Tuesday, December 2

Good 60s Films: The Pink Panther

1964 Comedy
From United Artists and
The Mirisch Company
Directed by Blake Edwards

David Niven
Peter Sellers
Robert Wagner
Claudia Cardinale
Brenda de Banzie
Fran Jeffries
James Lanphier

I call it notable because of my high regard for its comedy, its stylishness, gorgeous production values, top-notch direction and its glamorous cast.  I don't suffer comedies easily but I found this one a delicious soufflĂ©, utterly irresistible.  I would have to guess that a lot of other folks did too because it gave birth to a gaggle of sequels, numerous animated TV series, a video game and in 2006 a remake.  Only A Shot in the Dark, released only a few months after The Pink Panther, was any good as a sequel.  All the subsequent sequels were absolutely dreadful.

As if you don't know, it concerns a bumbling, police inspector on the trail of a jewel thief and his female accomplice who happens to be the nitwit inspector's wife.  As the story opens up, all are focused on a visiting princess and the fabulous diamond she owns, one with a flaw in the center of it which resembles a pink panther.

The opening scene reveals the diamond and the princess as a little girl whose father gives it to her as a gift.  From there we go to some of the wittiest, most clever opening titles ever.  The extensive animation department for this film really pulled out all the stops with the pink panther toying with all the names in the credits.

Then we're treated to tasty episodes introducing the five main characters.  First to Rome where we see Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven) stealing a jewel.  Next it's to Hollywood where his nephew, George (Robert Wagner), is having a phony college graduation photo taken while trying to avoid people to whom he owes money. 

Then it's to Paris where Simone Clouseau (Capucine), the inspector's wife, is fencing some hot goods as the police happen upon her.  It is a fabulous introduction to the French actress as she dashes into a hotel elevator, the door closing just as the police rush her.  As the elevator ascends, she takes off her wig, puts on a turban, turns her purse and coat inside out (it goes from light to dark), changes shoes, and gets out on a floor and turns around as though she is entering the elevator just as the police arrive.  Clever, clever, clever.

Next, also in Paris, we meet Clouseau and see the accidents, pratfalls and other wacky behavior that we will see throughout the course of the film.  It isn't until this moment that we, the audience, see that his wife is up to some shenanigans that he knows nothing about.

Then it's to Cortina D'Ampezzo (where most of the film was shot) and our introduction to the adult Princess Dahla (Claudia Cardinale).

Some of the film's most famous scenes take place in the hotel bedroom of the Clouseaus that mainly center around the inspector's desire to make love to his wife and her resistance to it.  We learn via a connecting door to Sir Charles' suite that they are not only accomplices in crime but lovers as well.  Two lengthy bedroom scenes involve high comedy with Sellers and Capucine at their best, ably assisted at times by both Niven and Wagner.

In one of these scenes, George has disguised his voice on the phone, pretending to be another policeman, and sends Clouseau on a wild-goose chase so George can enter the suite and have his way with Simone.  While resisting him, Clouseau returns as Simone hides George in the bathroom.  To further put off her husband, Simone jumps in the tub in a bubble bath, only her head showing, with George underwater.  Due to the chemicals that were used for the bubbles, Capucine suffered burns and Wagner was blinded, scared and unable to see for three weeks.  Moviemaking is hell.

George chases Simone throughout the film and some of the best lines belong to them.  While dancing at an inn, we get this exchange:

George:  You've been avoiding me.

Simone: That about describes it.

George: You know what I've been thinking.

Simone: Yes, that's why I've been avoiding you.

The entire cast is ensconced at the inn for a break in the proceedings as Fran Jeffries sings Meglio Stasera (It Had Better Be Tonight), music by Henry Mancini and Italian lyrics by Franco Migliacci.  It was great fun.  When I watch the film on DVD, I play this part over and over.  The song is sung later in the background with English lyrics by Johnny Mercer.  Mancini handled the film's score, which gave birth to the always instantly-recognized Pink Panther Theme.

While he did some fine dramas, Blake Edwards is known chiefly as a director of comedies.  He possessed a precise sense of comic timing, which often included homages to silent cinema and the early comics such as Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, The Keystone Cops and the Marx Brothers.  Edwards enjoyed slapstick but he also employed sophisticated wit when he felt it was needed.  Peter Sellers is world-famous for playing Cousteau with all that physical business but at least half of it should be credited to Edwards who worked quite closely with the actor to bring that character to life.

Laughing with Capucine, Cardinale & Niven


Sellers was not an easy man to get along with.  There was a genius in his acting but he was also very troubled, paranoid and duplicitous.  He and Capucine were not the best of friends, despite making a second film together, What's New Pussycat? the next year.  Interesting Sellers was not the original actor signed to play Clouseau... Peter Ustinov was.  What a different take that would have been.

Niven received top billing because the intention was that his character would be the main one.  He had been hoping to parlay the part into a type of Thin Man role and perhaps do a series of films as William Powell had done in the 1930s and 40s.  But Sir Charles was so overshadowed by Inspector Clouseau that it is the latter character one thinks of when concerning this film.  Nonetheless, Niven brought his usual stylish grace to Sir Charles.

Capucine turned in her best performance here in her short American career... and a comic one at that... very rare for her.  She and Niven formed a lifelong friendship and I suspect she fared well under his tutelage.  It was generally a happy filming for most.  She was not the first choice... that honor went to Ava Gardner.  But she and the producers could not agree on salary.  Janet Leigh was also offered the part but declined because she had just been married.

Since I just did a piece on Cardinale, I will only say again that she, too, completely enchanted me.   The perfect princess.  It is worth noting again that she didn't speak a word of English when making this film and her lines were dubbed.  That amazed me.

For you fans of fashion, this was the first film for famed designer Givenchy.  It may have come about through the influence of Capucine who had been one of his top models for years.

Here, take a look at Fran Jeffries singing Meglio Stasera.  Niven, Wagner, Capucine and Cardinale are sitting at the main table and Sellers in a white sweater is standing.


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