Posted by David Kalat on March 22, 2014
Recently I’ve been reading Sam Wasson’s wonderfully spirited biography of Blake Edwards. Wasson argues eloquently that Edwards is long overdue for a significant critical rehabilitation as one of comedy cinema’s great directors, to be spoken of in the same breath as Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or Woody Allen. But here’s the thing: even in this gloriously pro-Edwards manifesto, even here we find the Pink Panther franchise getting slagged off. Sure, Wasson celebrates the original Pink Panther (on TCM tonight!) and its brilliant follow-up A Shot in the Dark, but of the others he writes: “the Panther franchise did little to enhance anything but Edwards’ bank account.”
Well, golly. If you aren’t gonna find love for the Pink Panther franchise in the book that calls Blake Edwards an unsung genius, then where are you gonna find it?
Here, of course!
And by that, of course, I mean I’m loving on the franchise films—the sequels. Wasser is right to speak of them as being a separate body of work from the original Pink Panther—and even A Shot in the Dark isn’t properly a sequel to The Pink Panther. How’s that, you ask?
In The Pink Panther, Peter Sellers’ character Inspector Clouseau is a buffoonish supporting character in a heist comedy centered around David Niven and Robert Wagner. Niven plays gentleman burglar Sir Charles Lytton (AKA “The Phantom”), and Wagner is his aspiring protégé George Lytton. Aiding them in their plot is Clouseau’s own wife (played by Capucine)—who helps frame Clouseau for their crimes. The film ends with Clouseau arrested and humiliated, and also becoming an unexpected sex symbol—none of which fits in any way with the character as developed subsequently.
If Edwards had made a sequel to The Pink Panther, it would have been another heist film continuing the adventures of Sir Charles and George Lytton as they defraud their way across Europe. But A Shot in the Dark abandons them to focus instead on supporting character Clouseau—imagine if Steven Soderbergh had decided that the follow-up to Ocean’s Eleven would omit George Clooney and Brad Pitt to focus instead on the adventures of Andy Garcia.
Originally, the role of Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther had been cast with a wholly different Peter—Peter Ustinov. But his last minute change of heart opened the role up for relative newcomer Sellers, who seized it with gusto and turned what was a supporting role in an ensemble comedy into the defining role of his—and Edwards’—career.
Meanwhile, almost simultaneously with work on Panther, Edwards was also developing a screen adaptation of the French stage farce L’Idiote. Edwards realized that although Sellars was a legendary horror to direct, he was an extraordinary talent whose comic creation wasn’t fully exploited in The Pink Panther. So, he reconstructed Shot in the Dark as a Clouseau vehicle—effectively shooting the sequel to The Pink Panther at the same time as its parent.
The films reached theaters within a couple of months of each other—Pink Panther was still playing in some houses while its follow-up opened down the street. Audiences could watch both in the same day. It was a piece of marketing synergy that helped drive both films to box office riches.
So in light of this, it isn’t entirely accurate to call Shot in the Dark a sequel—it has as much claim on being an original work as the film it followed. And in many ways, it is the proper start to the Panther franchise—it’s in Shot in the Dark that we meet such essential supporting characters as Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom, he of the twitching eye) and Cato the butler (Burt Kwouk). Most importantly, Shot is where Inspector Clouseau changes from being a supporting character himself, to being the star of the show.
And this shift obliges the entire comic orientation to change, too. The point of Clouseau in the previous film is that he is an incompetent failure. This is a key detail. He is betrayed by his wife. He does not recover the stolen diamond—in fact he is convicted of stealing it. He goes to jail. The end.
But, once Clouseau takes the center stage beginning in Shot in the Dark, he transforms into an incompetent success. He is still incompetent—in fact, as the series progresses his ineptitude and foolishness only increase. The only thing that rivals his incompetence is his supreme self-confidence. So now we have a swaggering, self-important idiot in place of the useless blunderer—and the transformation requires some skillful rejiggering the overall plot structure to make this work.
Because it begs the question: if Clouseau is such a nincompoop, how come he isn’t just fired? For the series to continue, Clouseau has to keep on getting cases to investigate, which means he has to somehow succeed at least enough to keep his job. But at the same time, the audience has paid to watch him blunder about stupidly. Edwards’ genius solution to this storytelling problem is to have Clouseau’s epic failures be most felt by his immediate allies, superiors, and co-workers—meanwhile the larger world (including distant superiors, political leaders, and the criminal underworld at large) believe him to be an imminently capable detective. This allows Sellers to flail about for two hours destroying things and getting injured, then manage to luck into a happy resolution (usually because someone else solves the case and Clouseau just takes credit).
The one-two punch of The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark set a bar for commercial success that Edwards had a hard time meeting. In the years that followed, he continued to make extraordinary comic masterpieces (The Great Race, The Party, What Did You Do in the War Daddy?) but as Wasson’s book details, the artistic and comic quality of these works weren’t appreciated by contemporary audiences. And with every box office failure, Edwards found himself inexorably pulled closer and closer to returning to the Pink Panther and the comforting glow of predictable success it offered.
The studio had been keeping the light on for him, all those years. The characters lived on in animated cartoons, and for a brief moment in 1968 there was an effort to bring Clouseau back to the screen without bothering with either Edwards or Sellers (that 1968 misfire, Inspector Clouseau, is an underrated thing, unfairly slagged off, but that’s a story for another day.)
Appropriately enough, then, the 1975 revival was called The Return of the Pink Panther—Edwards and Sellers were back with all their toys, and indeed the film lived up to everyone’s commercial expectations. Two more sequels followed in short succession—The Pink Panther Strikes Again and The Revenge of the Pink Panther—which gave Edwards his mojo back.
But commercial success isn’t the same thing as artistic credibility. Edwards was never a critical darling—his emphasis on slapstick and bodily humor was unlikely to endear him to pointy heads—but making a string of heavily promoted franchise films burned off whatever goodwill he might have had with the critical community. Which is odd, when you stop and think about it—no one accuses the Marx Brothers of pandering when they made films that adhered to a known formula. Comedians like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin made films to recognizable patterns, intended to appeal to mass audiences. Where Edwards differed was that it wasn’t him playing Inspector Clouseau. Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Jacques Tati, Pierre Etaix, even Jerry Lewis—these men were praised for sticking to a known formula, insofar as it highlighted their comic character. Edwards, directing Peter Sellers as his slapstick proxy, wasn’t judged by the same yardstick.
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