Pepé Le Pew’s Lackluster Lovelorn Looney Tunes

Last year, I ended up watching a lot of Looney Tunes cartoons thanks to suggestions from friends on the World Animation Discord. I reckon I watched well over a hundred, including many shorts that I’ve never seen before and often never heard of until they were recommended to me. It was a lot of fun, and something I decided to try as part of this was checking out an entire character’s filmography.

That’s not exactly easy to do since most characters have at least a couple dozen shorts to their name (if not infinitely more), but there was one exception to the rule. I would have said that “there was ‘thankfully’ one exception”, if not for the fact that the toonography of cartoon skunk hornbag Pepé Le Pew has at least ten shorts too many considering how much was actually done with the lad.

“Hornbag” is perhaps a very crass word to use in this sort of article, but it works very well at describing why I wanted to dig into Pepé’s cartoons. Out of all the Looney Tunes, he’s the only one who is consistently motivated by sexual desires, to chase after an attractive femme fatale skunk and “make sweet music together”, as he’d put it. Occasionally, the other Tunes would lust after someone for the sake of a quick gag or for the duration of a short, but they’re not driven by it like Pepé is.

I started thinking about this a few years ago, partially as a result of the decision to phase Pepé out of then-recent productions such as Space Jam 2 (and possibly Looney Tunes Cartoons). The idea was that his shtick of relentlessly chasing ladies who clearly loathed his attention didn’t make for suitable subject matter for comedy. I didn’t have any strong feelings one way or the other, apart from annoyance towards the handful of folks who took this idea and moaned proclamations of “cancel culture” and other such nonsense at every given opportunity.

Oh, to be back in the days when Warner Bros didn’t provide a million and one valid reasons for loathing their guts.

Still, it got me wondering about the idea of Pepé as a cartoon character driven by implicitly sexual concepts. It’s an unusual motivation to associate with Golden Age American toons, at least as far as I perceive it, and one that I figure could be explored in all kinds of ways. Even if you stuck solely to the popular conception of “Pepé chasing after someone”, there’s plenty of variations to mine from that.

Heck, maybe those people whinging about Pepé’s “erasure” had a point underneath the hysteria. Perhaps those cartoons were very good and we’re losing something by not trying to take another crack at it. With that in mind, I finally decided last September to check out all of his cartoons from the original theatrical era of Looney Tunes, to see what the people who created him were able to do during their prime.

There’s 15 cartoons in total, not counting the short where he makes a cameo (Friz Freleng’s “Dog Pounded”) and the two that Wikipedia dubiously consider “Pepé Le Pew cartoons” despite featuring skunks that are just regular comedy cartoon skunks (Chuck Jones’ “Fair and Worm-er” and Art Davis’ “Odor of the Day”). I figured that would offer enough room for Chuck Jones and his unit to have some fun with Pepé and his shtick, especially since they were putting out one of these a year from 1949 to 1962. Regular enough, but not so regular as to become a slog.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened.

The first few shorts are enjoyable enough. “Odor-able Kitty” is a fun time and I like how Pepé and the cat he’s chasing after are both people pretending to be something they’re not, that’s a great little thematic link between protagonist and antagonist that I wasn’t expecting. “For Scent-imental Reasons” is the most well-known and regarded of these cartoons for a reason, densely packed with fun gags, memorable sequences and a great role-reversal of an ending.

But right after that short, they become shockingly repetitive. Aside from very basic concepts such as the setting determining the feel and texture of the backgrounds (and some of the gags), the next dozen or so shorts are pretty much the same. They all feature Pepé chasing after a cat who unknowingly gets a white stripe painted on her back. They all go through the opening preamble of “establish setting, get cat painted, Pepé shows up and sees the cat, he grabs and kisses her while groaning sweet nothings into her ear, she runs off, the chase begins”.

Also, it’s worth mentioning said preamble takes at least two or three minutes, which takes up a not-insignificant portion of each short considering they’re roughly seven minutes long. It kills the pacing stone dead, and it doesn’t help that the rest of the runtime is devoted to various gags that lack the density of “For Scent-imental Reasons” and bring very little to the table.

Pepé’s portrayed the same way throughout, and while there is something somewhat sympathetic about the way he falls very intensely in love with the cat whilst expressing that in the worst way possible, it becomes tiresome seeing him smugly glance at the camera and inevitably come out on top. The cat (retroactively named Penelope Pussycat) is the same – in looks, in predicament, in her dynamic with Pepé – and it’s equally tedious never seeing that change.

Only very occasionally will the shorts gesture towards shaking things up, such as replacing Penelope with a violent cat in “Wild Over You” or going for a more overtly suggestive tone in “The Cat’s Bah”. But in practice, those are very light dressings placed on top of the same meal you’ve had too many times already. (And in the case of the latter, it just adds a layer of unpleasant sick on top.)

It genuinely baffles me how many of these were content to repeat themselves, when it would be so easy to come up with new ideas. Pepé’s portrayal could be altered to have him be more pathetic, whether he was aware of that or not. He could try to find love in ways that weren’t just chasing after fake skunks. Rivals could appear to compete with him for the affections of whoever he was chasing. These are vague suggestions, but they offer broad enough springboards for all sorts of stories and gags.

Considering Jones and co. were also creating the Wile E Coyote/Road Runner shorts around this time and producing many fine cartoons full of varied and unique scenarios despite them all having the same basic premise, I have to wonder what went wrong here specifically. It feels like a real failure of some sort in the machinery of creation when Jones, Mike Maltese et al couldn’t figure out what to do with Pepé. How do you have so many talented folks working on something so regularly, and yet it feels so bereft of any drive, of any idea that someone really wanted to do?

More than anything, Pepé’s cartoons strike me as uninspired; standard chase cartoons with a sexual undercurrent that feel like they should be praised for showing up at all. If they were funny, I could at least roll with that, but they’re usually middling at best. Having so many of the same gags means they wear out their welcome lightning-quick, and what new gags are there tend to be impenetrable or overdone. I found they had quite a bit in common with the Chuck Jones-produced Looney Tunes cartoons from the 90s which I’d previously written about: that feeling of creative listlessness, lethargic pacing, and (unintentionally) coasting on the goodwill from previous efforts or the production crew’s professionalism.

It’s especially frustrating because there’s a couple of cartoons near the end that have some kind of spark. “Really Scent” flips the script by doing a parody of romantic comedies, where Penelope is a lonely skunk-resembling cat who falls for Pepé. Their love is mutual and sincere, but she can’t handle his smell and this creates a situation where he realizes this and tries to clean himself up, not knowing that she’s stunk herself up. It’s a funny ending to a refreshingly charming short, and unsurprisingly had someone else at the helm, Abe Levitow.

Even Jones found some inspiration eventually with “Louvre Come Back to Me!”, which ratchets up Pepé’s odor to absurdly destructive degrees and introduces a rival who competes for the cat’s affections. It shouldn’t have taken 12 years for ideas like this to be introduced, but at least they help to make for a more memorable romp that acts as a solid enough end to his filmography.

Usually with Looney Tunes characters, I get the sense that there was plenty done with them in the original theatrical era. Sure, there’s loads of material you can check out afterwards in comics, shows, games and even the occasional movie, but those are extra helpings on top of what’s often a bountiful banquet. I don’t get that impression from Pepé at all, and it’s a shame that so little was meaningfully explored in his original cartoons.

I was hoping to find there was more to his character, his shtick, than what I recalled from the three or four cartoons I saw as a kid. That even if there isn’t going to be anything new done with him, there’s at least plenty of shorts where the folks who did Looney Tunes best worked their magic and gave us some great stuff to laugh at and appreciate. Maybe they did for others, but not for me. Shame.

Special thanks to bamos and Eliza alias Duck Twacy from the World Animation Discord for helping me find high quality copies of the shorts to use for getting the screenshots seen in the article.

FrDougal9000 writes for as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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