I have to confess I’m a sucker for good visual slapstick, a riotous and difficult art which actually reached its peak on the screen in the era of non-talking pictures, circa 1915-1928: the glory days of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy, to name only the absolute best. Since sound, there have been terrific isolated moments or scenes in films directed by Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges, Frank Tashlin, and Jerry Lewis, among others, not to mention the Warner Bros. cartoons of such slapstick comedy geniuses as Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng. But in more recent years, the most consistently effective practitioner of the form has been Blake Edwards, specifically in his series of Pink Panther movies starring Peter Sellers as the Homerically incompetent and bumbling Inspector Clouseau.
Eventually extending to eight features over thirty years, the first two–The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark–both came out in 1964, the second somewhat better than the first because concentrating more on the Sellers character. Eleven years later came the third and best yet, with the slapstick allowed even fuller expression: 1975’s uproariously irreverent joyride, The Return of the Pink Panther (available on DVD, as are all the Panthers mentioned here). This is the one with Christopher Plummer as a retired jewel thief out to prove he didn’t steal the famous Pink Panther diamond, Catherine Schell as his wife sent to seduce Clouseau and breaking up in hilarity instead, and bringing back the outrageously conceived Cato (Burt Kwouk), Asian valet to Clouseau (“My little yellow friend”), who violently surprise-attacks his boss whenever possible to test Clouseau’s defensive skills.
Blake Edwards, who before the first two Panthers had had a couple of huge box office successes (including the wonderful 1961 Audrey Hepburn romance Breakfast at Tiffany’s) hit a slump with a number of expensive but commercially disappointing films (like his elaborate 1965 slapstick homage The Great Race), fell into Hollywood disrepute and left for Europe for a while. The Return of the Pink Panther marked not only a return to box office grace but thereby also a return to power for Edwards who, with a kind of vengeance, made two further Sellers-Panther comedies in a row that were remarkably undiminished in uproariousness: The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), both huge commercial winners that gave Edwards the clout to make a script he had written nearly a decade before but couldn’t get financed called 10 (1979) which also went through the roof.
A brilliant and sophisticated comic constructionist, Edwards (who had grown up in a show-business family, his grandfather a silent film director) has a mischievous, marvelously malicious sense of humor, and was most fortunate in his choice of Henry Mancini as composer for all the Panthers, as well as the aforementioned Friz Freleng, who did the actual Pink Panther cartoon work in the features, plus the superb Herbert Lom as Clouseau’s long-suffering boss. Of course, the centerpiece for the Panthers is the utterly inspired satirical buffoonery of Peter Sellers doing the greatest British sendup ever seen of their old adversaries across the Channel. His French accent murdering English and his punctiliousness always out of step, Sellers is perfectly hysterical at every turn. His untimely death in 1980 made the three subsequent Panther attempts misfire. But the glory of The Return is as magnificently funny as ever, the three Panthers of the 1970s being among the most enduring delights of that complicated though rarely amusing decade.