Tuesday, January 27

The Directors: Blake Edwards

He was essentially a director of comedies and had been for five decades or so.  Some would put him in the same category with such esteemed old-timers as Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks.  Blake Edwards would often combine slapstick and homages to silent films with sophisticated humor, melancholia and social commentary.  One might say he took his comedies seriously.  He was devoted to his characters and yet faithful to his audiences.  For most of his career, he certainly knew how to put on a great show.

There are those who have been critical of his work. Mainly they have attacked him on being too lightweight, lacking great insight and being too absurdist.  I find this without much merit when one considers his work dealt primarily with comedies... aren't they supposed to be lightweight and often absurd?  However, Edwards also occasionally dabbled in serious drama and his early work in this genre was quite good.  Some have accused him of sexualizing his films too much and making his later films more about his life than anything else.  On this latter point, I do agree and it is that later work that I didn't care much for.

I think those who have been critical of him do so mainly because he was a maverick who was often at great odds with the studios who were behind his films.  He was strong, opinionated and didn't always bring films in on budget nor did he always get on with his actors.  One of my favorite Edwards' films, Darling Lili, was excoriated by his own studio and the critics and, for the most part, the public as well.  Not long after, Edwards left America for Europe.  But what about his beginnings?

He was born in 1922 in Tulsa.  He was around three years old when his mother married a man who moved the family to Los Angeles.  His stepfather became a film production manager.  A step-grandfather was a director of silent films.  So showbiz got into Edwards' blood early on.  After high school he took some acting jobs and worked with some great directors... John Ford, William Wyler and Otto Preminger, among them.  But Edwards said that while he learned a lot from them, I wasn't a very cooperative actor.  I was a spunky, smart-assed kid.  Maybe even then I was indicating that I wanted to give, not take, direction

After a stint in the Coast Guard, Edwards was hired by Four Star Productions (headed by actors Dick Powell, David Niven and Charles Boyer) and began his directing career along with writing and producing.  He is responsible for creating the TV series Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky.  It was an early indication of one of Edwards' favorites genres, the detective story.

I was aware of him because of his work at Four Star despite my being a kid.  That was further helped along when his film directing debut came with two Frankie Laine (one of my mother's favorite singers) films, Bring Your Smile Along and He Laughed Last, from the mid-50s and utterly forgettable.

Edwards would work with a number of stars time and again.  Of course there's Julie Andrews but also Peter Sellers, Jack Lemmon, David Niven and the star of Mister Cory (1957), Tony Curtis.  The story of a conceited social climber who opens up a gambling palace while romancing two sisters tickled my teenage fancy.  Following came two romantic comedies, This Happy Feeling with Debbie Reynolds and The Perfect Furlough with Curtis and then-wife Janet Leigh.

Gold was discovered, again with Curtis and also Cary Grant, in Operation Petticoat (1959).  Universal said the naval comedy about repairing a submarine and repairing to ladies' bedrooms, was its most financially successful film of the decade.  If no one quite knew what Edwards was capable of before, they certainly did now.

In 1961, still a young director trying to make his way, he gave to the world his greatest gift, Breakfast at Tiffany's.  It is the film on which his reputation rests.  I detailed it in an earlier posting on my 38th favorite film of all-time.  In addition to the heart-skipping playfulness of this breezy romantic story and the performances of Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, this film brought us another Edwards collaboration, that with musical genius, Henry Mancini.  They had worked together at Four Star but would pair up in some of their best films.  Edwards' struggles with others surfaced with this film as well.  He took original writer Truman Capote to the mat (if you will) and nearly duked it out with Peppard and had a few choice words with studio heads, but Edwards prevailed.  He usually did.  Starting with Breakfast and continuing forever more, one always knew it was a Blake Edwards film.  He saw to it.  His name was as famous as some of his actors.

He put aside his comedy roots for two very dark dramas, both costarring Lee Remick.  Glenn Ford and Stefanie Powers joined her for Experiment in Terror (1962), a good thriller in which a scary sicko, played exquisitely by Ross Martin, stalked both actresses who played sisters.  The same year Edwards gave us The Days of Wine and Roses, one of the most harrowing looks at alcoholism the screen has ever offered.  Remick and Jack Lemmon were nothing short of brilliant as a sober wife and drunken husband whose sadness escalates when she slips further into the bottle than he has.  It didn't hurt Edwards or his film that a title song was recorded by everyone who sang at the time.

With holy terror, Peter Sellers

After so much darkness (which must have messed with Edwards' longtime depression), he wisely returned to his comedy roots and provided the world with another film (actually seven) for which he is most remembered, The Pink Panther (1963).  We won't go into that here since I just recently did but I can say that the Inspector Clouseau character was so popular, Edwards and collaborators immediately rushed into A Shot in the Dark (1964).  It was nearly as popular as the first.  Despite his love-hate relationship with Peter Sellers, they would work together a third time in The Party (1968).  If one wants to see a film representative of the 60s, here it is.  It concerned a nitwit movie extra (Edwards did love stories about the movies and movie folk) who instead of being fired is invited to a big Hollywood bash with typical Peter Sellers results.

Despite all his good work thus far, Edwards would not have another truly exceptional film until the end of the 70s.  But just a paragraph on Darling Lili (1970), the first of his seven films with wife Julie Andrews and his first musical. I adored this film when it first came out, I still do and I've seen it many times.  What is up there on the screen is a delightful musical-comedy about a WWI music hall queen who is a spy and the flyer she loves and fights with.  Edwards and Paramount battled royal.  He said the studio stuck its big nose in his business and didn't understand his vision and they said his extravagant spending threatened the future of the studio.  Despite engaging performances, Andrews looking more beautiful than she ever had on screen, a wonderful songbook and thrilling aerial sequences, Paramount chose to wash its hands of the behemoth production.  Too bad.  It's a good film.

Edwards went into a deep funk.  He was so beside himself that he took off for Europe.  His next three films, the western Wild Rovers and the dramas The Carey Treatment and The Tamarind Seed (with Andrews) weren't so hot.  The suits probably cheered.  When nothing else was really going for him, Edwards turned to something he could trust... The Pink Panther.  Three more sequels came.  I didn't like any of them. 

He returned to the States and had a major hit with 10 (1979), a sex romp about a Hollywood lyricist in mid-age crisis with a hunger for a foxy, newly-married woman he doesn't really know.  Dudley Moore was adorable and Julie Andrews forgettable because when Bo Derek went running along the beach, nobody could recall much of anything else.  Edwards seemed to be back on good standing.

And then came S.O.B (1981).  It was really Edwards' f--- you movie... his black Valentine to Hollywood.  Satirically-based and lured reel by reel promise of seeing Andrews' bare bosom, it portrayed a whacko Hollywood director who goes to great extremes to keep the studio from meddling with his latest film.  Hmmnm, shades of the ruckus over Darling Lili.  

Filming Victoria's hysterical restaurant scene

Then came his third film for which he will always be remembered... 1982's Victor/Victoria.  I have several friends who adamantly insist this is the best thing he's ever done.   I never tire of watching it.  My partner and I quote lines from it to this day.  Maybe "quote" is not quite right... we have worked them into everyday conversation.  (No... no... not just Kingggggg, I'm hoooorny.)  I thought Andrews, Robert Preston, James Garner and Lesley Ann Warren were all simply superb.  The restaurant scene was beyond hysterical and the gay theme more than I could have hoped for.

Why Edwards chose to do three more Pink Panther films on the heels of V/V is particularly puzzling and distressing for fans like yours truly.  These were not only much worse than last bunch but were, in part, deleted scenes from prior Panther flicks.  Poor Edwards' depression couldn't have lifted.  In 1984 he left the film City Heat when he ran into creative differences with star Clint Eastwood.

The remainder of his films, while not complete failures, were not warm and sunny successes either and believe it or not, included two more Pink Panthers.  If I remember correctly, somewhere in here he had a nervous breakdown.  His work had become largely biographical.  Actually, there had been some of that for some time but in this period it really took off.  Showbiz people with neuroses, sex problems, job problems, boss problems and the like populated his plots as did, it seems, the entire Edwards-Andrews clan.  I didn't particularly care for any of these films.

Toward the end of his career, he turned to Broadway and returned to doing some television.  In 2004 he received an honorary Oscar in recognition of his writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen.  I certainly concur.  Without Blake Edwards my treasured films list would be smaller.

In addition to his longtime depression, he suffered for years from a fatigue disorder.  He died at age 88 of pneumonia in 2010 in Santa Monica.  He and Andrews had been married for 43 years.

Another favorite Austrian actress


  1. Peter Gunn...Mr. Lucky, boy does that take me back. My family was big fans of both. Plus , add all those super comedies in the mix...the dude had it going on! Thanks for a great review of Edwards' work.

  2. Victor Victoria is his masterpiece for me, and of course I do have a fondness for Tiffanys...10 was hilarious, and SOB very odd (the Julie Andrews nude scene...yipes!) but as you say, telling and autobiographical. He was brilliant at comedy!