Monday, August 21, 2006

FRIZ FRELENG BLOGATHON—Speedy Gonzales (1955)

Dedicated to Brian Darr whose tireless calendrics keep Bay Area film aficionados alert and excited. Thank you for hosting this blogathon.

I grew up a child of migrant laborers who traveled between the Imperial Valley of California and the Magic Valley of southern Idaho, weeding and thinning fields of beets, beans and onions as tenaciously as they sought out the American dream. That dream remains as elusive now—if not more so—than then. I want to think we have come a long ways since all those rows we had to hoe decades ago, that there have been significant breakthroughs for immigrant ethnicities striving to create new lives for themselves and their children, and sometimes I believe that, though more often I have to believe that. As novelist William Goyen has written, sometimes you have to hold ideals aloft like banners in the wind, hold them before you to inspire one foot in front of the other. But I grow disheartened with marching for ideals in my elder years, especially when I hear on the radio the reports of vigilante groups in Santa Rosa antagonizing day laborers; "Minute Men" who consider themselves patriotic for harassing those less fortunate than themselves. I'm forced to conclude that some issues are not meant to be resolved within any one lifetime, let alone successive generations, and we each bear the burden of our own biography in the ongoing sojourn of these social histories.

In that baggage I tote on my back is a memory of a Summer afternoon with my mother in Twin Falls, Idaho, our walking into a store only to be sternly halted by a proprieter pointing to a sign: "No Mexicans or dogs allowed." I can still recall my mother's anger and her tearful shame that her young boy should have to grow up in such a world. Naturally, I took refuge in fantasy, in books and comics and my beloved movies, and—like all kids—in cartoons. I guess it's no surprise at all that children identify with mice and that the adult world looms over them like large menacing cats. How mice survive in a cat's world is a child's legacy. There was Mickey, of course, and Mighty Mouse on his way to save the day, and Tom constantly chasing his bemused Jerry, and Jinx hating meeses to pieces, and then there was the "fastest mouse in all Mexico"—Speedy Gonzales! As a little Chicano boy I loved Speedy Gonzales. Not so much because he was an accurate portrayal of my ethnicity—nothing of the sort—but because he was all I had in a world where my ethnicity was not allowed let alone visible and because he was quick and clever and made a fool of El Greengo Poosygato (aka Sylvester) time and time again, cartoon after cartoon, all the time joyfully and unabashedly shouting, "¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! ¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! YEEHAH!" (courtesy of Mel Blanc).

Thus, I was among those who a few years back protested The Cartoon Network's refusal to air Speedy Gonzales's cartoons, alleging he was politically incorrect and an offensive ethnic stereotype of Mexicans and Mexican life. As reported by Michael Park for Fox News in late March 2002, Speedy Gonzales—the fastest mouse in Mexico who had easily bested Sylvester the Cat, Daffy Duck and other assorted banditos in his nearly 50-year career—couldn't seem to escape the clutches of the Cartoon Network. Matthew Hunter, who has written one of the finest on-line tribute histories of Speedy's career, spearheaded an online petition protesting The Cartoon Network's decision.

Hunter's backstory on this particular issue is of interest: "In the 1980's, Speedy was just as enduring as Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck when it came to television and video. He proved himself as popular as the rest, and was shown just as often. Nickelodeon cable network, the station best known for their original Nicktoons series, has always been the best place to see Speedy Gonzales cartoons from all eras of WB animation, since they once had the rights to virtually all of them.

"But in September of 1999, Nickelodeon dropped their showings of all Warner Brothers cartoons and sent them to Cartoon Network, and a year later ABC network did the same, making Cartoon Network the only television channel to show Warner Brothers classic cartoons on TV. Cartoon Network has been a fairly good place to see the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. However, Cartoon Network's owner at the time, Ted Turner, supposedly asked the programmers to stop airing Speedy cartoons due to their content. This was evidently done at about the time Turner and Warner Brothers merged companies, and for the reason that with so many international venues, the content that in any way ridiculed foreigners might be offensive to some viewers."

In April 2002, Jim Burns reported to CSN News on the involvement of the nation's oldest Hispanic-American civil rights organization—The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)—and Hispanic Online in refuting The Cartoon Network's categorizations. [Unfortunately, that link is now broken.] By June 2002, Michael Park
followed up his original story for Fox News proclaiming that media exposure, Hunter's on-line petition and the outcry from fans had been effective; The Cartoon Network reconsidered their position.

As one contributor ["Map Kernow"] to an online forum debating the issue angrily vented: "This shows what I've always maintained: 'political correctness' and 'sensitivity' etc. aren't about being 'sensitive' to minorities or people of color. It's a crutch for guilty liberal white people to feel good about themselves. It doesn't mean a damn thing that Mexicans themselves do like Speedy Gonzales—some white folks at Cartoon Network have decided they shouldn't oughta like Speedy, and that's that. The important thing, you see, is for those nice white liberals at Cartoon Network to feel good about themselves, with a nice big pat on the back for being so 'enlightened' and 'sensitive.' " I salute the righteousness of Kernow's rant. Rather that, than having the fastest—let alone the only—Mexican mouse I know censored from t.v. history by too-well-meaning thought police.

Anyways, in point, as Matthew Hunter synopsized, "Speedy showed cats, crows, banditos and greedy ducks what cartoons were all about—laughter." Which reminds me of something Susan Sontag wrote in her brilliant essay "Where the Stress Falls": "Comedy depends on certitude, the certitude about what is foolish and what is not, and on characters who are 'characters', that is, types." Take away the types and you take away the rich variance of laughter.

So what does all this have to do with the Friz Freleng blogathon? Well … I'm glad you ask. Surely you know that Freleng directed the very best Speedy Gonzales cartoons (of which there are 42 in number)? He didn't create Speedy—that honor is reserved for Robert McKimson who debuted the character in 1953's Cat-Tails for Two—but, along with Hawley Pratt, Freleng redesigned Speedy Gonzales (changing the spelling of his name from González for starters) for the eponymous Oscar-winning best short subject of 1955, Speedy Gonzales.

1955 was the year—you might remember and, if not, you might Google ("to remember" and "to Google" have become nearly synonymous)—when Marty swept the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine), Best Director (Delbert Mann), and Best Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky). The monotony was alleviated by Anna Magnani winning Best Actress for Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, Jack Lemmon winning Best Supporting Actor for Mister Roberts, and Jo Van Fleet winning Best Supporting Actress for East of Eden. The music was good too: Oklahoma! shared the prize for best score with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, which won Best Song (buy me a martini and find me a piano to sit on and I'll croon it out of tune for you, splayed fingers and all). To Catch A Thief, Picnic, The Bridges of Toko-Ri and I'll Cry Tomorrow were also all at hand to grasp the golden nude, as was the Fastest Mouse in all of Mexico. No wonder I loved him.

I found it sweet and telling that—participating in Nancy de Los Santos and Alberto Domínguez's 2002 documentary
The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in American Cinema—Cheech Marin offered as his "contribution" to those 100 years the image of Speedy Gonzales cheerfully persevering against all manner of obstacles placed in his path. They're going to put tacks in your path, Cheech described, they're going to put bears, they're going to come up with all sorts of things that you're going to have to get around or die and—like Speedy Gonzales—you'll say, "Okay!"

Though IMDb user Robert Reynolds is astonished that Speedy Gonzales won out over Legend of Rockabye Point and Good Will To Men (also competing that year), the formula of Speedy outwitting Sylvester proved popular and lasted for a decade. As a trivial aside, "Sylvester" is the Americanized version of the Mexican word silvestre, which means "wild". I always considered it hilarious that this lisping housecat would be named such. Anyways, back to the award-winning Speedy Gonzales, you recall the story: Starving Mexican mice want access to a cheese factory guarded by Sylvester Cat and send for Speedy Gonzales to breeze past Sylvester and obtain the cheese for them.

Somehow, with all the immigration concerns all across the country but particularly in California, I can't stop thinking of that ad campaign: "California—it's the cheese." Which further reminds me of Guillermo Arriaga's heartfelt plea when he spoke at the Balboa Theater: "I think the United States has all the right to build whatever walls they need to protect its borders. They can send the whole U.S. Army to protect the border and I think it's all right. But it's a shame that my country doesn't have the capacity of building jobs for its citizens. That's [more] shameful than all the walls built by the Bush administration. But we have to realize something. The United States needs the labor force to keep running the economy. This is a reality. Mexico doesn't have the capacity to create jobs and the United States needs [laborers]. So instead of putting walls and putting these warm, great people in danger of death, why don't we make a profound dialogue between our countries and find the best way to resolve this?"

As Speedy reminds us, and Sylvester seems to forget, there is plenty of cheese to go around, and plenty of laughter too.

02/24/10 UPDATE:
Eugene Hernandez reports at indieWIRE that Speedy Gonzales is in for a feature film treatment, with George Lopez providing the vocals, as detailed in a recent New York Times announcement by Dave Itzkoff.