Walter Mencken 10 a.m., July 23
Notes on Speedy Gonzales & Slowpoke Rodriguez, His Half-Baked Cousin
Of all the superstars in the Warner Bros. cartoon canon, Speedy Gonzales is the most nonessential. Within 36 hours of purchasing each of the Looney Tunes Golden Collections, I had watched every cartoon and most of the supplementary features, including the audio commentaries. For years, the Speedy Gonzales disc never left the box.
With the possible exception of Being There, a feature length comedy cannot, nor should not be a one-note proposition. Remember Arthur? The title character is a funny drunk. Get it? Live actors squandering five reels in search of variations to play on a one-trick premise seldom works, yet with a little ink, paper and seven minutes to fill, one joke can work miracles. Everywhere the Wolf went Droopy was sure to go. No matter how hard he tries, Wile E. Coyote will never dine on Road Runner. Every move Daffy makes leads to a buckshot facial from Elmer’s rifle.
A grinning Speedy Gonzales yells, “Andale! Andale! Epa, Epa! Arriba! Arriba!” as he zips past El Pussygato, arms burdened with cheese for his impoverished amigos who react to his beneficence by jumping up and down.
Suddenly Little Audrey looks good.
Speedy Gonzales: The Early Days.
Speedy wasn’t always a cuddlesome, Mexican hat-dancing mouse. In Robert McKimson’s Cat-Tails for Two, the pesos needed in order for Speedy to secure what would eventually become his trademark sombrero were spent on an unappealing gold front tooth. According to Robert McKimson, Jr., the fastest mouse in Mexico (and friend of everybody’s sister) was based on a pair of Mexican brothers his father played polo with. The grimy rodent, pitted opposite George and Benny, a much more appealing pair of John Steinbeck retreads, discharged little audience appeal short of Mel Blanc’s voice-work.
The studio had faith in the character so director Friz Freleng and designer Hawley Pratt set about retooling the rodent. Their final solution was a featherless cross between Tweety Pie and the Road Runner. As a Coyote substitute to play opposite Gonzales, Freleng recruited the services of his venerable foil, and Tweety’s arch nemesis, Sylvester the Cat aka Sylvero Gato. Speedy would frequently sneak up behind Sylvester and substitute a couple of “Arriba! Andale’s!” for “Meep Meep’s’” that sent the cat soaring to the stratosphere. Cannibalizing his own creation, Freleng modified Tweety’s “I like him, he’s silly” catchphrase to fit the mouse.
The redesigned rodent made his debut in the aptly titled Speedy Gonzales. Long before former Arizona governor Jan Brewer poked a finger at President Obama, Sylvester was a staunch proponent of keeping our borders closed, particularly those that skirt the American cheese factory he’s hired to patrol. The only memorable moment comes when one of the supporting mice actually takes up permanent residence in Sylvester’s belly!
Enter Señor Speedy, fresh from the dentist chair and decked out in surgeon’s white pajamas and an oversize sombrero that render him hopelessly adorable. The allegedly beloved folk hero and friend to all, makes his living on the opposite end of a shooting gallery dodging bullets. When presented with the choice of having one cat to outwit or hundreds of bullets to outrun, Speedy makes a mad dash for the border. The cartoon was so popular that it won the 1956 Academy Award for best short subject and a Looney Tune superstar was born.
El Tyson’s Ratón Enchillada Televisión Cena.
With his amphetamine drive and penchant for junk food, it’s no wonder Speedy was drawn to compadres with addictive personalities. In Tabasco Road, Speedy rescues (and feeds) a couple of bottomless borrachos on their way home from a tequila bar. But none of Speedy’s pals could match his psychologically dependent cousin Slowpoke Rodriguez.
Slowpoke, “The Slowest Mouse in All Mexico,” is Gonzales' polar opposite. Perhaps the reason for his lethargy can be traced back to the hand-tooled verse of his favorite Mexican melodia, La Cucuracha. Literally translated, the lyrics read: “The roach, the roach, can’t walk any more. Because it needs, because it needs, marijuana to smoke.” It’s weed-head Slowpoke’s terminal case of the munchies that sends Speedy on numerous deadly cheese runs.
Alas, the tokin' Mexican mouse was used in only one cartoon. It had nothing to do with Slowpoke being a muy malo role model. On the 2003 Behind the Tunes documentary Needy for Speedy, Warner Bros. animator Art Leonardi said when Speedy would run, “it’d take very few drawings to do it. We had a character called Slowpoke Rodriguez and he’d sing a song that took a long time to animate. We very seldom used the character, because by the time he walked into the scene we used up a minute-and-a-half of footage.”
Political correctness felled Señor Speedy faster than a d-CON-filled wheel of cheese. In 2001, Ted Turner denied reports that he banned what many deemed racially insensitive shorts. A network spokesmen claimed that Speedy’s absence came about because the cartoon’s ratings had dropped. Not wanting to offend Mexican Americans, Cartoon Network has also banished Speedy from its airwaves. Speedy doesn’t seem to bother the League of United Latin American Citizens, the nation’s oldest Hispanic-American rights organization, who labeled the cartoon legend “a ‘cultural icon’ who displayed plenty of admirable pluck.”
Looney Tunes: Back in Action.
Joe Dante’s sadly undervalued Looney Tunes: Back In Action contains Speedy’s last big screen performance. While lunching with Speedy at the Warner’s commissary, Porky Pig, the most enduring star in the studio’s cartoon cosmos and truly a remarkable pig, ponders the current cultural climate. “At first, they told me to lose the stutter,” he laments with head in hands. “Now they tell me I’m not funny. It’s a pain in the butt being politically correct.” In an era when self-appointed bluenoses had the power to halt production at so much as a hint of promiscuity, the boys at Termite Terrace continually outfoxed the censors by smuggling cell after cell’s worth of “objectionable” material into their cartoons.
There would be no Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies were it not for political incorrectness. In the '30's and '40's, the studio fought hard to keep certain gags in their cartoons in spite of what detractors had to say. In that spirit, Porky has earned the right to tell all of his critics to go to h-h-h, go to h-h-h, go to h-h-h, scram!
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