and edited. Imagine my surprise discovering when I got older that these cartoons I saw over and over again were, in fact, not in their original formats. The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950) ends with a suicide joke involving Daffy Duck shooting himself in the end. That wasn’t the ending younger me saw in the early 2000s. Diving into the history of the Looney Tunes is a fun adventure I’d recommend to anyone, but I would also advise you to do so with caution as you will not see what modern interpretations of the Looney Tunes want us to think they were always like.

Bugs Bunny’s second cartoon is entitled All This and Rabbit Stew (1941) which involves the rascally rabbit tangling with a foe. Is that foe Elmer Fudd? Nope. Is it Yosemite Sam? Nope again. Who is it? Well, it is a caricature of a black boy who wants to eat Bugs. Now, you may be thinking, “Jesus, that doesn’t sound funny!” Yeah, it has aged about as well as minstrel shows and the result is much more offensive than funny. Today, this cartoon remains hard to see and is part of the “Censored 11” Looney Tunes cartoons which are cartoons that have been ignored for home video release by Warner Bros. given their racist depictions. I’ve only seen All This and Rabbit Stew for the sake of being a completionist, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone otherwise. I think cartoons like these should only be viewed by adults for historical/completionist purposes as I think kids that watch Looney Tunes on Saturday mornings shouldn’t be told that the beloved Bugs Bunny once beat-up a child.

An example of proper labeling

Well, this is just one example of a Bugs Bunny cartoon that goes too far. A majority of Bugs Bunny cartoons can easily be cut around for TV airings, but I think it is safe to state that Looney Tunes cartoons would never fly today. I may be a fan of them, but I do not state this observation as a bad thing. I think society should move on from past stereotypes and racist characterizations. They have hurt far too many people and I think a brand like the Looney Tunes should try to appeal to people of all ages and all skin colors. Luckily, they have done this. You can make the argument that they sometimes go too far with it as they have buried some of their library, but keep in mind that when family audiences and kids are concerned, it makes sense that they are overprotective. This is why I like the idea of their uncut cartoons coming with the label on the back of their box sets stating that they are intended for adults. Let’s handle cartoon history the same way video game retailers handled Conker’s Bad Fur Day when it released (for those of you who don’t game, it was a raunchy adult video game that had the art design of a kid’s game complete with a fluffy squirrel as your drunken, cursing protagonist and the box was labeled clearly as an adult game that kids couldn’t purchase).

Zee artist

I apologize for running on a bit without bringing up the reason you have all clicked on this article. I felt it was important to let you know where I stand and to let you know that I don’t think the racist, sexist, and offensive ideas of the past are okay. They weren’t okay then and they are not okay now. In relation to that, I wanted to write about a character that is often taken out-of-context not because people mean to be vindictive but because we are living in a different age and many of the flaws of this character are seen through a lens that was not intentional. I, of course, am referring to Speedy Gonzales. Well, for today I’ll stick to Pepe Le Pew.

Charles Boyer

A sequel to Space Jam is releasing and in this sequel, Pepe Le Pew will not be part of it. Why are they cutting out one of the most prolific characters in the Looney Tunes library? Essentially, Pepe Le Pew’s cartoons have come under fire over the passing several years for being “sexist” as they all involve Pepe chasing Penelope Cat who he mistakes for a female skunk. Let me start this conversation off by stating something: I like Pepe. In fact, he might be my favorite Looney Tune (Marvin the Martian and Daffy Duck are up there too, though). He is my favorite not necessarily because of his cartoons, but because of what the character represents. Pepe Le Pew is based of French superstar Charles Boyer and I am an old movie buff who loves Charles Boyer. If you have been a reader of “The Tinseltown Twins” before or watch classic films, you know who Charles Boyer is, but for outsiders Boyer was essentially the biggest French star of classic Hollywood. He made his mark in France and then crossed over to Hollywood where he would become an internationally loved romantic star of the screen. One of his most popular films was Algiers (1938) which was a remake of the French classic Pépé le Moko (1937) starring Jean Gabin in the role that would later be recreated by Boyer. In the 1938 film, Boyer plays Pépé le Moko, a Frenchman hiding out from the law in the Casbah. Pépé le Moko’s hiding gets complicated when he falls in love with a Frenchwoman tourist who tempts him to escape from the complicated labyrinth he hides away in to fleece the cops.

The wooer becomes the wooed

Any moviegoer at the time would know who Charles Boyer was. They would have been able to spot that Pepe Le Pew is a parody of Boyer right from the start not only by the skunk’s name but also his voice complete with a French accent. Not to mention, Boyer parodies in cartoons predate Pepe Le Pew (Daffy Duck and Woody Woodpecker have both parodied Boyer themselves) and all of these parodies involve love scenes as Boyer was known for his romantic screen persona. Pepe Le Pew was created by one of the Looney Tunes’ most genius directors, Chuck Jones. Jones has put into words the tragedy of Pepe Le Pew as he is a ladies’ man but blissfully oblivious to his most obvious flaw: his smell. Pepe Le Pew cartoons often start with Penelope Cat either born with a stripe on her back or gaining a stripe on her back through accidental circumstances. Thus, Pepe Le Pew comes along and assumes she is a female skunk and tries to woo her. It doesn’t even cross Pepe’s mind that she wants to get the hell away from him or that he smells bad. For instance, in one cartoon Pepe assumes Penelope’s running is because she wants to play “the lover’s chase” stating “it is zee little girl in her.” Many of these cartoons end with the problem switched where something happens that makes Penelope chase Pepe and when the roles are reversed, he doesn’t like the change satirizing the double-standard of it all.

Pepe and Penelope in one of their best cartoons, Really Scent (1959) which ages well today

Pepe’s cartoons were formulaic as they all tended to follow the same patterns and stories, but the ending was usually surprising as sometimes Pepe would catch up with Penelope, sometimes (as stated above) their roles would switch, and sometimes it would end in the middle of the chase. Whether Penelope returns Pepe’s feelings but is too annoyed by the smell (as can be occasionally suggested) or if she doesn’t want him on top of his smell is hard to state (Penelope usually doesn’t say anything in their cartoons together). I think one of Pepe Le Pew’s best cartoons is Really Scent (1959) (directed by Chuck Jones’ frequent animator Abe Levitow) which is a cartoon where these ambiguous ideas of Penelope’s affections are made completely clear. In the cartoon, Penelope Cat is born with her white stripes which makes her resemble a skunk and makes it impossible for her to find a beau. She then sees Pepe (who is looking for a wife) and is smitten as she believes it is fate. Thus, she tries to overcome the scent, but cannot leading to a Gift of the Magi situation where Pepe removes his odor and Penelope removes her sense of smell. This cartoon makes Penelope’s feelings clear (complete with narration told by June Foray to add even more context) and could be shown to kids with no issues. By all accounts, Pepe is a perfect gentleman in it.

Zee basketball

This is just one cartoon though as many, even with the historical context of parody added, can be seen as being rather intense. I remember seeing The Cats Bah (1954) as a kid and I remember the ending not being edited out (where Penelope Cat is chained to Pepe Le Pew and tries to escape by sawing the links). It didn’t scar me, I was fine, but I am one person and I cannot speak for other kids that would watch a cartoon like that. I think something important to note about Pepe Le Pew’s cartoons is that his actions are intended to be seen as ridiculous, over-the-top, and, especially, clueless. Much of these problems can be fixed in future installments if the creators just make it clear where Penelope Cat stands in all of it. In a cartoon like Really Scent (1959) there is no problem, but in The Cats Bah (1954) it is definitely dated to state the least. The modern creators behind the Looney Tunes seem to have solved this issue by making Pepe Le Pew and Penelope Cat a “canon” couple in merchandise and commercials that star the two. This certainly keeps the character around while acknowledging what the issue was and fixing it. I personally wish those behind the new Space Jam movie took that approach with Pepe, maybe even make a reference to how outdated his ideas of romance are, rather than canning the character altogether but that is up to them and not me (Pepe’s their property, not mine). Plus, I don’t plan on seeing the new Space Jam movie anyway: the first one is fun when you’re a kid (and I like all the cartoon cameos in it) but it doesn’t hit as well when you grow older especially if you are very familiar with the humor of the Looney Tunes. I’m sure LeBron James will have a better screen presence than Michael Jordan did (if Trainwreck (2015) is anything to go off of). Still, I know it will be mostly aimed at kids and you wouldn’t want me to write about my nitpicks for weeks afterwards, would you? Also, am I the only one who finds that thick-inked, blotchy animation-style they do for the Looney Tunes in their movies ugly?

The Cats Bah (1954)

We should move on from the past, but we shouldn’t pretend the past never happened either. Acknowledging past faults is one of the most important steps we can take to move on as a society. It is for this reason, I believe Pepe Le Pew still can have a place in animation today, but the right changes need to be made first. Also, it is important to know that Pepe Le Pew’s cartoons were not made to normalize the character’s actions or to portray them as something admirable. Some of Pepe Le Pew’s cartoons age better than others, that’s for sure, but as a character he was built with the idea of: What if Charles Boyer were a skunk? It was a comedic formula that could be played across a number of cartoons similar to how Wile E. Coyote will always try new ways to catch the Roadrunner. Old media shows us that there are certainly sexist stereotypes that are not cool today, one of which being that men can come on too strong towards women and this is hardly ever shown to be a bad thing. Old Hollywood never showed rape in a positive light, however (I mean, it wasn’t the 1980s where many movies found sexual assault to be hilarious for some reason). Today, the definition sexual assault is not just forced sexual intercourse, however, but a variety of inappropriate behavior. Old Hollywood was not advanced on these standards as they were still morally grey areas.

Recommended with caution

Remember that scene in Buck Privates (1941) where Lee Bowman kisses Jane Frazee without her consent resulting in Alan Curtis punching Bowman? After that scene, Frazee tells Curtis to take it easy on Bowman and that he likely didn’t mean any harm by his actions. When I saw that scene, I thought “Nah, he deserved to get punched. Do it again!” I mean, who living today with a sensible head wouldn’t think that? Buck Privates is still sometimes made for family viewing due to it being a comedy classic starring Abbott and Costello, but I feel parents might want to explain to their kids that Bowman’s actions in that scene are not okay. I don’t have kids, but I think the same could be applied to Pepe Le Pew. I feel like my parents might have told me something like “Pepe acts like that because he’s silly. Don’t be like Pepe.” Still, maybe it is just better for Pepe Le Pew to be cartoons for people my age who can apply historical contexts to his scenes. I remember recommending the Looney Tunes “Golden Collection” DVDs to my co-worker to watch with her son, I then remembered after the conversation was long over that her son is mix-raced and might not enjoy the Looney Tunes. This made me feel bad and I realized I needed to do better realizing that just because I liked something doesn’t mean it is right for everyone. I may be a woman who is comfortable watching Pepe Le Pew, but I am one woman and I watch old movies every day. Naturally, I am not going to pick up on these problems as easily as someone jumping into cartoons with no background (such as the child of a co-worker would go into a cartoon).

Chuck Jones autographed Pepe Le Pew drawing

Essentially, Pepe Le Pew has some great cartoons, but maybe don’t show them to your kids until they are old enough to understand that these weren’t considered problematic to audiences back in the day. We should realize that they are problems now (and were problems back then too) and acknowledge those problems, but let us also recognize how Pepe Le Pew is an important figure in putting context to the past. At the same time, I can allow Warner Bros. to make their own decisions on what they think is right for the character going forward. I can especially do that for a movie I do not plan on watching anyway. I mean, I’m an adult, I can live with Pepe Le Pew not being in the sequel to Space Jam and with warnings and disclaimers on home media of old cartoons. Lovers of Looney Tunes might be disappointed, but if you love the Looney Tunes, there are tons of old cartoons you can revisit over and over again. No one is going to take away Pepe Le Pew’s cartoons from us. They still exist and they are on video. I own them all and I’ve seen them all more than once. To that I say, enjoy them!

~Virginia

One thought on “Let’s Discuss Pepe Le Pew

  1. In my mind, Pepe Le Pew and Imhotep are the cinema world’s most incurable romantics.

    Your thoughtful article nicely lays out the dilemma for many viewers of older material. Who am I to say someone won’t be upset watching the Boyer-based animated character? Who are they to say he shouldn’t still tickle my funnybone?

    Like

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