More often than not, when a comedy series stretches beyond two movies, each successive entry is worse than the last. Comedy writing is hard, and when you’ve got a series starring the same main character, and at least some of the same supporting cast, it’s hard to come up with new material while sticking with the same style of humour. Somehow, a lot of sitcoms manage to last much longer than that and work out fine, but with movies, it’s rare to see a comedy sequel better than the previous movie. Rarer still to see the fifth better than the fourth. That is, unless the first movie is trash to begin with.
The Pink Panther, directed by Blake Edwards, is a notable exception to this general rule … for the most part. All of the Pink Panther movies featuring actor Peter Sellers during his lifetime are excellent. Yet with the sole exception of one movie, which we’ll eventually get to, all attempts at a Pink Panther movie without Sellers are failures.
The Pink Panther franchise didn’t really start off as a pure comedy. The first movie, released in 1963, works just as well as a crime drama as it does a comedy. In fact, that was the original intention of the film. The movie centers around a legendary diamond, the Pink Panther. In universe, it’s the largest known diamond in the world. It’s a pink gem with an unusual flaw that appears to be in the shape of a leaping panther.
The film was first conceived as a sophisticated comedy about a charming jewel thief, Sir Charles Lytton. Inspector Jacques Clouseau would be the detective chasing after the jewel thief. Peter Ustinov was originally cast as the inspector, with Ava Gardner as his faithless wife who’s actually working with the jewel thief. Gardner backed out because The Mirisch Company didn’t meet her demands for personal staff, and Ustinov backed out shortly after. Eventually, Peter Sellers signed on as the inspector, and Capucine joined on as his unfaithful wife.
David Niven signed on as Sir Charles, and the film was originally meant to be a vehicle for him. As the filming went on, it became clear that Sellers stole every scene he performed in. From that point on, the film became more of an ensemble piece. Niven still retained top billing, Clouseau would be the main character for nearly every sequel moving forward. It was to the point where when Niven presented at the Academy Awards that year, he requested his walk-in music be changed from the “Pink Panther” theme, stating “That was not really my film.”
Despite his role being shrunk down to make room for Sellers’ performance, Niven still has a lot of screen time as Sir Charles, and he’s very charming in the role. His plan involves wooing Princess Dala, played by Claudia Cardinale, in order to learn about the diamond he’s planning on stealing. The two of them genuinely start falling in love, despite both of them having a reputation for being unattached. There’s a lot of intrigue along the way, with Clouseau closing in on the thief, even as the thief is much closer than he realizes.
Most of the movie’s comedy comes from either Clouseau’s physically clumsy nature, or how several major characters are toying with him. There are long stretches in the movie where there aren’t a lot of jokes, instead they embrace the romantic scenes, the intrigue, or a large party that really helps set the 1960’s tone of the film. That scene is no doubt helped by Cardinale’s fantastic performance in the movie’s random musical number (she was a professional singer and dancer in addition to being an actress). The sequence near the end where the actual thievery takes place is hilarious though. It takes place at a costume party that is consistently unpredictable on a first watch, with a touch of real mystery behind the comedy.
The Pink Panther isn’t the funniest comedy in the series, but it’s also not trying to be. When I first saw The Pink Panther a long time ago, it was after I saw a couple of its sequels. Back then, I was disappointed by the fact that it wasn’t as much of a straight comedy. As long as you know what to expect from the film though, you’ll likely enjoy it quite a bit. The Pink Panther is a well-balanced film, providing plenty of laughs while also giving us a genuinely good mystery. All of the major actors bounce off each other well, and the games everyone plays makes both the drama and the comedy work all the better. The physical comedy’s also aged quite well. The Pink Panther isn’t the best movie in the series, nor is it quite as re-watchable, but it’s still a great movie in its own right and is an easy recommendation.
Next up is A Shot in the Dark, which I haven’t seen yet. To many, it’s actually the best in the series, so I’m very much looking forward to finally seeing it. After that, it’s the first movie in the series to not feature Peter Sellers, and there is a story behind that. Part of the reason I picked this series is because the behind the scenes details are fascinating in their own right, making for a more confusing story than the franchise itself. But we’ll get to that.