Posthumous Panthers #2: Curse of The Curse of the Pink Panther

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“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the role of Inspector Clouseau will be played by an empty coat. Called Ted Wass.”

My purpose is not to claim that there is a curse on THE CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, as there is supposedly on SUPERMAN and THE EXORCIST and PETER’S FRIENDS – though quite a few of the principals involved have suffered mishaps and tragedies which come to mind dispiritingly as one watches. But no, my intention is to demonstrate that the film is itself the embodiment of a curse, visited upon its director and transmitted by him to all who have the misfortune to watch.

(The Curse Of PETER’S FRIENDS — the most dreaded of all showbiz curses — states that each principal actor in Kenneth Branagh’s 1992 country-house dramedy must direct a superhero movie derived from Norse mythology. It has only just begin to come true. The waiting is the worst part.)

The later PINK PANTHER films – and by “later” I have to mean pretty well anything after A SHOT IN THE DARK – are more compelling as psychopathology than as cinema, dark portraits of a talented filmmaker somehow compelled to revisit what was far from his favourite creation, working with a difficult, tormenting collaborator (Peter Sellers) again and again, and then repeating the experience after his star’s death as if attempting some inconceivable combination of exorcism and resurrection.

After THE TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER, in which Joanna Lumley, sporting a frankly unacceptable French accent, roved around the world dropping in on guest stars from previous episodes in order to “motivate” a series of flashbacks and outtakes from those same episodes, it seems unlikelythat the world was crying out for another instalment in the Clouseau necrology, but Blake Edwards goes to the well once more and duly fills his bucket with sand. Sand played by Ted Wass.

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It’s hard to assess Wass as a Sellers replacement, other than to say that he’s obviously no replacement. He has, it seems, a certain gift for physical comedy, and is a good bit more athletic than Sellers ever was, so that he requires less stunt doubling. He seems affable enough. But the gags are almost as weak as the plot (Wass, as Detective Clifton Sleigh, has to hunt the missing Clouseau, a blind alley of a comedy narrative idea unless the film’s going to end up at Sellers’ grave) so we get little sense as to his abilities. The script makes him a kind of bumbling Clark Kent nice guy, complete with glasses, which is a good deal less interesting as a concept than Clouseau’s mixture of arrogance, bigotry, intransigence, self-delusion and gnawing self-awareness – Sellers insisted that Clouseau deep down knows he’s an idiot, but must keep up this frantic pretence of competence, which is what makes him a grand figure. Sleigh is a nice guy and a failure and he knows all of this. If we feel a little sympathy for him and want him to make good, that’s fine, but there’s no exciting tension to our relationship.

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But back to the psych ward stuff. The cheaply executed, poorly designed and interminable opening titles provide a clue to the Edwards mindset, as the Panther gets chained at the ankle to a cartoon Ted Wass which gets spat out of a computer. The two hobble off together, chained for life like the Hilton sisters. Since Edwards had the original Panther character based on himself, the sense that he’s been forcibly partnered up with a synthetic ghost is inescapable, as is the synthetic ghost itself. (In the similarly nasty-looking titles in TRAIL, the screenplay credit is literally pissed onto a page by the cartoon Clouseau. A more pointed auto-critique could not be imagined.)

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Every sequence in the movie seems to revolve around mannequins, puppets, clones and travesties. Wass visits the Clouseau Museum, which features dummies of Clouseau in his various disguises. In the most outright uncanny moment in a film full of unwelcome chills, a dummy of “oriental assistant” Cato gets replaced by the real Burt Kwouk – but only its reflection in a mirror. The black-eyed masklike mannequin remains in position.

A visit to the boutique of Hubert Balls, manufacturer of disguises, now transformed into the personage of Harvey Korman, provides more masks and body parts, and Wass picks up both an inflatable dog on castors and an “instant companion”, basically a blow-up woman who can be produced upon the instant to serve as cover in tricky situations. Cue deflation gags in which the rubber “Shirley” sags into a likeness of the ageing Dietrich as the air escapes from her, and the film.

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To Valencia, where the streets are full of carnival floats, bobbing about rather horrifyingly. And so it goes…

David Niven, of course, is less than he was and somehow more, a dying man with his croak of a voice replaced by impersonator Rich Little (he sounds a little American). After an interminable hour, a romantic interest is procured in the perky form of Lesley Ash (who has suffered horrible mishaps since which can’t even be detailed in this piece less despair take over). Clouseau was always funniest with women, I think, since his attempts to put on a front were apt to collapse with the most embarrassing consequences. Wass barely gets a chance to fluff it, since Ash falls into his arms so readily.

Robert Wagner’s curse is that he’s Robert Wagner, I guess.  Not an actor I like to think of on a yacht, so here he is, on a yacht. Capucine, who showed such physical comedy flair in the original, and in WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT, is required to sit in a chair and mouth some exposition. A few years later she would be dead too.

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Also included: Herbert Lom repeatedly fracturing his skeleton. Graham Stark demoted to waiter. Michael Elphick (another tragic one: remember how good he was in THE ELEPHANT MAN?) as a Spanish police chief.

Astonishingly, the quest for Clouseau does actually pay off, in what I have to admit is a kind of demented coup de cinema. Spoiler alert, here, because I was actually kind of impressed by the temerity of Edwards solution. Clouseau has undergone plastic surgery so as to spend his latter days in peace with Joanna Lumley, as who among us would not like to do? This plastic surgery has transformed him into Roger Moore. The actual Roger Moore, doing a very terrible Peter Sellers impersonation. Ted Wass meets Roger Moore and you have a scene of two bumblers and one Lumley, which surprisingly doesn’t destroy the entire set. And then it trundles on for ten minutes with some guff about the diamond. You remember, the diamond.

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So, Peter Sellers becomes Roger Moore, Graham Stark has become Harvey Korman, David Niven became Christopher Plummer then back to David Niven but with Rich Little’s voice. Claudia Cardinale seems to have become Joanna Lumley, but will be Claudia again in SON OF THE PINK PANTHER.

And poor Ted Wass has become a footnote¹.

¹ This one, in fact.

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23 Responses to “Posthumous Panthers #2: Curse of The Curse of the Pink Panther”

  1. Brilliant.
    On a related note, I’ve just read Emma Thompson’s script for “Swamp Thing”. Very wordy.

  2. Extraordinary! When was this written?

    I had a brief look at her first Nanny McPhee script and it was nicely done, very inventive. I haven’t watched the movies so I have no idea if this was carried over into the approach, though I’ve heard they’re fun.

  3. Edwards pulled his slapstick act back together, post-Sellers, with “S.O.B.” — a truly scathing Hollywood satire especially if you know the backstory (hint: It’s ALL True!) But he didn’t get his slap-actor mojo back until he teamed up with Dudley Moore on “10.” Cuddly Dudley was a last minute replacement for a project that originally starred George Segal (who left during pre-production for reasons that were never made clear) Both a wild sophisticate and a pratfall expert (Edward has him fall down a Beverly Hills hill several times here — and it’s funny each time) Moore would appear to be Peter Sellers without the bi-polarity (though ex-wife Tuesday Weld called him “An asshole. A real asshole”) Together with the non-Edwards “Arthur” Moore was King of Comedy for several years. A second Edward-Moore effort “Mickie and Maude” was amusing but not exceptional, and thus a series was NOT born.

    As “S.O.B” and to an even greater degree “The Great Race” shows, Edwards never required a particular comedy star to work his ideas out. Sellers was thus the Exception The Proves The Rule. The “Panther” series was good box office for awhile, but by the time you get to Ted Never Wass it’s become an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

  4. As Claudia Cardinale says of The Phantom in the original Pink Panther, “He’s trying to prove something he can never prove.” In this case, that he’s the presiding genius and he didn’t need Sellers. The lightning-in-a-bottle that was Clouseau came from teamwork, and Sellers was half of that team.

    I’m excited to revisit SOB because as a kid I thought it was the most ghastly and depressing thing I’d ever seen, outside of Britannia Hospital. I now love BH and am sure to adore SOB. I remember the sad, tawdry anti-climax of Julie Andrews’ topless shot, and think now that that’s a worthwhile effect, and certainly a bold thing for a husband-and-wife team to plot together.

    10 didn’t make me laugh either, but I only saw it pan-and-scanned.

    The obsessive cycle of films Andrews made about philandering men (10, The Man who Loved Women, Switch, Skin Deep, others I’m sure) suggest something autobiographical, but I’m not sure womanizing is the true subject…

  5. I suspect impotence may be the true subject as “That’s Life” nearly makes clear.

    The true cinematic poet of impotence was Marco Ferreri (“The Last Woman,” “Bye Bye Monkey,” “Le Grand Bouffe”) with Fellini a close second with “City of Women”

  6. Whereas today Hollywood has fallen into the hands of the premature ejaculators.

  7. henryholland666 Says:

    I don’t know if it would qualify as “a curse” but in terms of people who made a particular movie dying pretty awful deaths, it’s hard to beat the ghastly movie “The Conqueror”. From Wikipedia:

    “Powell also directed The Conqueror (1956), starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan. The exterior scenes were filmed in St. George, Utah, downwind of U.S. above-ground atomic tests. The cast and crew totaled 220, and of that number, 91 had developed some form of cancer by 1981, and 46 had died of cancer by then, including Powell and Wayne. This cancer rate is about three times higher than one would expect in a group of this size, and many have argued that radioactive fallout was the cause”

    They trucked a bunch of the radioactive sand back to Hollywood for interiors, that caused a lot of the problems.

    I never liked the Pink Panther movies at all, for me it was the movie equivalent of sitting next to someone who is constantly poking me in the ribs and saying “See! See what they did there, isn’t that so damn clever?”. Um, no.

  8. And it’s been argued that a man with the air force contacts producer Howard Hughes had, should have been aware of the risks of fallout.

    “I swear, if you’re not out of here in five seconds…”
    “Five seconds in nothing, I can easily be out in three.”

    Clouseau’s early stuff still cracks me up. Not great films, but a great idiot.

  9. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    henryholland666: Sir, I take umbrage. That was my elbow poking your ribs. Speaking of rib-poking, I’m glad WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT was mentioned. The best Woody Allen film ever. He loathed the bit with O’Toole & Burton. My elbow got a real work-out from that one scene alone. Woody hated the movie because Sellers & O’Toole appropriated the best jokes in the script.

  10. One other memory of CURSE: Sleigh is introduced on undercover duty in silly drag; what follows is arbitrary forced chaos that he neither instigates nor does anything with.

    A comic hero should start the trouble, or find a comic solution, or even make it worse. Introducing his new comic lead as almost a bystander to the comedy is a shocking lapse for Edwards.

    In most of the Panther films Edwards sets up fairly straight mysteries or menaces before unleashing the disruptive Clouseau. Post Sellers, he seems to be toying with the idea of a farcical world (almost a throwback to the very first film) with a quiet reactive character in the middle. It might have worked, had Sleigh been endowed with a mindset or attitude that made his reactions comically out of sync with circumstances.

  11. It might have worked, but it never comes close.

    Sleigh seems intended as an earnest Harold Lloyd trier, but Lloyd was never a complete idiot, as the plot of Curse demands that Sleigh/Wass be. He simply doesn’t live up to narrative expectations.

    Incidentally, I’ve stumbled upon a story which might explain all the Clouseau effigies here and in Son… more on this later.

  12. Abrupt thought: Bob Newhart as Sleigh. A sensible, slightly hesitant man trying to deal with madness around him (and able to get laughs when other people are saying the crazy things). One can imagine him politely trying to resist the disguise merchant’s latest atrocity (“What if I just start with the one nose, and see how it works out?”), or listening to Dreyfus slip into madness (“So, then, you . . . really want me to find him?”).

  13. Newhart has funny bones and Wass doesn’t, so it could only have helped. But a passive, not so stupid hero really wouldn’t work, I fear. Apparenty Dudley Moore turned it down. An English Clouseau surrogate seems possible. Or… if Steve Martin had done it THEN, instead of the reboot decades later?

    In general, I think the films worked best when there was a clown in the midst of a serious world. The Fu Manchu/Bond villainy of Strikes Again wasn’t too successful. Revenge isn’t a very good one, but I like the way it kind of looks like a Melville thriller. The “Follow that cab” jokes aren’t as good as the jokes where Clouseau’s denseness motivates the laughter. All the additional silly stuff was just desperation because they were running out of ways to keep Clouseau interesting, since as a character he was incapable of growth.

  14. Newhart looks classically sad. Any Clouseau replacement should look classically sad. Dudley Moore is brilliant but he could never project, as you put it, Seller’s “mixture of arrogance, bigotry, intransigence, self-delusion and gnawing self-awareness”. Nor I think could Steve Martin. Woody Allen could, but not because he wore glasses. And Larry-Sanders-era Jeffrey Tambor.

  15. You know Edwards wanted Depardieu first for Son of the Pink Panther? Crazy but not totally — Depardieu played a long line of melancholic schmoes for Bertrand Blier, sometimes in raincoats.

    Charles Grodin? But I always say that.

    I do think it would have been a good idea to wait a few years before relaunching, out of common decency. And they should have used one Sellers outtake to open the film, cut in a big explosion, and then moved on to the new actor.

    There, that’s sorted.

  16. I hate to suggest this anachronism, but if you want the right mixture…what about Steve Carell? I’m not a huge fan of “The Office” but it occurs to me that his incompetent boss character does nicely balance a bluff, abrasive front of self-confidence with a nagging suspicion that maybe he’s in over his head and people really see what an idiot he is.

    But now my mind is going in the opposite direction and imagining a Clouseau story told in radioplay format on Jack Benny’s radio show.

  17. Yes, it could be they’ve got the wrong Steve.

    Another Clouseau who might have been is Kevin Kline. Edwards wanted him, the studio didn’t, and then he ended up being Dreyfus to Steve Martin’s Clouseau.

    What made Martin an especially depressing choice (still haven’t seen those films) is that he’d already played Bilko in a film that shouldn’t have existed.

  18. I am a big fan of The Office, and Steve Carrell is outstandingly sad in it, but I guess I thought he’s too, well, funny-looking to have Seller’s default sadness. Carrell’s sadness suggests a kids heart being broken, rather than an adult robbed of dignity.

    Kline, similarly, seems just a bit too keen to be get a laugh. Depardieu would have been hilarious. De Niro too, possibly, now I think of it, since Rupert Pupkin might be considered the Godfather of Michael Scott, David Brent and the whole cotemporary school of embarrassment, which reminds me:

    Ty Burrell! I haven’t seen “Muppets Most Wanted” but he appears to be doing Clouseau in that, and it strikes me as an excellent choice. He has a face like Karloff, nothing funny about it at a all. I love Ty Burrell.

    Or a younger Cleese.

  19. Good Lord. Having just credited De Niro with inventing mockumentary awkwardness, I’m now watching Albert Brooks’ “Real Life” from 1979. It’s a mock fly on the wall documentary. It stars Charles Grodin. (He was bald very early.)

  20. Yes, but Scorsese also explored cringe-making embarrassment with DeNiro in Taxi Driver’s “romantic” scenes.

    Real Life is great. The film, not the phenomenon, which, as we all know, is very uneven.

    I don’t know Ty Burrell but it turns out I’ve seen several things he’s in. So he’s obviously not too showy.

    Basil Fawlty is like Clouseau because he’s trying to live up to an alien image of himself. Cleese diagnosed Fawlty as someone whose parents were still alive, inside him, criticising his performance in life. Tragic. At least, like Clouseau, he has a small foreign man to beat up when it gets too much.

  21. Yes! Like a lot of people I forget how funny Taxi Driver is initially. I mean, it has Albert Brooks in it.

  22. It’s where DeNiro’s legendary bad dating technique was first established.

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