Sidney had actually wanted to bring the beloved Mexican clown into U.S. movies since 1940, but it took the success of the Cantinflas' first U.S. film, Around the World in Eighty Days, to convince Columbia Pictures to pony up the $5 million budget. For a plot, Sidney unearthed an obscure Austrian play from 1935 called Broadway Zauber. He briefly considered calling the film Broadway Magic before moving the story, about a farmhand (Cantinflas) in search of a beloved race horse sold to a producer (Dan Dailey), to Hollywood.
Everything about Pepe was done on a grand scale, befitting a director who had made his name with lavish MGM musicals like Anchors Aweigh (1945) and the all-star Thousands Cheer (1943). Sidney shot the film over the course of six months, including a five-week location shoot in Mexico. He also filmed it in five languages at once, hoping the Cantinflas name would draw big international crowds. And he secured cameo appearances from an impressive list of stars.
Those cameos provided Pepe with some of its brightest moments. Some critics have even suggested that the film's use of its all-star cast actually improves on Around the World in Eighty Days. Whereas the earlier film used its celebrities as a gimmick, with the actors cast in fictional roles often so fleeting as to be unrecognizable, in Pepe most of the guest stars played themselves in scenes that traded on their screen images. Jack Lemmon appears entirely in drag as his female character, Daphne, from Some Like It Hot (1959). Maurice Chevalier joins Cantinflas and Dailey for a rendition of one of his trademark songs, "Mimi." And Kim Novak appears in a variation of a scene from Sidney's The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), in which she played an heiress who helped the financially embarrassed Duchin (Tyrone Power) without his knowing it. In Pepe, she plays herself, secretly paying for the engagement ring Cantinflas hopes to give the woman he loves (Shirley Jones).
The best of the cameos went to Janet Leigh, who sends up her performances in Psycho (1960) and Touch of Evil (1958) before joining Cantinflas and off-screen husband Tony Curtis for a mistaken identity scene similar to the plot of her previous picture with Sidney and Curtis, Who Was That Lady? (1960). She was so effective in her brief bit that Photoplay magazine gave her its Laurel Award for Top Female Comedy Performance.
That award and the Laurel for Top Musical represented the best Pepe would fare. It lost all seven of its Oscar® bids and three Golden Globe nominations (Best Motion Picture-Musical, Best Motion Picture Actor-Musical/Comedy for Cantinflas and Best Original Score). Variety gave the film a favorable review as "a honey of a show, done up in showmanly style," but most critics echoed the New York Herald Tribune, which complained that "the film has the shape of three Ed Sullivan shows strung end to end." Historians with access to Cantinflas' Mexican films have complained that rather than capturing the comic mayhem that made him a star, particularly the verbal nonsense hailed as "Cantinfleada" by his fans, the film poured on the pathos in an effort to make him another Charles Chaplin. Ultimately, moviegoers weighed in with the most crushing blow. Pepe only earned $4.8 million at the box office, not even making back its original cost. Cantinflas never made another U.S. film, returning to his native Mexico where he continued to be a top star and an inspiration for his extensive charity work. Sidney would redeem himself at the box office with his next film, Bye Bye Birdie (1963), while leading lady Shirley Jones would actually walk off with a 1960 Oscar®, although for another film, Elmer Gantry.
Producer-Director: George Sidney
Screenplay: Claude Binyon, Dorothy Kingsley
Based on a story by Sonya Levien and Leonard Spigelgass and the play Broadway Zauber by Ladislas Bush-Fekete
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Art Director: Ted Haworth, Gunther Gerszo
Music: Johnny Green
Cast: Cantinflas (Pepe), Dan Dailey (Ted Holt), Shirley Jones (Suzie Murphy), William Demarest (Movie Studio Gateman), Ernie Kovacs (Immigration Inspector), Maurice Chevalier, Bing Crosby, Richard Conte, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jimmy Durante, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Greer Garson, Hedda Hopper, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Jay North, Kim Novak, Andre Previn, Donna Reed, Debbie Reynolds, Edward G. Robinson, Cesar Romero, Frank Sinatra, Billie Burke, Ann B. Davis, Charles Coburn, Dean Martin, Tony Curtis (Cameos), Judy Garland (Voice Only).
by Frank Miller