A Year in Shorts Day 244: "Mexicali Shmoes"
With the recent(ish) release of In the Heights (and the million and one think pieces surrounding it), issues of Latino representation in Hollywood are at the front of everyone’s minds these days. And so, ever with my finger on the pulse of pop culture, I think it’s time for us to once again discuss everyone’s favorite cartoon Mexican mouse Speedy Gonzales, and his 1959 Oscar-nominated short, Mexicali Shmoes.
Directed by Friz Freleng, Mexicali Shmoes sets itself apart from the last Speedy Gonzales short we covered in a few ways, although it sticks pretty closely to the established formula otherwise. For one thing, instead of pitting Speedy against Sylvester the Cat, Mexicali Shmoes has him match wits with Jose and Manuel, a pair of Looney Tunes that Warner Brothers cared about so little they changed species multiple times. In this short they are cats, but they were originally crows, and once were even mice. What gives, Warner? Couldn't think of any Mexican names besides Jose and Manuel? Ok, wait, that might actually be true. Another key difference between this short and Speedy Gonzales is that Speedy isn't coming to anyone's aid here; Jose and Manuel are simply trying to eat him, and Speedy (understandably) doesn't want to be eaten. These are, admittedly, rather minor changes, but I think it does slightly elevate Speedy's original short over this one.
For one thing, despite what the authors or The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons may say about them, Jose and Manuel are no replacement for Sylvester. They just don't have much going on for them in the personality department, aside from being pretty broad Mexican stereotypes. And while it's true that Speedy is also a pretty broad stereotype himself, I think there's a good reason the Latino community has largely embraced him in a way that hasn't happened for Jose and Manuel. Besides, having Speedy square off against Sylvester felt like Speedy taking on the establishment. What do Jose and Manuel represent, exactly? And don't even get me started on Slowpoke Rodriguez, a character who definitely embodies a lot of negative stereotypes in a way that Speedy does not. Admittedly, he has a fairly small role in this short, but still.
Besides, the thing about Speedy which separates him from the countless other "cute animals outwitting their would-be predators" types is his heroism. Jerry might look out for Nibbles or a defenseless baby bird on occasion, but most of the time he's a troublemaker trying to avoid punishment. Tweety Bird is an obnoxious bastard, but he's usually more of an innocent victim defending himself than anything else. And the Road Runner is merely a creature of pure survival instinct, the living embodiment of the cruel indifference the universe which spawned him feels towards his pursuer. The Road Runner is neither good nor evil; it exists in a world in which these concepts do not apply. There is only the compulsive need for the hunt, and the drive to avoid being hunted. His conflict is a truly neutral one, his famous "Meep meep" nothing more than an expression of his continued existence, and thus, the continued existence of the Coyote's eternal struggle.
Well anyway, Speedy Gonzales isn't like that. Speedy is at his best when he fights for others, not himself; he's basically a superhero. When you downplay that element of his character, you take away what makes him special. And when you do that, all you're left with is a pretty generic riff on the Tom and Jerry formula. Sure, there's some good gags, but nothing spectacular. (The Bugs versus Elmer shorts were typically the funniest in this regard.) The animation is very good, but not quite up to the level of what Chuck Jones was doing at the time. And there's really only the most basic structure upon which all the gags are hung. That's perfectly fine when the jokes are inspired, but I'm afraid that's just not the case here. Mexicali Shmoes is an amusing short, but not a great one. There are certainly far worse Looney Tunes shorts out there, but there are a whole lot better ones too.
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