So last night Kate was working real, real late, and I ended up sitting up and watchingThe Pink Panther on public TV (no commercials). I'm not talking about the Steve Martin version that is currently being kicked to the curb, but the original 1963 Pink Panther with David Niven and Peter Sellers. And it is an interesting movie in that on one hand it kicked off a line of sequels and even cartoons, while on the other hand, it is so very different than the rest of the cannon.
The original Pink Panther was supposed to be David Niven's movie, and for all intents and purposes it is - he's the charming, womanizing, stylish burglar, and the action stays mostly with him. He is the Phantom, the thief who is after the Pink Panther gem, who is sleeping with Inspector Clouseau's wife (yes, Clouseau was married, then). It is Niven who is trying to seduce the young princess that has the Panther. And it is Niven whose nephew (Robert Wagner) suddenly shows up to mess up his plans. It is for all intents and purposes a pretty amusing crime comedy set in the relaxed morals of the early 60s jet-set. There is a "European" attiude to cheating spouses and seductions in that it is not nearly as much of a crime (nor, apparently, is burglary).
The movie has some good sight gags (Gorillas robbing a safe) and a few good lines, but in general it feels like a slender thing. Most of the first half of the movie builds up to a sequence where Clouseau's wife hiding both Niven and Wagner from her husband in the hotel suite. After that, there is another build to a multi-vehicle chase scene with gorillas in convertables, and finally it resolves quickly in a courtroom sequence. There are more than a few gaps in logic (why did Niven throw his accomplice a key? What was the key for? How did a door that wasn't functioning suddenly fix itself? Why is a French chief inspector working in Italy?) and some definite weirdnesses (why the sudden foreign-language musical interlude in the middle? So the Pink Panther theme had a flip side recording?) and the final result is amusing, but not amazing.
What is amazing is that from this slender reed the entire Clouseau character eventually emerged. He has only the glimmerings of the massively slapstick character of later years (Indeed, the character probably peaked with Return of the Pink Panther and never got better, instead repeating itself ever after, like a Bond film). There is no chief inspector Dreyfuss or Cato figures, and Clouseau himself seems almost pitiful as the cuckolded spouse. Indeed, in the ending (where Niven/Wagner/Clouseau's wife/ (and for some unknown reason the Princess) frame Clouseau as the Phantom) do we get a bit of puckish British humor (He is more highly regarded as a thief than he was as a policeman), and there you get a bit of that sense of grand self-delusion that powers most of the rest of the series.
Indeed, Clouseau was so appealing that he was immediately wedged into another film, A Shot in the Dark, which better establishes his characteristics, even though it is pretty much a stage play with a field trip to a nudist camp welded on (I almost feel the intention was to do a nudist camp sequence and the rest of the movie was the build to that sequence). Then both Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers disappeared for Inspector Clouseu with Alan Arkin in the title role. Then, after THREE movies, the concept of Clouseau as most people have for a mental picture shows up in Return of the Pink Panther.
And much like William Powell's Nick Charles is not "the Thin Man", but is forever identified as such, Peter Sellers is "The Pink Panther" even though it feels like the original intent was to sent that in David Nivens direction.
On the other hand, I may just be staying up too late.
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