In our childhood imaginations, the library of constantly-repeated-on-TV Looney Tunes cartoons were so vast and endless that it was hard to get a grip on how many there were. It seemed like the WB shield and "Th-th-th-th-that's All, Folks" graced at least a thousand or more cartoons, right?
Given that number, it figures that the output of a relatively minor character like that perpetually horned-up French skunk Pepé Le Pew would number at about ... what, fifty? In reality, however, Pépe starred in only 16 cartoons which Warner Bros. trickled out for lucky theater-goers over a 17-year period in 1945-62. Even factoring in Pepé's cameo in the 1954 Sylvester and Tweety outing Dog Pounded, that's a pretty slim filmography. Our aromatic hero's entire output is small enough to fit on a single DVD, which is exactly what Warner Home Video has done with Pepé Le Pew: Zee Best of Zee Best, the latest disc in their Looney Tunes Super Stars series compiling the greatest stars in their classic cartoon stable.
Pepé Le Pew, needless to say, is the one who is so deluded about l'amour that he doesn't realize the lady he's so crazy for doesn't share the same passion for him - much less belongs to the same animal species. Chuck Jones supposedly created the character as a way to deal with his own awkwardness with women, but over the years he made the skunk's sheer determination his calling card, much in the same way that Jones did with Wile E. Coyote and his dogged pursuit of the Road Runner.
Although Pepé doesn't exactly brim with comic possibilities (how many ways are there to paint a white stripe on a black cat, anyhow?), the cartoons themselves are surprisingly fresh. The animation is vibrant, and there are a lot of clever riffs on stereotypical French culture ("Le mew, le prrrr...") by scriptwriters like the legendary Michael Maltese. The cartoons also benefit from stunning background designs by Warner Bros. background artist Maurice Noble that depict Paris as a fancy free playground filled with ornament and fey curlicues. Chuck Jones directed nearly all of the Pepé cartoons. This disc is a good way to dig his evolving style, for better or worse, from jazzy and energetic (Odor-able Kitty) to sickly sweet and cloying (A Scent of the Matterhorn).
The cartoons included on Pepé Le Pew: Zee Best of the Best, all directed by Chuck Jones unless otherwise noted, are as follows:
Odor-able Kitty (1945). Previously released on The Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 3, 2005.
A put-upon stray cat finds a way to avoid the wrath of the dogs and humans who annoy him - by disguising himself as a skunk! He attracts the attentions of a real skunk, however, going to drastic measures to keep the pesky critter at bay. Pepé's debut, with some strange differences - his name is Henry, he unwittingly pursues a male cat, and he's outed for having a wife and kids (and an American accent!). On its own, this is a wonderfully scwewy 'toon.
Scent-imental Over You (1947).
A Park Avenue chihuahua, feeling like a social outcast, decides to glue a skunk-like fur on her hide. This attracts an amorous skunk (named Stinky this time); cute hijinks ensue.
Odor of the Day (1948, directed by Arthur Davis).
This virtually dialogue-less Pepé oddity finds the skunk competing with a homeless dog for shelter on a wintry day. A typical WB effort of the day with predictable gags. Without a lovely lady diverting him, Pepé is actually kind of boring.
For Scent-imental Reasons (1949). Previously released on The Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 1, 2003, and The Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume 1, 2011.
The first true Pepé Le Pew cartoon and the only Oscar winner in the set. A perfume shop owner is horrified to find a skunk on his property; he tosses a stray cat in the shop, white dye strategically falls on her, and le sparks fly. Pepé's horned-up, quasi Charles Boyer personality is in full force here.
Scent-imental Romeo (1951).
At the Paris Zoo, a hungry kitty paints a white stripe on her back to get in on feeding time. Pepé finds the "femme skunke" fetching and puts on his best Maurice Chevalier to woo her. Hilarious.
Little Beau Pepé (1952).
At a French foreign legion outpost in the desert, a female cat rubs her back on a freshly painted ladder. Meanwhile, aspiring recruit Pepé arrives and the besotted stinker has the run of the now-deserted outpost to pursue her. Clever visual gags (an "Uncle Jacques Wants You" poster, etc.) and some unexpected twists make this one better than most.
Wild Over You (1953).
The Paris Exposition of 1900 hosts a zoo filled with exotic animals, but visitors are thrown into a panic when a wild cat escapes and is roaming the city. To evade her pursuers, she disguises herself as a skunk (you didn't see that one coming, did you?) but winds up being pursued again by Pepé. This one has some of Philip De Guard's wildest backgrounds, and the museum where the two romp about is a font for good visual gags.
Dog Pounded (1954; directed by Friz Freleng).
Sylvester is hungrily prowling the city when he comes across alluring morsel Tweety. He tries to get to the wittle bird, but the placement of Tweety's nest in the middle of a jam-packed dog pound is a slight hinderance. A pretty routine T&S outing is enlivened by the surprise appearance of our Pepé.
The Cats Bah (1954).
Seductively addressing the audience, Pepé urges everyone to "come with me to ze Casbah" while he regales the tale of Pepé Le Moko's neighbor (Le Pew) as he pusues Penelope, a cat who is accidentally splotched with white paint. The formula was starting to show at this point, although this one has a wicked parody of the early TV personality Renzo Cesana - several decades before Christopher Walken did the same routine on SNL.
Past Perfumance (1955).
In 1913 Paris, havoc erupts at a motion picture studio as would-be actor Pepé arrives and is taken by a fetching kitty who, conveniently enough, is made up to look like a skunk. Fantastic character designs and more of that eye-popping Philip De Guard background art and drive this hilarious outing.
Two Scent's Worth (1955).
A more pastoral turn as Pepé pursues Fifi, a hapless kitty who has been painted to look skunky, through Les Alpes Francais (The French Alps). More routine than normal, but sparked with many funny moments.
Heaven Scent (1956). Previously released on The Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 6, 2008.
At a French seaside village, a femme cat successfully turns away the town's dogs by painting a white stripe on herself. He problems are just beginning when Pepé comes on the scene, however. The interesting thing about this cartoon is that De Guard's backgrounds have become borderline abstract, with solid color blocks and beautifully intricate lines. It's a swell (if routine, plotwise) cartoon, too.
Touché and Go (1957).
Another year, another mishap at a French seaside village as an unfortunately painted black cat attracts Pepé in a chase d'amour - on a boat, under water, and on a deserted island! Typical Pepé, but it does have some excellent visuals.
Really Scent (1959; directed by Abe Levitow).
In picturesque old New Orleans, a cat couple are dismayed to find one of their little is born with reprehensible white stripes on its back. It doesn't bode well for little Fabrette, until she spies a visiting Pepé (who is immediately smitten). Can love bloom despite all the stink? More wild background imagery aplenty, and the tables get turned more often in this too-cute effort.
Who Scent You? (1960).
Chuck Jones returns for this soufflé-light turn set aboard a luxury cruise ship. A castaway cat gets some unfortunately placed white paint on her back. On shore, a telescope-toting Pepé sees the fetching miss and swims on board. Le chase is on, and predictable gags ensue.
A Scent of the Matterhorn (1961).
Pepé is repeating himself as he chases another mispainted lady kitty through the grassy hills and snowy peaks of the French alps. Jones' style was starting to curdle into awfully cloying territory at this point, too. The opening credits are in French, a sweet touch.
Louvre Come Back to Me! (1962).
The last official Pepé Le Pew has the stinky one pursuing his feline love through a park and an art museum, with the lady's tomcat boyfriend following closely. The art museum setting provokes some clever, quasi-surreal gags from Jones, closing things out on a high note.
Like the other Looney Tunes Super Stars discs, Warner Bros. has packaged Zee Best of Zee Best with generic menu and package designs, along with zero supplementary info as far as release dates and background history. These Super Stars sets have had a spotty history of favoring previously released shorts, often in cropped format for viewing on widescreen TVs. The shorts on Pepé's set are programmed in chronological order, however, and viewable in their original format. Since only three of the 17 cartoons are double-dips, it also offers a glimmer of hope that Warner Bros. is listening to its customers' complaints and supplying Looney Tunes fans with new stuff in a simple, affordable way.
The original mono soundtracks are well preserved here with no noticeable glitches or background fuzz. Spoken languages are available in English and re-dubbed Thai (which is quite a trip to hear). Subtitle options are also supplied, in English, Thai and French - but of course.
Wow. The original 4:3 picture has been digitally restored and spruced up with vivid colors and an excellently mastered image. There are a few instances where the source material shows its age (grain on Odorable Kitty, for instance), but for the most part it's a sweet looking collection. On about a third of these cartoons, Warner Bros. also supplies the option of watching a cruelly cropped widescreen version, in which the image tops and bottoms are hacked off. Jamie S. Rich's DVD Talk review of the Foghorn Leghorn & Friends Super Stars disc demonstrates the differences between the two. The presence of the widescreen option here is annoying, but at least it's not the only choice like on the earliest, badly received Super Stars sets.
The sole extras are trailers for Warner Bros.' Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory deluxe blu-ray and Happiness Is Peanuts... Friends Forever. No commentary or featurette? Sacré bleu!
Warner Bros. has done a spotty job on these Looney Tunes Super Star discs in the past. Pepé Le Pew's Zee Best of Zee Best collection threatens to go down that same cynical path, but the mere fact that this one disc contains all the cartoons of a single character in chronological order - beautifully remastered, too - makes this volume a gem. Could a Best of Egghead or Complete Hippety Hopper be far behind? Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.