The Series Project: The Pink Panther (Part 1)

Professor Witney Seibold slips into his smoking jacket, and looks at the early chapters of the famed slapstick saga. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Note: While you read this installment of The Series Project, I suggest you cruise over to YouTube, and keep this video playing on a constant loop. This will make my article cooler. I will argue that, like the “Mission: Impossible” theme song and the “Peter Gunn” theme song (and to a lesser extent “The Munsters”), Henry Mancini's music for The Pink Panther is one of the best and sultriest and awesomest theme songs of all. I don't mind that it's the same for most of the movies in The Pink Panther series. It's welcome.

The Pink Panther movies occupy a nebulous state in the annals of popular culture. Any and all casual movie viewers who are reasonably well-versed in comedy films of the 1960s has likely seen one or two of them, although a casual poll of peer reveals that no one can remember just which one(s) they saw. Everyone can hum the theme song, but few can list all eleven (yes, eleven) movies in the series in the correct order; I'm working my way through them right now, and I'm already getting them mixed up. They seem to be simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar to most people I talked to (i.e. the one or two friends I bothered to mention them to, and my mom). Aside from the adorable animated mascot of the series (who was eventually given several of his own animated TV series – seek out the one from 1969, avoid the one from 1993), few seemed to remember the name of Inspector Clouseau, Chief Dreyfus, or the gorgeous face of Claudia Cardinale (rowr). I recall the few I had seen, but it wasn't until I sat down to complete this project that I bothered to worm my way through all 11 of the films made to date. Well, put on your smoking jackets, pour yourselves a snifter of brandy, and pull the nearest Eurobabe up close to yourselves, because we're going to be trekking through all the films in the next three weeks of The Series Project.

Blake Edwards' The Pink Panther movies, it could be said, almost serve as a dark mirror of the James Bond movies, which were gaining traction at about the same time. Well, at least they were intended to be. The first film in the series, which hit theaters in 1963, was actually less about the infamously klutzy French cop Inspector Clouseau, and more about Sir Charles “The Phantom” Lytton, a gentleman thief and notorious Lothario. Watching the original film, one can easily see it as a setup for The Phantom, and not an intended vehicle for Clouseau. Indeed, the series didn't really hit its stride until the fourth film, which will be the last I'll be covering this week.

The Pink Panther movies are also notorious for the constant downhill slope of quality that never seemed to abate. The series started strong, and just gradually got weaker, through a few films that were made after Peter Sellers' death, all the way until the '00s when we had to deal with a pair of unnecessary remakes. The further the series got from Peter Sellers, the more the series would suffer.

The premise of the series: We follow, for the most part, one Inspector Clouseau (played by various, but mostly Peter Sellers), the world's most incompetent cop. He is clumsy, clueless, and easily distracted by pretty girls. Yet, his is confident, bold, and often charming enough to actually bed some of the pretty girls he sets his sights on. Clouseau works for a fellow named Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) who hates him so much that even he attempts to murder Clouseau on many occasions. Although many films have “The Pink Panther” in the title, only a few actually feature the Pink Panther, an ultra-valuable gem, about the side of an egg, and so called due to the flaw in the gem which, from certain angles, looks like a pink panther. Clouseau is not the Pink Panther. Just as Frankenstein is not the name of the monster. Each film depicts Clouseau wrecking valuable things with his clumsy behavior, being grossly negligent, and somehow stumbling his way to the solution of the case.

Early on, the series was comedy gold, and I encourage all young people t seek out these sleek and enjoyable and totally goofy flicks from the 1960s. They're loaded with nice suits, cigarette holders, awesomely outrageous '60s dresses and hairdos, and a steady rotating bevvy of incredibly hot European models. These are movies directly from the jet set, all advertising the comedy and fun that could be had in the high-end world of gentlemen thieves engaging in baffling bedroom door farces. In the first few chapters, the slapstick will be textured and pleasantly wacky – like a MAD Magazine from the same era, but with a little more sanity. It won't be until the fourth film where the slapstick would begin take center stage.

Without further ado, the first film in the series…

The Pink Panther (dir. Blake Edwards, 1963)

Note: Each of The Pink Panther movies begins with an elaborate animated title sequence. The first few animated sequences were made by Warner Bros. pioneer Friz Freling.

So as I indicated above, the first Pink Panther film was actually never intended to be a vehicle for Peter Sellers, the series' eventual star. It's not so much a slapstick farce as a clever and charming heist comedy. The main character of The Pink Panther is Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven, charming as always), who travels in high-end circles, beds numerous women, and practically seems like royalty. Lytton is so decadently bored, he has to moonlight as The Phantom, a notorious catburglar who steals important and expensive trinkets, leaving behind an embroidered glove as a calling card. Lytton has set his sights on the titular gem, and the game is on. Lytton must seduce the virginal Indian Princess Dahla (Claudia Cardinale) to steal the gem.

Other complications in the plot: Lytton's irascible criminal nephew George (Robert Wagner) has suddenly appeared, and threatens – through sheer dint of his own charm – to counter-seduce many of Lytton's marks. Lytton is also having a torrid affair with Simone (Capucine), the wife of Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers), the clumsy and embarrassing investigator determined to arrest The Phantom.

While Clouseau does have a few golden moments of slapstick (the violin bit cracks me up), most of the humor on this film is straight-up sex farce. We have people sneaking into bedrooms to have illicit affairs, and then hiding in closets, under beds, in bathrooms, etc., when the hubby comes home. Indeed there is an extended central sequence wherein Simone must hide both Charles and George in her hotel room both from each other and from Clouseau who keeps leaving and entering. It's a graceful and funny dance, this kind of bedroom farce, although it may ring as somewhat old-fashioned to current audiences. There's also a central sequence, not really funny but enjoyable nonetheless, where Charles tries to seduce Princess Dahla on a bearskin rug by feeding her champagne. Before watching this movie, I heard a lot about Claudia Cardinale's legendary beauty. Oh yes, is she ever gorgeous. She has the same qualities as a young Brigitte Bardot. Of note: Charles does not succeed. Although he does manage to get a few drunken kisses out of the deal, which is no loss.

Eventually George learns that his uncle is indeed The Phantom, and demands a cut of the action. Charles and George hatch an elaborate plot to steal the Pink Panther during a costume ball, leading to another farcical scene wherein two men wear identical gorilla outfits and actually abscond with the gem. Clouseau is only vaguely on the case. Then there's a big noisy and chaotic car chase through the streets. I kind of miss when comedies were this boldly chaotic. The 1960s were a great time for genuine wildness. Not that protracted “edgy” wildness that producers like to talk about these days, but an honest-to-goodness go-for-broke insanity that was on full display, in flagrante delicto. If you've never seen It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, this would be the best place to start.

The film ends with Clouseau learning his wife was actually in cahoots with The Phantom, and then being framed for the robbery of the Pink Panther. Clouseau is taken to prison, comforted by the fact that all the girls tend to find gentlemen thieves to be quite sexy.

The Pink Panther is a casual, loosely plotted, and leisurely paced film that runs a long 115 minutes. You'll feel its length. Indeed, for extended stretches, there are no laughs at all. This is not necessarily a bad film; the tone is always light and the characters are all charming, and seeing the highest life that 1963 had to offer was fun, but for being hailed as a comedy classic going in, I was surprised at how few outright yuks there were. It's more a pleasant film than a hysterical one. Edwards opted for charming and chastely sexy over outright knee-slappers. I don't mind this, and a kind of overarching whimsy can actually be just as fun,if not more fun, than outright jokes and iffy bits of goofy slapstick. I like the film a lot.

Speaking of slapstick, I'll have a brief rant about it when I discuss the second film in the Pink Panther series…

A Shot in the Dark (dir. Blake Edwards, 1964)

Some cursory internet research has led me to the unwitting origin of the Pink Panther series through A Shot in the Dark. This film, technically the second in the series, was originally conceived as a straight-up French stage farce, very much like the last film, and was eventually translated into English as A Shot in the Dark. Both plays surrounded a murder mystery, but also involved multiple affairs and the usual door-slamming shtick that is a feature of the genre. Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty (who would go on to write The Exorcist), were adapting A Shot in the Dark to the big screen when The Pink Panther was becoming a hit. When they saw the potential of the Clouseau character, they rejiggered the screenplay at the last minute, and transformed it into a Clouseau vehicle. A sequel was born, and a franchise began to take hold. Well, maybe.

The story is pretty irrelevant this time around, as the bulk of the pretty long film (well, 102 minutes can be long for a comedy) surrounds wacky situations and comic set pieces. This is also the first film to have Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), and it saw the birth of the slow-burn dynamic that would be seen in several of the following films. Lom is amazing as Dreyfus, although you can't help but feel sorry for the guy. Dreyfus is Clouseau's boss, you see, and his frustration with Clouseau's clueless incompetence leads him to a burning, psychopathic, murderous hatred. Had these films been about Dreyfus exclusively, they would have been a dark, daring psychological study. But even though Dreyfus is abused and frustrated constantly (and it'll become really twisted in the fourth film), and begins doing things like accidentally severing his own thumb in distracted anger, it's still pretty hilarious. I guess we're supposed to see Dreyfus as a hoary Malvolio, deserving of his self-inflicted punishment merely because he's so straight-laced. I think a lot of the comedy of the Dreyfus character also comes from Lom's excellent performance; he is one of the best straight men in all comedy films. Well, he'll become more cartoony in later films, but he's way funny here, and in the fourth film.

This film also introduces the character of Kato (Burt Kwouk), Clouseau's live-in butler. Not only is Kato the butler, but also Clouseau's impromptu sparring partner; Kato attacks Clouseau randomly throughout the day, ensuring that Clouseau is sharp at all times. The sudden fights are often unexpected and usually pretty funny. If you like those oddball chicken fights from “Family Guy,” I would encourage you to watch A Shot in the Dark, and see where that sort of thing came from.

The story: Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is called in to investigate a murder at an upscale mansion run by George Sanders. In an opening sequence, we see in through the windows of the mansion, and learns that half of the people staying at this mansion are having illicit affairs with the other half. Someone is killed, and the suspect is the pretty – and clearly innocent – Maria Gambrelli, the house maid (the gorgeous Elke Sommer, the requisite Eurobabe). Clouseau falls for Elke Sommer at first sight, and spends the film defending her from his superiors, even though the circumstances are dashedly incriminating; she is found locked in a room with the dead body, for instance. As the film progresses, several other people happen to be murdered within Maria's immediate vicinity. Clouseau, so smitten, refuses to suspect her. Dreyfus becomes so mad at Clouseau over the course of the film that he eventually tries to murder him with a sniper rifle. Eventually the real killer is revealed (of course it's not Elke Sommer), but I couldn't tell you who it was. I think the ultimate conclusion of the mystery is irrelevant.

Wait a sec. Didn't Clouseau go to prison at the end of the last movie? Either he got out, and there is no reference to how he managed this, or this film doesn't give a dip about continuity. Seeing as they are freewheeling comedy films, I think it's more the latter. Who cares how Clouseau got out of prison. He's back being funny, isn't he?

There's a funny sequence inside a nudist colony (which were becoming more visible in the mid-1960s), and we get to see Sommer and Sellers with no clothes on (but tastefully covered).

A brief aside on slapstick. The 1960s were, in my estimation, a kind of slapstick renaissance. The first wave of film slapstick came during the 1930s, with the films of The Marx Bros. and the theatrical cartoon shorts of Warner Bros. Groucho and Bugs Bunny were the word of the day. There was slapstick in the 1930s and 1940s (I would never impugn the likes of Don Knotts and Danny Kaye), but it wasn't until the mid 1960s and early 1970s that slapstick humor was to come back in earnest. I think Woody Allen, a Groucho Marx fan, kind of pioneered the renaissance, and physical humor was back in the mainstream. However, the slapstick of the 1960s (as seen in the early Pink Panther movies) was of a slightly different flavor; I get the sense that Woody Allen and Blake Edwards weren't just paying homage to the slapstick of yore, but also kind of gently sending it up. Watch a film like Sleeper sometime, and you'll find that much of the laughter comes not from the direct cheap physical humor, but from the fact that the filmmakers are using cheap physical humor. Essentially, we're looking at ironic slapstick. I think much of films like A Shot in the Dark are comprised of ironic slapstick. The Pink Panther series will eventually become unironic, but that won't be until the fourth film.

Before we get there, though, let's take a look at the series' attempt at franchising itself in earnest. Remember, A Shot in the Dark wasn't intended to be a Pink Panther film at first, and was almost a sequel merely by default. I guess the first proper movie in the series would be…

Inspector Clouseau (dir. Bud Yorkin, 1968)

But then, Inspector Clouseau isn't really the first either, because we've swapped crews. This is the only film to be absent of one of Henry Mancini's iconic scores, it was not written or directed by Blake Edwards, and Peter Sellers does not appear. Indeed, the titular "Pink Panther" doesn't appear in this film at all. In a way, this was a studio's attempt to expand Clouseau into his own proper franchise, but was a failed experiment. It feels less like a stalled first try, and more like an odd non-canonical entry in an otherwise canonical series. In that regard, I would compare it to the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again, the one that was made with Sean Connery in 1983, but that no one considers a proper part of the James Bond series.

Inspector Clouseau is a fine film, I guess, but it isn't as funny or as charming as its predecessors. Indeed, the film plays kind of flat. I don't mean to rag on Alan Arkin in any capacity – I think he's an excellent actor – but I think the central problem with Inspector Clouseau stems from the casting of Arkin. A lot of the comedic charm that came from Peter Sellers was a result of this somewhat diminutive Harlequin cluelessly hurting his bosses and just as cluelessly bedding attractive European models. Sellers is not a classically handsome man, so his charm had to be what carried the part. Arkin is plenty charming, I suppose, but he is a taller, stronger, more masculine a screen presence than Sellers (this was the late 1960s, and Arkin was a lithe and active young buck). His sense of humor is not one of feckless and oblivious tomfoolery. He seems much more active a comedian, more willing to use wit than pratfalls. As such, the funniest parts of Inspector Clouseau come from when Clouseau himself is the one being put upon by a broad weirdo, and not the other way around, which is how we knew the character previously.

So the film entire plays odd. There are plenty of good comic moments, mind you, but Arkin seems entirely miscast. This is also the most story-heavy of any of the Pink Panther movies, focusing on the bad guys almost as much as Clouseau himself.

The story: Clouseau has been called to England to investigate a string of recent robberies. Clouseau stumbles and has a lot of foolish moments (there's a moment when he shoves a cigar in a bottle of expensive wine, and another where he trashes a room looking for a bomb hidden in a plum pudding), but comes across as a reasonably competent cop. I think much of the comedy is supposed to stem from Clouseau's goofy French accent, which wasn't so pronounced in the previous films, but will become a centerpiece by the fourth film. We are introduced in rapid succession to several potential bad guys – all pretty indistinguishable – who, as it turns out, are all in cahoots with one another. They plan to rob several banks across Switzerland, all at the same time, and all wearing lifelike Clouseau masks that they have secretly molded from Clouseau's own face. They will smuggle the money out of Switzerland hidden in Lindt chocolate wrappers. I like that scheme.

The funniest scene. Clouseau and the bad guy get into a heated argument when they play a game of jacks.

This film, more than any others in the series, feels like it sorely wants to be a James Bond film. They hired a more handsome actor to play the lead character, there's a lot more globe-trekking, the bad guys' plan seems to be a genuine threat and important to the plot (this is no mere whodunnit), and there's even a Q scene wherein Clouseau is given a series of gadgets that will come into play later in the film. He even has a cigarette case that fires laser beams. There is a babe in the film too, although Delia Boccardo is less well-known than Elke Sommer or Claudia Cardinale. There's a charming montage in the flick wherein Clouseau and Boccardo attend several bars, unwittingly avoiding assassins. Like in the first film, these scenes are more charming than funny. It's also implied that Clouseau is a stellar lover, as an older Scottish woman climbs all over him at one point, and he almost has a threesome with two nameless buxom gals (they turn out to be bad guys who would steal his face). So we have a sexy man known for his good police work and stellar skills in the sack. Sounds like James Bond to me.

We're already three films in, and I feel like the Pink Panther movies are still not yet fully formed. When you refer to a Pink Panther movie, you're actually talking about the fourth in the series, which, in my mind, is kind of the first. Let's look at…

The Return of the Pink Panther (dir. Blake Edwards, 1975)

So now we have the tone correct. It's been 11 years since the original crew were involved in the series, and when they came back, film comedy trends had shifted a bit. The '60s jet set stuff is now long gone, and a much more broad kid-friendly slapstick has taken its place. Peter Sellers is back as Clouseau, but now has a thicker and sillier French accent, and spends a lot of time wrecking stuff with his chaotic clumsiness. I'm not disparaging the film, though, as the slapstick reaches a kind of sublime dance-like grace that is extraordinary to behold. There are several slapstick set pieces that are just as funny as anything Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton did. I don't want to give much away, but the scene where Clouseau, disguised as a janitor, breaks into a suspect's apartment, and ends up vacuuming up a parrot… it always has me in stitches.

Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) is also back, but his casual murderous twitch has grown into a full-blown psychopathic hatred. He does so many horrible things to himself and others in this movie, you'd almost think it was a horror film in description. He stabs himself with a letter opener, strangles a shrink with his bare hands, and, thanks to a cigarette lighter that looks exactly like his gun, he shoots a friend and blows off his own nose. The final scene of the film is Dreyfus locked in an insane asylum, writing “Kill Clouseau” on the wall with his feet. Usually this kind of violence and cruelty rubs me the wrong way, and I have trouble finding it funny, but something about Herbert Lom's performance has me accepting the violence as extreme slapstick rather than horrific mutilation and murder. Maybe it's the more kid-friendly tone.

The animated titles are back (now done by Richard Williams), Kato (Burt Kwouk) is back and still attacks Clouseau randomly. The Pink Panther is back, and the story revolves around its theft. Even Sir Charles “The Phantom” Lytton is back, and is now played by Christopher Plummer.

So, yes, the Pink Panther has been stolen, and Clouseau is called to the scene of the crime (despite having been fired) to find it, as he was the one who found it last time. Well, he was framed with it, and, given that The Phantom is free now, Clouseau actually didn't solve the case last time, but whatever. I'll accept this. The Phantom, it is established, did not actually steal the Pink Panther this time around, and is a little distressed to be on the short list of suspects. We know who actually stole it early on: it turns out it was Claudine Lytton (Catherine Schell) wanting to live up to The Phantom's legacy.

A fun thing about these films: The bad guys are usually immediately savvy to Clouseau's bumbling. They know what he's up to because he's so incompetent, and seem kind of bemused that such a screw-up would have the audacity to pursue them. They usually just sit back in the corner of the room, an amused smirk on their face, and let Clouseau screw things up in his own time, as he storms through a den or something accidentally setting things on fire. Clouseau never seems to crack the case, except by pure luck or even by misunderstanding. There is never a chase or an action climax in these films – at least there won't be until about 2006. Clouseau just bumbles blindly through the bedlam he creates, and eventually everything shakes loose.

Even though the gem, Kato, Clouseau, Dreyfus, Lytton, and the girl-craziness were all established in previous films, the tone of the series all hinges at this one. The Return of the Pink Panther is just the right balance of kid-friendly goofiness, edgy violence, madness, and sublime slapstick. I hesitate the call it the best of the series – the first two are pretty excellent comedies – but it's certainly the exemplar. It's like the Alien series. Even though the monster was established in Alien, most people tend to think of Aliens when they think of that series.

The next few films will be very similar to Return, but we'll have to wait until next week to cover them. Until then, stay cool, my kitties, and hang on. Next week, things are going to get a little hairy.  

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.