Archive for Harvey Korman

Bumbling Towards Bedlam

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2020 by dcairns

Let the madness begin.

Blake Edwards said that he used the PANTHER films to get films made, like 10, which were otherwise unbankable, and he reckoned Sellers did the same — so we probably have REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER to thank for the existence of BEING THERE. So cut it some slack, I say.

And I say that because of my distant memory that this film was LOATHED by the more respectable British critics. Edwards’ elegant mise-en-scene was not, apparently, noticed. The fact that it’s uproariously funny was denied. No, they focussed on the fact that it was milking gags established back in 1964 (true), and that it was all completely stupid (true). With a quick critical shuffle you can get from “stupid” to “witless” and from there to “unfunny” and I guess if you’ve watched the film in an echoing empty cinema with a few of your fellow embittered alcoholic hacks, you can sustain that view. Quite tricky to review comedy if you don’t see it with an audience or an open mind.

A strangely sombre opening scene on a bleak farm, with Mancini setting a tone of melancholic menace, It could be a Jean-Pierre Melville movie.Then, at a mob board meeting, the assassination of Clouseau is suggested, and we get some backstory — Clouseau, it seems, “has survived sixteen assassination attempts, including two by his own boss.” This seriously underestimates Chief Inspector Dreyfus’s coyote-like determination. He made more than two attempts in A SHOT IN THE DARK, and there have been two intervening films since then, in which he did not lay down on the job.

Edwards also uses this sequence to set up Dyan Cannon’s character, Simone, secretary and mistress to Duvier (Robert Webber, an Edwards favourite/surrogate), the French connection of whom you’ve all heard so much. Cannon is probably the best actress and most able comedian to have played opposite Sellers in the series, though she’s a giggler and that must have cost them DAYS of work.

It’s a real shame that her extreme cosmetic procedures have made it so hard to cast her, though I guess given the no-win situation faced by actresses over the age of, say, twenty-five, she’d probably still have an uphill battle to keep her career going. And looking like a lion is kind of cool. But remember what Bert Lahr said about there not being many parts for lions.

We note that Simone is fully cognizant of her boss’s murderous conspiracy and only turns against him when he tries to have her offed. This is no morality play.

Titles by Depatie-Freleng: therefore funny, but not as glamorous as Dick Williams’ work.But the funky version of the theme tune shows Mancini is still inventive and committed.Clouseau, who will also soon be committed, is (finally) introduced at the premises of Dr. (later Prof.) Auguste Balls, and it’s full-on insanity. Sellers’ interpretation of the Clouseau voice has been steadily getting more nasal, more strangulated, more Franglais, as the series proceeded, and now he is, to quote Dr. Pratt from THE WRONG BOX, “scarcely human.” The fact that he spends a chunk of the film’s first act wearing a smoke-blackened, sopping wet Toulouse-Lautrec disguise adds to the cartoon quality.But we’ve also got Balls, impersonated with great gusto by Graham Stark in the most full-on comic persona of the series. The answer to the question, which nobody besides Edwards and Sellers probably ever asked, “Where does Clouseau get his disguises?” I think the Balls establishment is first name-checked in STRIKES BACK, as the source of the inflatable hunchback outfit.

Balls has a henchman, appropriately, I guess, named Cunny. The level of drivelling idiocy in this screenplay is truly inspirational. Cunny is played by the late Danny Schiller, who doesn’t even have a photo on the IMDb, but I guess if you’re playing second banana to a second banana, you’re liable to get overlooked. (When the magnificent Harvey Korman takes over the role of Balls in CURSE, Schiller stays on as Cunny, but doesn’t come back in SON, alas, in which Stark is Balls again. The reason for all this swapping about is that Balls was originally to appear in STRIKES, played by Korman, but the scene got cut, to be thriftily recycled in the cobbled-together TRAIL. Presumably Korman was unavailable this time, and the role seemed like a good one for Stark, whose presence was by now required, maybe in hopes of pacifying the recalcitrant Sellers. Whew.

A student of mine tried to get Graham Stark in a short film in the early 2000s, but his wife nixed it. A shame: he was evidently still up for it, but didn’t make a film in the last fifteen years of his life. Still, he had his nude photography to occupy him, I guess.

Douglas Wilmer returns from A SHOT IN THE DARK but has been promoted from butler to Clouseau’s boss. He overacts a bit, though what constitutes overacting in this film is probably open for debate. Very large scale Cato fight, interrupted by a genuine kung fu assassin (well, a burly British stuntman in halfhearted yellowface). Fiona was delighted to see Cato given a lot to do in this one, and we get to appreciate Burt Kwouk’s, if you’ll excuse the expression, comedy chops. So, people crashing through floors, getting covered in paint, and so on.

“Inspector Clouseau’s residence” gets bigger and more opulent throughout the series, and moves into better neighbourhoods also. And apart from all the structural damage, it undergoes a few makeovers too, with L-A Down somehow turning the boudoir into a vast, glitterball shagging palace with colossal Murphy bed, and Cato converting the whole premises later in this one.A bit of plot contrivance — AGAIN, Edwards comes up with a trans/cross-dressing character, this time to steal Clouseau’s clothes so that he can be thought dead. Found in the park in women’s clothing, Clouseau is hauled off to the psych ward just as Dreyfus (Herbert Lom, natch) is getting out. And so, for the whole second act, it’s Ripley Underground: Dreyfus believes his tormentor is dead, but Clouseau keeps popping up to startle him. Dreyfus faints dead away each time, giving him no opportunity to determine if Clouseau is real or hallucinatory.Edwards may be more concerned with dreaming up ways of torturing Dreyfus (who is kind of his stand-in in the series, the man trapped against his will in a demented clouseauverse) than he is with finding meaningful action for Clouseau. Here, letting the poor man think his nemesis is gone forever, only to shatter that illusion, is about the cruellest thing left to inflict on him. (Let’s not dwell overmuch on the fact that the Dreyfus himself literally disintegrated before our eyes in the previous film, is definitely dead, DEAD.)

Clouseau appears to have been declared dead for a matter of mere hours, but Cato has had his flat completely redecorated (including, presumably, fixing the hole in the floor) and turned into a “Chinese nookie factory,” complete with Valerie Leon as a dominatrix. I note that Madame Wu, who runs the joint, is played by Elisabeth Welch (DEAD OF NIGHT), who was African-American-British, not Chinese.Clouseau’s racist lapses (referring, for instance, to Cato’s “fiendish yellow brain”) are a little cringey, even though we know the Inspector is a terrible employer, a law-and-order guy and so probably a man of the right, and he exerts a colonialist superiority over his manservant, all of which is unsympathetic and which the films mock him for. And Kwouk subtly indicates, here and there, that Cato’s somewhat aware when Clouseau is being an idiot. He’s very loyal though — so long as the boss is alive.I don’t know what sick mind conceived the idea that the badly-injured Cunny should serve as a chair for Dyan Cannon’s character. And I don’t know why he’s in his underwear. Sure, maybe all his clothes were destroyed by the beumb. But he works in a clothing emporium. It’s all very strange.Climax in Hong Kong with crap puns about Chinese names (“Lee Kee Boatyards”) and Sellers in a great fat suit with cotton wool in his cheeks, a would-be Brando parody that’s also about Clouseau’s inability to suggest anyone other than Clouseau. I mean, they have the world’s best mimic in a film where he has to adopt various personae (including Dreyfus and a salty Svedish seaman) but since he’s playing an idiot he has to do them all really badly. You start to sense why Sellers might have felt straitjacketed in the role.The hardworking props team (who online bemoan their inability to get Clouseau’s sea-dog shoulder-parrot to stand up straight) altered a Citroen 2CV and created Clouseau’s crimefighting mystery mobile, the Silver Hornet (a nod to the TV show from which Cato was culturally appropriated) which collapses like a clown car when started. And this gag, played for a second time, ends the film, although some dialogue between Sellers and Cannon, who really play off each other well, carries on into the end credits until the music drowns them out and then abruptly stops with around ten seconds still to go. One pictures Mancini, who has been trying his damnedest throughout, hurling down his baton and storming out. If everyone else is being a prima donna, why can’t he?

Edwards would make three — THREE — posthumous PANTHER films, all grappling with the ghost of his star. Chasing phantoms is exhausting, unrewarding work, as Clouseau could have told him, and wraiths make for tricky wrestling. In the end, his scurrilous relationship with his star remained, as he put it, “the enigma of my life.”For his part, Sellers was not finished with the Inspector either, as we’ll see. Yes, it is time to examine the steaming document known as ROMANCE OF THE PINK PANTHER…

REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER stars Sidney Wang; The Phantom; Spectre 3; Alice Henderson; Juror 12; Peter the Dutchman; Dick Laurent; Carl Evello; Spectre #10; Pepi; Fender (ghost); Jean Courtney; Snorri the Miserable; Nayland Smith; Count Von Krolock; Queeg; Margaret / Tera; Female Madam Wang; Mrs. Alexander; Moishe; Harold Hump; Manuel; Duc de Poncenay; Reverend Timothy Farthing – Vicar; Mrs. Rusk; Professor Pacoli; Joseph Schenck; and Charles Bovin.

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

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by dcairns

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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.