Posthumous Pink Panthers #1: The Talking Cure?

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It’s not exactly Richard Williams, is it?

The beginning of a mini-series looking at the PINK PANTHER movies made by Blake Edwards after the death of star Peter Sellers, one of the more remarkable and misbegotten cycles in cinema history. It’s almost as if Jean-Pierre Leaud had fallen under a bus and Truffaut had resolved to carry on the Antoine Doinel series with a glove puppet; or as if Akira Kurosawa had decided to make a third YOJIMBO film after his catastrophic bust-up with Mifune, and deployed a photographic enlargement on a stick as leading man. Edwards’ various solutions are inventive, in a tortuous sort of way, but what’s really interesting is the psychopathological underpinnings of these ventures — if one discounts the perennial lure of shekels, how, exactly, can we account for such ventures?

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First shot of Clouseau: a horribly unconvincing stand-in. The macabre tone is set.

The necrology begins with TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER, which crept into empty theatres two years after Sellers’ death. I saw it with my big brother Sean at the Odeon, Clerk Street, I believe. We were almost the only ones there. The original series of films was the most profitable comedy series ever, but the public can, upon occasion, smell desperation the way dogs are said to smell fear. How do you make a PINK PANTHER film when Sellers is dead? Dismissing the idea of hiring Alan Arkin, who had played the role of Clouseau in 1968, Edwards announced that he had a stash of unseen Sellers outtakes which he was going launch upon us, cunningly edited into a wraparound story and with some highlights from earlier entries.

The vehicle that’s supposed to tie all this together is Joanna Lumley as a news reporter investigating Clouseau’s disappearance. But her “narrative” can only get underway once the movie has somehow packaged together all its leftover footage, which it does by way of a few phone calls from Herbert Lom to STRIKES AGAIN cast survivor Colin Blakely (who would shortly follow Sellers into eternity). This also drags in footage of the great Leonard Rossiter, who was wasted in STRIKES AGAIN and was about to perish prematurely in real life. It’s a death-haunted movie.

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It’s generally obvious why most of the deleted scenes were deleted in the first place — the main thought they inspire is “Oh, so REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES BACK could have been even longer?” They’re not exactly terrible, but not exactly very funny. And of course they don’t connect to any real story, being bits painlessly excised from two or three different stories, so they create the vivid impression of a movie in a holding pattern. When the trunk items are exhausted, Edwards moves on to a series of interviews, where Lumley gathers the thoughts of various Clouseau associates. This is a transparent device to justify copious flashbacks: Clouseau fights Cato; Clouseau exchanges exposition with David Niven and Capucine. And of course, the barely-alive David Niven we meet is dubbed by Rich Little, since the actor had lost his voice to the cancer that would shortly carry him off. The dubbing is quite well done — better than the strange, helium voice that’s been dubbed over a Sellers stand-in in long shots. And the sight of Niven grinning and tugging his ear, as he always seemed to do, is poignant.

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But what’s actually interesting is what’s said in the interviews. “When you’ve been doing something for twenty years, sometimes you miss it, even if it’s painful,” muses Burt Kwouk’s Cato, a ventrilogist act for Edwards himself. And Herbert Lom as the long-suffering Chief Inspector Dreyfus is REALLY interesting, collapsing in hysterics while trying to give a tribute to his old colleague. It’s an Edwards self-portrait! Watch Edwards talking about Sellers, and you may see his eyelid tremble as he says stuff like, “Peter was a very complicated man. He believed he was in communication with his dead mother. Very complicated.” ANd you can see he’s trying to telepathically communicate to US: “By ‘complicated’ I mean ‘batshit crazy’, okay? But I’m not allowed to say so because of Hollywood’s Standard Operational Bullshit, which governs my every move, and because Sellers is dead and I’m alive, damnit.”

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Having churned through supporting players Lom, Kwouk, Robert Loggia and Graham Stark, Edwards then invents one more, Richard Mulligan as Clouseau’s father. In this way he can argue that the film contains original material with (a) Clouseau, I guess. And some of the material is… passable. At least it’s not totally filler, like the Loggia scenes — Edwards has a purpose in mind here, other than padding his running time — he actually wants to get some laughs. And, by more or less plagiarising the business with the old servant in “10”, he comes close. Though Mulligan is no Sellers, he does some decent physical stuff, using his lanky, limber frame to suggest extreme old age.

This interview frames flashbacks to original material showing Clouseau’s youth, so for once Edwards can cut loose and do some slapstick sequences without his dead actor being a problem. But replacing Sellers with a variety of kids and juveniles and stuntmen in no way makes up for the film’s missing centre, and the gags here are really pitiful. It’s looking like Sellers’ contribution to the series was bigger than just performing — when he was on form, he made this stuff funny.

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And then, eventually, it ends, with a shit joke about bird shit. A Sellers stand-in, indicating that Clouseau has survived the actor who played him, transforms into an animated Panther in Clouseau drag. Actor/Clouseau and creator/Panther have become one. And Edwards runs a montage of highlights from the series through the end titles, getting more laughs than any of the new footage seen thus far. I miss the way REVENGE ended with shots of Sellers and company corpsing at their own material, though. In the absence of any actual jokes, I think it would have been a bold move for Edwards to have played footage of his actors simply WAITING for their cues, looking puzzled, impatient, dyspeptic or sleepy. Or he could have filmed a script conference and included that, showing himself and fellow culprits Geoffrey Edwards (Executive Son) and Frank & Tom Waldman (Associate Brothers) frowning at sheets of paper.

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17 Responses to “Posthumous Pink Panthers #1: The Talking Cure?”

  1. It is a strange thing isn’t it? I mean why does it exist? Has any bio (Sellers or Edwards) ever really answered that question?
    It isn’t as though Blake Edwards was just some cynical hack, at his best he was a pretty damn great director. It isn’t even as though he was at a creative dead-end or desperate. He’d just finished SOB and Victor Victoria, both successes and some his best ever work (though I also love his early 60s work) and then this…

    If he wanted to really bury Sellers and continue the series without him why not just start afresh with a new man? Why begin OHMSS with a clip show about Bond going missing?
    Maybe, in a bygone age before “Deleted scenes” Edwards really did think the footage he shot was great and deserved to be seen. I remember back in the 80s, Lynch talked about releasing the deleted flaming nipple scene from Blue Velvet as a separate short because he liked it so much

    Have you encountered any of Mr Peel’s Sardine Liqueur? He wrote a rather good article about TOTPP back in the day
    http://mrpeelsardineliqueur.blogspot.co.uk/2007/08/moving-finger-writes.html

  2. I love Mr Peel’s writing so I’ll be sure to take a look.

    One suggestive possibility has to do with Sellers’ own abortive Panther film. Since he was planning to make a Panther movie without Edwards, Edwards’ decision to make one without Sellers may have an element of revenge to it. Since Trail & Curse were shot back to back, there also appears to have been some kind of horse trading going on. It was obviously considered worth trying to milk the cash cow a little more, but the ideas as to the best way to proceed seem mixed. Did somebody insist that Edwards try to get one last Sellers movie out before allowing him to recast?

    I do have an Edwards book at home which I’ll check after work.

  3. And then came Ted Wass. Not Sellers. Not anyone else either. A Major Nothing.

    Edwards is so erratic. Sometimes his comic sense is so well-tuned it can produce a “Victor/Victoria” — where drawing-room comedy meshes with wild low farce perfectly. Other times you’ll have stuff like this.

    Exasperating.

  4. The three late Panthers are so misbegotten — but each in their own unique way. He learned from his mistakes and then found new ones nobody else would have thought of.

    I re-looked at Sellers’ first scenes in Return, to confirm that this stuff ever WAS funny. Yep, hilarious (though the movie has plenty of filler). How you could go from there to here boggles the mind.

  5. A series with Dreyfus as the lead: I would have signed for that!

  6. Then after Ted Wass (The Panther that wasn’t) came Roberto Begnini — a classic bad “good idea.” I find Begnini impossible save when directed by Fellini (“The Voice of The Moon” is a fine candidate for “The Forgotten”) or Marco Ferreri.

  7. Dreyfus, as a character Edwards clearly identifies with, is a promising lead, but he needs someone to drive him crazy. He can’t just have a breakdown over paperwork.

    Benigni sort of works in Jarmusch, because he’s never a solo star: either part of an ensemble or an episode in a compendium. Ninety minutes of him bellowing is enough to inflict Dreyfus-like twitching on an entire audience.

  8. Other Edwards oddities include “A Fine Mess” which was intended as a feature-length remake of “The Music Box” — the famous Laurel and Hardy short where they haplessly try to get a piano up a stairway. For some reason he cast Howie Mandel and Ted Danson as the leads. Neither are remotely like L&H nor do they possess any comic chemistry of a comparable nature.

    Then there’s “Skin Deep” a comedy about sex (rather than a sex comedy) in which he attempts to do for John Ritter what he did for Dudley Moore in “10.” Ritter was game but Edwards failed tp gove him much to do.

    Last (and least) there’s “Switch” — basically rip-off of Axelrod’s “Goodbye Charlie” with a Ellen Barkin instead of Lauren Bacall or (in the movie version) Debbie Reynolds. He tries to liven it up with lesbianism but from the look of things Edwards never met a lesbian.

  9. Never met a — choke — but what of all those juicy rumours about the Edwards household? Don’t disappoint me!

    I heard more graphic lesbianism was cut from Switch — which put me off seeing it. “10”, The Man Who Loved Women, Switch and Skin Deep all seem to view sex as a compulsion, a problem to be tamed, which might tie in with the anxieties of a lavender marriage, if we were to take those rumours seriously (purely as a critical exercise).

    Seriously, I’m happy to accept that William Blake Crump was straight as a die/arrow, but something about him having a double life seems to enhance his films. As we’ll see, the late PP films are bursting with weird doubles, doppelgangers and replicants…

  10. I interviewed him at the time “Victor/Victoria” came out, and while I never in ANY way brought it up, HE did. He was at pains to insist to me that he wasn’t gay, though he “knew all about them” (cha-cha-cha) “The Lady Doth Protest Too Much” springs to mind. Also the gay man with a young lover he can’t handle that Robert Webber played in “10.”

    A self-portrait perchance?

    If so Blake wouldn’t be Julie’s first gay husband.

    But I don’t gossip so you didn’t hear this from me.

  11. Alternative gossip: I was told that Edwards and Andrews were homophobic towards Rock Hudson on Darling Lili. But my source for this was F Gwynplaine MacIntyre, and so instead of a grain of salt we must ship in whole trucks full of saline goodness.

  12. I also heard they didn’t get along with Rock on “Darling Lili.” But I gather this was because of a stylistic clash. Rock wasn’t the kind of leading man Blake wanted for Julie. Not his fault he was a pro from head to toe. But they ended up partially blaming the film’s failure on him. Quite unfair.

  13. I was amazed when I saw The Americanization of Emily, because Julie actually had sexual chemistry with James Garner. She never seemed interested in her other leads, even Paul Newman, whom she apparently liked and who was a very sexy man.

    So what kind of leading man did Edwards want for her? Dudley Moore?

  14. The Pink Panther films were a series in the same way Bugs Bunny cartoons were a series. First an ensemble farce where Clouseau ends as a (framed) celebrity convict. Then an inspector once more, his conviction and marriage forgotten. Then back on the beat; Dreyfus his boss again after being dragged off as a homicidal madman in the previous film (a later bout of madness ends with Dreyfus disintegrated, and he STILL returns to his old rank). And the Phantom returns, a much different actor as a much different character with Clouseau’s (ex?) wife nowhere in evidence (until Niven returns in “Trail”).

    This made it all the stranger when Edwards tried to impose retroactive Continuity after Sellers’ death. “Trail” implies the unfailingly law-abiding Clouseau went rogue; “Curse” confirms it and presumably writes the character out of the franchise. The Phantom’s son from the very first film (still played by Wagner) returns, and numerous loose ends — including the nominal heroine left in peril — are set up for a sequel that never happened.

    Finally, we meet Son of Clouseau, and everything is erased again except some characters from “Shot in the Dark” (all of whom forget Dreyfus’s lunatic finale in that one). Now and again people besides Dreyfus questioned whether the inspector was really a genius or just a fortunate idiot, but dumb luck tended to protect the genius image. Here, lots of people know Son of Clouseau is a doofus but support the fiction for their own ends. The hero never suspects otherwise; nor does he get to prove he IS a hero (but weirdly, he’s allowed to be a sexual success). It’s sort of mean and cynical without being funny, and too much of the movie is a straight B caper already.

    Always felt they should have packed it in with Sellers and Dyan Cannon walking into the night after “the Silver Hornet” collapses. Clouseau was finally paired with a heroine who cheerfully accepted what he was, not what he thought he was.

  15. Beautifully said!

    Sellers observed “Clouseau’s an idiot, and he knows he’s an idiot. He’s desperate to stop anyone else from finding out.” This makes him a less happy fellow than Stand & Ollie, Edwards idols, since as Babe Hardy put it, “They’d dumb, but they don’t know they’re dumb.”

    Clouseau is always in a state of tension, and it’s because he has to try and maintain this colossal front, this facade of competence, which he’s totally unequipped to project. Finding a woman who accepts him as a chump would mean he could finally relax, perhaps for the first time in his life!

  16. I figured Clouseau as having a pretty high opinion of himself. For all his frequent embarrassments, he still seems to think he’s successfully bluffed them out. Just as he thinks his beloved disguises fool people.

  17. I think that’s the balance — he knows he’s an idiot, but because he IS an idiot, he colossally overrates his ability to conceal it. So he’s constantly in a state of “Whew, that was a close one, nearly made myself look foolish there.”

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