Trav S.D.’s Guide to the Pink Panther Movies

There is no particular occasion for this post on the Pink Panther movies today, other than that I had nothing else in the pipeline and this one, which I’ve been picking away at for months, was almost ready to go. At first blush, the birthdays of either Peter Sellers or Blake Edwards might have made sense for days on which to post it, but I already have an article on Sellers, and I am planning one on Edwards, whose body of work is vastly wider than this series of films in any case. And thirdly, there are numerous Pink Panther films that Sellers and Blake weren’t involved with anyway. So we pick an entirely random day. As always, I remind you that I am a critic. Don’t expect breezy rah-rah across-the-board cheerleading for a franchise that has possessed at least as many lows as it has had highs.

The Pink Panther (1963)

Some context: director Blake Edwards was not yet known as a comedy auteur when this film came out. His most recent blockbuster was the alcoholism drama Days of Wine and Roses (1962), starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. The one comedy he was known for as director was the WWII service comedy Operation Petticoat (1959) with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis (although he’d also written the screenplay for Operation Mad Ball a few years before that). The James Bond series, which I’ve always felt this franchise resembled and parodied somewhat, was launched the previous year. Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, which this film also much resembles, came out in 1955.

Meanwhile, Peter Sellers, who’d been a British comedy star for a dozen years, was just starting to become better known to American audiences, thanks to Lolita and The Road to Hong Kong, both 1962, and to a lesser extent, the earlier The Mouse That Roared (1959). But interestingly (or rather, uninterestingly), Sellers’ Inspector Jacques Clouseau is not at the center of the original film. David Niven, as wealthy cat burglar Sir Charles Lytton (a.k.a. “The Phantom”) is. Sellers, as the relatively mild comic relief, merely stole the show. It wasn’t hard. With 20/20 hindsight, the original PInk Panther film is a Nor’easter of tediousness stretching from horizon to horizon, a slow motion orgy of self-enchantment, endless footage of people skiing and getting in and out of bed in their pajamas, and the revolting spectacle of geriatric sex symbol Niven putting the moves on beautiful young women like Capucine. This is only slightly less revolting than the oleaginous Robert Wagner, who plays his nephew, putting the moves on women. The titular feline is a famous diamond, so called because of a flaw that resembles a pink panther, which Niven steals. The later sequels got better.

A Shot in the Dark (1964)

The first sequel in the Blake Edwards/ Peter Sellers Pink Panther series, and as is often the way with film series, the first true one (i.e., the comedy tropes get established in the sequel once the collaborators take things a little further and develop some self-awareness). Ironically, this property didn’t even begin as a Pink Panther film. It was a French stage play, then a Broadway hit, neither one of which featured the character of Inspector Clouseau. It was only adapted into a Pink Panther project once Edwards and Sellers were brought aboard. In this one, Clouseau is brought in to solve the murder of George Sanders’ chauffeur, and works to clear the name of the innocent and bodacious maid, Elke Sommer. Herbert Lom is the long-suffering Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and Burt Kwouk is introduced as Clouseau’s servant and sidekick Cato, whose job is to periodically attack Clouseau to keep him on his toes.

Cato is easily the most unfortunate element in the series, and in light of other stereotyped Asian characters in other Edwards’ films (like Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Sellers in The Party), it cannot be dismissed as a one-off anomaly, but rather represents a clear pattern. The character seems a nod to Kato from The Green Hornet, at this stage just a memory as an old time movie serial and a radio series, and not yet a campy TV show. The spelling has been changed to match that of the Roman politician. Oddly, the racist portrayal would get worse, not better, as the Pink Panther series progressed,

That said, A Shot in the Dark is much funnier than the original film, and much more disciplined than the sequels which began to appear 11 years later.  Because of the balance of slapstick and a good story, many people choose this as their favorite Pink Panther movie. (My preference is for the ’70s revival films, which amp up the slapstick even more).

Inspector Clouseau (1968)

In 1968, Edwards and Sellers were busy making their slapstick comedy epic The Party. The producers of the franchise opted to proceed with making a new sequel anyway, with a script by Frank and Tom Waldman (Frank was a frequent collaborator of Edwards), and direction by Bud Yorkin, who had just done Divorce American Style (1967). Alan Arkin, who specialized in accents in films like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Papi was brought in to replace Sellers. Arkin now publicly regrets the choice and the movie has been sort of dissed by posterity and kept hidden away as an embarrassment. But it used to be shown on TV from time to time when I was a kid, and it is interesting I think as a missing piece of the puzzle of the series’ evolution. This film bridges the gap between A Shot in the Dark and the revival films (which Frank Waldman also co-wrote) by increasing the slapstick ratio, stretching out the physical comedy segments and de-emphasizing the plot.

The Pink Panther Show (1969-79)

Animated credit sequences were all the rage in Hollywood movies of the 1960s. The ones for the Pink Panther films were the creme de la creme, however, with an unforgettable, stylish, sax-driven theme by Henry Mancini, and delightful animation by Friz Freleng and David H. DePatie. They scored such a hit that the segments were expanded into a Saturday morning cartoon show of their own. This was how I first knew anything about the series. The Pink Panther was a suave, unflappable English-accented character in the mold of Niven. An animated version of Clouseau was also a character. Voices were provided by Rich Little, Daws Butler, Pat Harrington, and John Byner as the Ant and the Aardvark!

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

Over a decade after the last Blake-Sellers collaboration, the franchise returned, much funnier and broader than the original two. This is the point at which slapstick, previously a welcome sub-theme in what were essentially boring if stylish heist movies, becomes the central element. This being the same year as Murder by Death, 1975 was a major comeback year for Sellers. This film was transitional. It still has the Sir Charles character (here played by Christopher Plummer) and a jewel theft that occupies the first act. In fact, it is 20 minutes before Sellers enters as Clouseau. But when he does, he returns with a vengeance. Now busted down to a beat cop, the first we see of him he accidentally hits himself in the head with his own truncheon, and it’s all downhill from there. Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus is now a nervous wreck who repeatedly shoots himself in the face with a revolver he mistakes for a cigarette lighter. This is also the film that starts the signature element (which I have never liked) of the other characters calling attention to Sellers’ vaudeville-French pronunciations, a self-indulgent bit of 4th-wall breaking business that borderline ruins it for me. Still, it’s full of laughs.

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)

This is the one that gets closest to resembling a Bond film, and the one that reaches the highest heights of absurdity, as Chief Inspector Dreyfus escapes from the insane asylum where Clouseau’s antics have driven him. Gallingly, Clouseau is now Chief Inspector, with enough unwarranted self-regard and arrogance to make an axe-murderer of a saint. Dreyfus’s obsession with Clouseau has gotten so intense that he assembles a team of super criminals and kidnaps a physicist to build a doomsday device so that he can blackmail the world into giving up Clouseau. His villainous lair is a medieval castle with a moat, an inspired locale for later slapstick. Straight over the top outlandishness, and wonderfully shot, acted and edited. It’s one to study, I think for how to shoot and cut slapstick.

Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)

This is the first and only one in the series I saw in a cinema upon its initial release. A fun element in this one is a reliance on cheesy disguises from a costume shop, allowing Sellers to play a variety of insane characters which is, after all, his forte. (In the previous film, one of his disguises had been Quasimodo. Here he plays a Godfather style gangster, a Swedish sailor, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc, etc). Hollywood veteran Paul Stewart plays an Italian mob boss. Dyan Cannon (then at the height of her career) is a love interest. Robert Loggia plays a hoodlum. There is a climax set in Hong Kong, complete with ching-chong music, the acme (or nadir) of the racist Asian stereotype business in the series, which is hard to watch nowadays. This is the last one Sellers made while he was alive. Recalling that he’d had several heart attacks in the past, and doctors warned him of his delicate condition, it is not hard to see how making movies like this would soon kill him.

The Romance of the Pink Panther (aborted)

This was a screenplay Sellers was working on at the time of his death, which he hoped would be the next chapter in the series.

Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)

This one, released two years after Sellers’ death, was initially planned prior to Revenge. Edwards wanted to make an entire movie out of discarded scraps. Sellers had insisted that they shoot some new footage so the project came to an impasse, until Sellers’ death meant that Edwards could produce it as he intended. Thus Trail ended up being a “tribute” to the deceased Sellers, full of many major stars, some of whom had been in previous installments, some of whom were new. Still and all, a terrible movie.

Curse of the Pink Panther (1983)

When I watched this movie, I was like “What the hell is wrong with David Niven’s voice?!” It turns out it was dubbed posthumously by Rich Little! This was Niven’s last film and he wasn’t doing too hot.

As terrible as the previous film was, this one is also gallingly bad, and it makes you realize how special Peter Sellers was. As bad as those earlier movies could sometimes be, there was something about Sellers’ inner intelligence and antic spirit and all around charisma that made him at least watchable however much you were gritting your teeth through some of the other elements. This one is completely without Sellers. Inspector Clouseau has disappeared. The thought in this one was an attempt to reboot the series with a new American detective. So far, no problem conceptually especially when you hear some of the names that were floated to replace Sellers: Dudley Moore, John Ritter, Rowan Atkinson. Each of those guys can make me laugh even in the worst vehicle. Unfortunately none of those were hired, and the producers settled on a relative unknown, one Ted Wass (Soap). He’s terrible, and the gags are terrible, beneath contempt, hackneyed, retreads, lowest common denominator etc. Lom and Kwouk are also in the film; Capucine, Robert Wagner and Robert Loggia return, and there’s also Harvey Korman, Joanna Lumley, and Roger Moore, et al. But to little purpose. One symptom that even the producers know that this they are just churning out crap to sell tickets is that they have now begun to cynically reference Universal sequels in the titles (Curse of, Son of). It’s kind of like throwing in the towel.

Son of the Pink Panther (1993)

I confess that I’ve only seen clips of this one, but what I’ve seen seems promising. The great Italian comedian Roberto Benigni plays the son of Clouseau and Claudia Cardinale, who had been in the first movie. It seems to have something like a real plot, and to have returned to the fundamentals of storytelling, drawing in tone from as far back as the original two movies. Lom and Kwouk are also in the film. This was Edwards’ last film as director, and Henry Mancini’s last film as composer. The former retired, the latter passed away.

The Pink Panther (2006 reboot)

Irredeemable rubbish, just infuriating, unwatchable dreck. It stars Steve Martin, whom I adore but who stopped creating new things worthy of adoration in the 1980s. After Father of the Bride and Sgt. Bilko this was one heretical imposture too many. Now I think of it, ONE heretical imposture is one heretical imposture too many. Kevin Kline plays Dreyfus, and Beyonce is in it. So, this is a film made entirely by accountants. They put a bunch of commercial things into a blender and opened a sack to let money fall in. I’m sure word of mouth was terrible, but children, not knowing any better, probably liked it. In addition to the painful spectacle of watching Martin (who is a comic genius in his own right) be forced to re-create comedy business invented by Sellers for which he is ill-suited, there is a new element of gratuitous cruelty. In the old days, Clouseau or one of his designated foils would bear the brunt of slapstick violence. In this film, it is considered hilarious when some random elderly passer-by is sent hurling to the sidewalk. For me the only saving grace was Jean Reno, doing heroic work in the thankless job as Clouseau’s partner (in formulaic pap such as this there has to be a cop partner).

Pink Panther II (2009)

Calling the tenth Pink Panther movie Pink Panther II is a level of Orwellian history rewriting too much to bear, but whatever. At least it has John Cleese in it. The film — which cost $70 million to make — just about broke even at the box office, so thankfully, this iteration of the franchise was put to bed. $70 million for this! With that budget I could make 700 vastly better slapstick comedy films! Zut alors! 

For more infallible wisdom on slapstick comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.