After the Phantom

Well, in a fit of madness I viewed and wrote about all three of Blake Edwards’ post-Sellers PINK PANTHER films — TRAIL, CURSE and SON — so it seems appropriate to write about the early, funny ones, too. Only took me five years to get around to it.

THE PINK PANTHER is the first one which disappointed me as a kid — because I saw them out of sequence on TV, it was a shock to find Sellers as Clouseau as only joint lead, arguably below David Niven in narrative importance and just above Claudia Cardinale, Robert Wagner and Capucine. Plus, no Herbert Lom and no Burt Kwouk.

Of course, watching through more mature, informed eyes — which might seem like the last things you want to cram into your eyesockets before attempting to view a Blake Edwards slapstick farce — these “flaws” are nothing of the kind, and the one and only truly original PINK PANTHER emerges as the most carefully put-together film of the series by a country mile.Sellers stepped into the role of Clouseau three days before the shoot began to replace a departing Peter Ustinov (his wife, Welles’s Desdemona Suzanne Clouthier talked him out of it). Whether Ustinov was foolish enough to regret missing out on the most successful comedy series of the 20th Century is questionable — surely he knew that Sellers brought an entirely different genius to the film, and a Ustinov Clouseau might have been terrific but could not have been guaranteed to hit the mark commercially in the same way. Besides, success drove Sellers round the bend, in part because he felt it was given to him for the wrong films (newsflash: it usually is). Edwards fully agreed that Sellers’ work with Kubrick was more deserving, but there wasn’t much he could do about that.

We begin with ONCE UPON A TIME, an invitation for us to check any expectations of social realism at the door, I guess. Maybe we can find some more fairytale resonances later. Well, here’s a king and a palace and a princess, and the titular MacGuffin. The IMDb doesn’t know who any of these surprisingly credible “Lugashians” are, except for James Lanphier, an Edwards regular who is the only one who looks blatantly wrong ethnically and so naturally is the only one who will appear in the rest of the film.

The theme tune: “Can you IMAGINE being in the audience in 1963 and hearing this for the first time?” asked Fiona. Animated credits by DePatie-Freleng. For the only time, the cartoon panther has a feline body, not just a lanky man’s body with a feline head and tail. Edwards demanded that the Panther be patterned on him. And by the time the credits were made up (and did fifties-sixties audiences ever tire of these Saul Bass type pastel boxes? I never do), it was evidently clear that the film belonged to Clouseau, because here he is as the only other character to get a cartoon. And an antipathy between Edwards/Panther and Sellers/Clouseau is already established.

“When the picture was finished, I got the first sense of these unpredictable
crazy kind of actions when Sellers – after we had this wonderful time and
the picture was run – went crazy and sent word to the Mirisches that it was
a disaster, which was very typical of him on the films be would do.”

I realise I’m guilty of ignoring Edwards’ co-writer, Maurice Richlin (PILLOW TALK). Well, everyone else has: he didn’t receive a co-creator credit on any of the sequels until the very last one, SON OF (a film one might well sue to AVOID being associated with). I assume this robbed him of a fortune in residuals… Oh, he’s named on INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU, it seems. Must have had some special dispensation that only allowed him to be credited for shit.

The first frame after the titles is also the last frame of the film, further indicating how well worked-out it all is. A series of MEANWHILES take us around Europe and America, establishing a globetrotting scheme which isn’t really kept up in the movie itself, which plays mainly in Cortina d’Ampezzo, with a climax in Rome and a coda back in Paris.This might be Robert Wagner’s best thing. He’s quite deft. Of course, it’s a strain to even notice him with Sellers and the others doing so well, but my point is, he’s not boring in this. Capucine is very funny. Niven is fine, and I like that he has his good-luck charm, Michael Trubshaw, along for the ride. In later films, Sellers is the one who has an entourage of chums in minor roles. Claudia Cardinale is, as Fiona remarked, adorable. She seems to be dubbed — except for her lovely drunk scene, where suddenly her Italian accent emerges and her already husky, smoky voice suddenly gets even throatier. Well, who’s to say that Lugashians don’t have Italian accents?The fact is, probably Clouseau does make more sense as a supporting figure who adds slapstick to a sophisticated, or mock-sophisticated farce-caper, than as a hero. He’s incapable of real change, it seems, so you can’t give him a character arc. But on the other hand, it’s all but impossible to surround Sellers with subplots as entertaining and brilliant as him. All you can hope for, which Edwards achieves very well here, is that the surroundings will be charming so you don’t mind the genius being diluted. Although the supporting cast of the Clouseauverse are not in place yet, the man himself is fully formed. The appearance came from a matchbook image of channel-swimmer Matthew Webb. Sellers liked the moustache: “Very masculine.” He and/or Edwards conceived the character as an idiot who, unlike Laurel & Hardy, KNOWS he’s an idiot. But he’s determined not to let anyone else find out. He’s also too dense to realise the jig is up. So he’s under tremendous strain, maintaining this pretense of being a brilliant detective. You can feel for him. The Dunning-Kruger effect has collapsed under him.

And we understand this instinctively in his FIRST SCENE. Everything else Sellers will do across five films will be basically mining this one idea. A man whose idiocy is perfectly, agonizingly balanced between awareness of his own inadequacy and lack of awareness that it’s obvious to pretty well everyone around him.

Very good musical number, by Mancini of course. Italian lyrics by Franco Migliacci & English lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Mancini is other key figure of the series, and perhaps the only one who wasn’t horribly tortured by it. I certainly hope he wasn’t, and I can’t see why he should have been… he would be protected from Sellers and evidently didn’t mind Edwards.(Typing those names over and over again, it seems just perfect that both men contain multitudes: you couldn’t have a Blake Edward and a Peter Seller.)

Very good costume party gags. Edwards is OBSESSED with parties, of course. Two separate gorillas — I beg your pardon, two separate thieves DRESSED as gorillas — attempt to rob the same safe.  I remember watching this as a kid with my sister and she was overwhelmed with sympathy when he inserts his sexy strangler gloves into two perfect baby bear bowls of prison porridge, just as he’s attempting to gloat at the felons he’s captured. “It was his big moment!” she cry-laughed. Sellers can do that, even when his character is kind of a monster. Fred Kite can break your heart. And he does it even when, as here and in I’M ALRIGHT, JACK (the only Sellers film Edwards had seen), the film doesn’t need or even want him to.

So this is a really well-tooled entertainment. Sellers is again pathetic in the witness box — the only moment in the series when everyone laughs at him, which is what he’s spent his life and enormous energy trying to avoid. When he says that his wife has bought a mink coat with money saved from the housekeeping, it’s like a thing out of your nightmares — something you’ve always taken on faith is revealed to be ridiculous to everyone else.Fortunately the film gives Clouseau a happy ending, since being a Raffles-type jewel thief apparently makes you irresistible to women. And then the sequel is along, in less than a year, and it turns out Clouseau was never convicted of diamond-robbery at all, and is still an inspector… The clouseauverse is terribly forgiving of its policemen, which will be one bit of good news for Chief Inspector Dreyfus…

THE PINK PANTHER stars Sir James Bond; Evelyn Tremble; Number Two; Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein; Jill McBain; Maggie Hobson; Sgt. Arthur Wilson; Lord Dowdy; Poldi – Blackie’s Flunky; Leonora Clyde; and Dr. Rosen.

19 Responses to “After the Phantom”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “The Pink Panther” is in some ways an update of “Trouble in Paradise” with Claudia instead of Kay Francis and Sellers’ slapstick instead of Herbert Marshall’s sly seductiveness.

    Sellers was a genius but also bat-shit-crazy. He was only supposed to appear in “What’s New Pussycat” in a few scenes but was so inventive it became a star performance. The producer Charles K. Feldman (aka. Capucine’s boyfriend) wanted him to star in “Casino Royale” but Sellers was so erratic that he ended up hiring five directors and an all-star cast to try to snag him for a scene or two. He’s marvelous with Ursula Andress nonetheless. Remember when he proposed marriage to Liza Minnelli? He changed his mind at the last minute but had it gone through he would have been her only straight husband.

  2. A friend just suggested that there should be a book about Casino Royale — the stories are legendary, all seemingly true, and unique in film history.

  3. Jack Lechner Says:

    Someone should write something about specialty performers who take over a movie for the length of a number — the way Fran Jeffries becomes the star of “The Pink Panther” for three minutes, or Jimmy Thompson (who isn’t even credited!) becomes the star of “Singin’ in the Rain” during the “Beautiful Girl” number. There are plenty of performers who have striking numbers in films, but aren’t allowed the space at center stage to take over. Charles Bennett does a great job selling “Oh, Mister Kane” in “Citizen Kane,” but the focus is still on Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, and Everett Sloane. But it’s striking to see the stars of “The Pink Panther” — Niven, Wagner, Sellers, et al — suddenly becoming very well-paid extras during Jeffries’ number.

  4. I remember my dad getting all nostalgic about the way movies could stop everything for a song, once upon a time. And yes, even throw the ball to a guest star just for the length of the number.

  5. dbenson Says:

    The panther himself mutated over the years. When they launched him in stand-alone shorts, the animation was more thrifty but they tried to keep the coolness, giving him an almost come-hither walk timed to the theme music. Then he became more of a cheerful pantomime clown — Goofy with better posture and a bit of Bugs Bunny prankster. They even made him a talking character a few times, once with an imitation Eric Blore voice.

    The earliest toons used only Mancini’s laid-back theme. Later they built up a library of stock music (chase, suspense, anger, etc.) by other composers, but the original theme always figured and was always credited. One short had the panther conducting an orchestra playing the theme. It ended with applause from a solitary but enthusiastic spectator: Mancini, filmed in live action at an otherwise deserted Hollywood Bowl (a helpful sign read “RESERVED FOR HENRY MANCINI”).

    A spinoff, The Inspector, was a sort-of caricature that looked nothing like the Clouseaus from the various movie titles. He had no name beyond Inspector, his Commissioner was a Sidney Greenstreet clone, and sidekick Sgt. Deux-Deux (always pronounced “doodoo”) was a short French cop with a Mexican accent. His dominant music was the “Shot in the Dark” theme. He was a straightforward idiot who thought he was suave.

    A DePatie-Freleng oddity was Roland and Rattfink, a series of shorts about a blond, white-clad hero and a bad-tempered villain in black. I always suspected it was created as a spinoff of Edwards’s “The Great Race” with cartoony versions of The Great Leslie and Professor Fate, but perhaps altered because of rights (“Great Race” was a Warner film, while DePatie-Freleng had a deal with Mirisch and United Artists). Visually they’re melodrama hero and villain, but the shorts were mostly about Rattfink channeling Wile E. Coyote. Their debut cast Roland as a cheerful hippie type who refuses to take a hint and keeps offering blooms to flower-hating Rattfink.

    The quality drifted down to television levels — in fact, I think most were made expressly for the Saturday morning shows. They had as much to do with the big-budget movies as postwar Popeye cartoons had to do with Segar’s rowdy comic strip.

  6. As a kid, I remember liking:
    The exciting title song
    The opening credits splitscreen
    The Inspector’s voice, which the IMDb tells me was Pat Harrington Jr. It stood out because it wasn’t like a cartoon voice.
    The end credits with the Panther and the Inspector and a live-action DeLorean.

  7. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Here’s a link to the “Quarterly Review of Film and Television” piece on “Casino Royale”

    The “Beautiful Girl” number in “Singin in the Rain” was supposed to give Jimmy Thompson a career but alas it never happened.

  8. ehrenstein47 Says:

    As you can see HERE the real star of the “Beautiful Girl” number is costume designer Walter Plunkett. The greatest of them all (“Gone with the Wind” anyone?) Plunkett didn’t publicize himself like the phenomenally pushy Edith Head. I suspect it’s because he was gay. Don Bachardy did a marvelous pe and ink portrait of him years ago that as far as I know is the only record of what he looked like. A nice, natty gentleman.

  9. dbenson Says:

    Here tis the opening of the Saturday morning show:

    A nostalgic commercial:

    And the car itself, which evidently continues to work the car show circuit (I remember seeing the almost-Batmobile in the 60s. The studio had the original builder create a clone expressly for public display):

    It was also a Dinky toy.

    Intrigued that the interior is a sleazeball-with-money van, all shaggy and seatless, stocked with booze, and segregating the driver completely. Also that it has rabbit ears and a UHF hoop antenna on the back. Did somebody at DePatie-Freleng actually specify a vehicle like this, or did they go to a designer and buy this off the shelf, ordering the pink color as an option?

  10. They now have a pic of Plunkett at the IMDb. He’s great, and his career ending alongside Ford’s seems poetic (he was there for Stagecoach).

    The designer I’m now interested in for Hollywood Babylonian reasons is Vera West, whose tragic death by suicide – her note mentions blackmail – is an unsolved mystery.

  11. John Seal Says:

    Have you seen Peter Medak’s THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS? I highly recommend it (though there’s nothing about Clouseau in it).

  12. I’m really keen to see it, but at present I think it’s only available in the US and at fairly absurd prices.

  13. jon johnstone Says:

    Available from amazon and itunes soon…

  14. Good! I like Medak generally and this seems like a great story.

  15. ukjarry Says:

    Tony Palmer’s 1969 “Will the Real Peter Sellers Stand Up” is of real interest because it has a piercing commentary by Spike Milligan woven through its footage of Sellers filming The Magic Christian. God forbid any man should have to hear a friend say such things about him while still alive.

  16. In 1969, Sellers was probably at his most monstrous. Richard Lester was going to have him play the underwater vicar in The Bed Sitting Room, but after hearing how PS had a young assistant fired for showing up in a purple sweater, declared, “It’s not worth it, EVEN FOR A DAY.”

    He did meet Sellers in an airport towards the end of the man’s life, and there was a nice rapprochement, if “rapprochement” is the word I want. Jack Shepherd played the vicar in the end.

  17. Well, in the Ghost of Peter Sellers he fired the producers after a week! Which I didn’t know was even possible!!

  18. If the producers are working for a studio, I guess it is, if the star has the kind of clout to do it.

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