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The Return of the Pink Panther

by Peter Bogdanovich
December 5, 2010 7:47 AM
12 Comments
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I have to confess I’m a sucker for good visual slapstick, a riotous and difficult art which actually reached its peak on the screen in the era of non-talking pictures, circa 1915-1928: the glory days of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy, to name only the absolute best. Since sound, there have been terrific isolated moments or scenes in films directed by Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges, Frank Tashlin, and Jerry Lewis, among others, not to mention the Warner Bros. cartoons of such slapstick comedy geniuses as Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng. But in more recent years, the most consistently effective practitioner of the form has been Blake Edwards, specifically in his series of Pink Panther movies starring Peter Sellers as the Homerically incompetent and bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

Eventually extending to eight features over thirty years, the first two--The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark--both came out in 1964, the second somewhat better than the first because concentrating more on the Sellers character. Eleven years later came the third and best yet, with the slapstick allowed even fuller expression: 1975’s uproariously irreverent joyride, The Return of the Pink Panther (available on DVD, as are all the Panthers mentioned here). This is the one with Christopher Plummer as a retired jewel thief out to prove he didn’t steal the famous Pink Panther diamond, Catherine Schell as his wife sent to seduce Clouseau and breaking up in hilarity instead, and bringing back the outrageously conceived Cato (Burt Kwouk), Asian valet to Clouseau (“My little yellow friend”), who violently surprise-attacks his boss whenever possible to test Clouseau’s defensive skills.

Blake Edwards, who before the first two Panthers had had a couple of huge box office successes (including the wonderful 1961 Audrey Hepburn romance Breakfast at Tiffany’s) hit a slump with a number of expensive but commercially disappointing films (like his elaborate 1965 slapstick homage The Great Race), fell into Hollywood disrepute and left for Europe for a while. The Return of the Pink Panther marked not only a return to box office grace but thereby also a return to power for Edwards who, with a kind of vengeance, made two further Sellers-Panther comedies in a row that were remarkably undiminished in uproariousness: The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), both huge commercial winners that gave Edwards the clout to make a script he had written nearly a decade before but couldn’t get financed called 10 (1979) which also went through the roof.

A brilliant and sophisticated comic constructionist, Edwards (who had grown up in a show-business family, his grandfather a silent film director) has a mischievous, marvelously malicious sense of humor, and was most fortunate in his choice of Henry Mancini as composer for all the Panthers, as well as the aforementioned Friz Freleng, who did the actual Pink Panther cartoon work in the features, plus the superb Herbert Lom as Clouseau’s long-suffering boss. Of course, the centerpiece for the Panthers is the utterly inspired satirical buffoonery of Peter Sellers doing the greatest British sendup ever seen of their old adversaries across the Channel. His French accent murdering English and his punctiliousness always out of step, Sellers is perfectly hysterical at every turn. His untimely death in 1980 made the three subsequent Panther attempts misfire. But the glory of The Return is as magnificently funny as ever, the three Panthers of the 1970s being among the most enduring delights of that complicated though rarely amusing decade.

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12 Comments

  • Paul Snyder | February 25, 2012 4:37 PMReply

    To me, RETURN of the PINK PANTHER is to A SHOT IN THE DARK what STEAMBOAT BILL is to THE GENERAL. A SHOT has a balance of visual gags and Sellers deadpan. RETURN is an amplification but basically a retread. There are epic setpieces, but the whole conceit is too silly to sustain the subtler, performance-based laughs like THE SHOT IN THE DARK's billiard scene. A lot of those 60's comedies go so far over the top, it overshadows the human component of the humor. They devolve into SKIDOO. There are far fewer laughs once THE PARTY fills with bubbles—compare that to the fight scene at Austin Pendleton's house in WHAT'S UP DOC, which stays funny.

    You wanna talk about overlooked slapstick, somebody ought to write an appreciation of WHAT'S UP DOC and NICKELODEON. "Rarely amusing decade," huh.

  • MEDIA ELITE | July 22, 2011 8:27 AMReply

    Richard Williams - not Friz Freleng - did the animated titles on both "Return" & "Strikes Again."

  • Allen Blank | February 9, 2011 12:00 AMReply

    As a comment on the last comment, there is no continuity in these Clouseau films. There is a little from Return to ...Strikes Again as the later opens with Dreyfus still in a mental institution. But at the end of thast film he is totallt disintergrated, while in Revenge he is still alive and still in the mental institution. So that Schell's character may not be Capucine's character of Mrs. Clouseau from the first one and Mrs. Lynton in Trail and curse of the Pink Panthers. Just like the princess from the first film Claudia Cardinelle plays Elke Sommers character, Maria Gambelli in Son of the Pink Panther.

  • Michael Sheehan | January 25, 2011 10:08 AMReply

    Peter, enjoyed this tribute to one of the best comedies of all time. When I am discussing what makes comedy work best -- for me, at any rate -- I keep coming back to the word "tension;" Clouseau, like many other comic characters (Basil Fawlty and David Brent are two who spring readily to mind) is an exemplar.

    What is easily dismissed as a silly, pratfalling characterization is a rather complex character. The tension I refer to comes from the dissonance between who the world supposes (and Clouseau himself wishes to believe) Clouseau to be ("The World's Greatest Detective"), and who Clouseau really is (a bumbling oaf who often gets lucky).

    Sellers is so very gifted at presenting us with what is, in essence, Clouseau's struggle to reconcile the two, to keep up the facade that he is in fact The World's Greatest Detective, while it's rather plain that he knows he is not. His every movement, gesture and expression reflect his fear of being "discovered" and as an audience, we feel it, too; for who among us does not present a brave face to the world, struggling though we may be with our own perceived shortcomings? It is in the spectacular failures that we laugh at Clouseau, as the tension between who Clouseau really is and whom he tries to be explodes ; it is in his triumphs that we laugh with him. David Brent, Ricky Gervais' character in The Office, offers a remarkably similar dynamic, and like Clouseau can be profitably read on the surface as a boorish windbag, with laughs ensuing; but why he's funny is quite a complicated emotional balancing act. Like Sellers, Gervais excels at sustaining the tension between who his character really is and the version of himself he wishes he were.

    These days so much so-called "comedy" relies on thinly-drawn caricatures who seem only to exist so cheap jokes can be hung on them. The biggest, best, most explosive laughs I've ever had at the movies come from comedies about characters and their inner lives, and no mater how silly the proceedings seem when it all comes together, there's no doubt in my mind that for Sellers and perhaps Edwards, there were deeper waters in Clouseau than many gice him credit for.

  • Noodles Romanoff | January 1, 2011 8:37 AMReply

    The Pink Panther films certainly have their moments, but their one-note silliness makes woefully poor use of the great Peter Sellers. All these films, after all, consist of just one gag, repeated ad nauseam. Sellers did far more interesting work in his earlier UK films, such as Heavens Above, or even The Smallest Show on Earth.

    As for Blake Edwards, I think we see him at the pinnacle of his talents in The Great Race. It's a great shame that he later found it necessary to cater so often to the lowest tastes.

  • Christian | December 19, 2010 1:48 AMReply

    I always assume THE PARTY to be a tribute in part to Jacqus Tati as well as the old school slapstick maestros.

  • Kerr Lockhart | December 11, 2010 5:03 AMReply

    What Mr. B's own brilliant visual comedy in WHAT'S UP DOC? especially the one-two-twist-and-three gag with the plate glass, which is straight from the playbook of Leo McCarey and/or Harold Lloyd in the way that it gets one laugh from avoiding the obvious payoff and then delivering a funnier, unanticipated payoff.

  • Zachary | December 6, 2010 8:35 AMReply

    The 70s also featured some sublime slapstick from Woody Allen. Though more understated in his slapstick, at his best in the 70s, Woody deserves a spot in the slapstick pantheon with Sellers.

  • Peter Bogdanovich | December 6, 2010 6:21 AMReply

    Thanks for the correction, Dixon, on the Asian valet's initial appearance.
    We've fixed it. PB

  • Jesse Levy | December 6, 2010 1:28 AMReply

    Peter, that other Peter (Sellers) is one of my idols. Not a better comedic actor could be found, in my humble opinion (although Paul Mazursky decribes him as a lunatic in his book which I gather he could be). The other thing is, you did a damned fine job at slapstick, of a kind, in What's Up Doc? A very fine and funny film.

  • Dixon Steele | December 5, 2010 9:48 AMReply

    Love the first 3 PANTHER FILMS. The other two have thier moments, but frankly aren't as good, although they did very well at the boxoffice.

    However, I must correct you when you write that RETURN introduced Burt Kwouk's Kato. He was memorably featured in SHOT and in fact that film hilariously ends when Sellers tries to kiss Elke Sommers and Kato emerges from the shadows, plunging them all into a fountain.

  • Mickey | December 5, 2010 6:42 AMReply

    I remember seeing this in the cinema and laughing my head off. My father roars like mad watching Sellers as Clouseau. The one flaw with the film is if you accept the latter Clouseau films, Schell is playing the role that was portrayed by Capucine, that of Clouseau's ex-wife. She obviously recognizes him when he visits the villa. Surely even someone as stupid as Clouseau would know that she would spot him.

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