Return of the Pink Panther represents a major change for the Pink Panther series, in more ways than one. For one, it revived the Pink Panther franchise, after the series went dormant in the aftermath of Inspector Clouseau bombing. It marks the return to the franchise for Peter Sellers (the actor who plays Inspector Clouseau), director Blake Edwards, and composer Henry Mancini. None of which were involved with Inspector Clouseau. It’s also the second movie in the series to involve the Pink Panther diamond. It would also be the last to feature the diamond during Sellers’ lifetime, despite how every movie in the franchise since kept the diamond’s name in the title. This is also the point where the franchise turns into a full-blown comedy, and where Clouseau becomes the bumbling buffoon who stumbles his way into solving each case, instead of a clumsy yet at least somewhat competent detective.
In the early 70’s, Edwards wrote a 15-20 page outline for another Pink Panther movie, which he presented to series producer Walter Mirisch. Mirisch loved the idea, but the franchise’s distributor, United Artists, rejected the film. Both Edwards and Sellers had seen their careers decline by this point. British Producer Lew Grade agreed to finance two films for Edwards, as part of a deal to get his wife, Julia Andrews (yes, Sound of Music Julia Andrews) to appear in a TV special for him. On that note, Edwards and Andrews remained married for 41 years, until his death. That’s a rarity in Hollywood relationships.
The first film in the deal was The Tamarind Seed, a well-received drama starring Andrews. The second was to be a project set in Canada called Rachel and the Stranger, but Grade disliked the idea. Instead, they agreed on a new Pink Panther movie, so long as Sellers would star. Grade convinced Sellers into it. United Artists agreed to give Return of the Pink Panther to Grade in exchange for world distribution and a share of profits. Grade’s company owned the franchise from that point on. United Artists was offered to partner in the production of the movie, but they declined, thinking it would bomb.
Every Pink Panther movie features an animated opening credits sequence. This movie’s animated credit sequence was directed by Richard Williams, who would later be the animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Another character from the first movie also returns, although this time he’s played by a different actor. Sir Charles Litton, “The Phantom”, is played by Christopher Plummer. David Niven played the part in the original movie, but he was unavailable this time round. Herbert Lom returns as Chief Inspector Dreyfus. Burt Kwouk returns as Clouseau’s house servant, Cato. There are several new characters for this movie, but the most prominent character is Lady Claudine Litton, The Phantom’s wife, played by Catherine Schell (Nancy from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).
The Return of the Pink Panther released in May of 1975, a full 11 years after A Shot in the Dark. It’s rare for a sequel for a comedy to work, and even more rare for it to work after more than 10 years. Yet Return did well critically, and earned $75 million worldwide on a $5 million budget. I imagine United Artists felt a bit silly for refusing to partner on producing the film. The New York Times review stated, “Clouseau is the very special slapstick triumph of Mr. Sellers and Mr. Edwards.” The Washington Post called the movie “a frequently hilarious and generally satisfying return to comic form on the part of Peter Sellers, recreating the role of the hapless but dogged French sleuth.
As well received as this movie was, for decades it was never included in the Pink Panther collection releases, mostly because of rights issues. The first time it was ever included in a collection was in 2017.
This was the first Pink Panther movie I ever saw, but until watching it a couple days ago, I hadn’t seen this since that one time we rented it back in my early teenaged years. Despite that, I remembered most of the major plot elements, and several of the more hilarious scenes. Still, this movie is both funnier and more serious than I remember. This is the first full-blown comedy in the series, yet the side-story that follows Sir Charles is a fairly compelling mystery. When the Pink Panther is stolen, and the thief leaves behind the Phantom’s trademark white glove, Sir Charles must seek out to find the thief. He turns out to be a fairly intelligent investigator in his own right, while causing trouble for the criminal underground in the process. While he lacks the charm that Niven gave the character, Plummer’s more serious, no nonsense take on the character works.
Clouseau, who knows that Sir Charles is The Phantom, goes on his hunt for the phantom, focusing mainly on his wife in order to find Sir Charles. The previous movies mostly relied on Clouseau’s bumbling nature and clumsiness for comedy. While this movie does that a lot, there is more variety to the comedy this time round. This is without a doubt the least politically correct movie in the series, and that only makes it funnier. Sellers steps his silly accent up a notch, like pronouncing letters that are supposed to be silent, and speaking words so strangely that nobody can understand him. It never gets old. There’s also a sense of fun with Lady Claudine toying with his investigation, making him look even more foolish. This movie also introduces Clouseau’s over-the-top silly costumes, which he wears at different points in the investigation. These costumes only get more ridiculous in later sequels.
But perhaps the funniest part of this movie is Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and how Clouseau drives him completely insane. Lom steals every scene that he’s in. He’s very entertaining when he laughs like a lunatic, but you also believe that he’s broken point of a murderous rampage by this incompetent detective that he can’t get rid of.
All plots converge by the end, including one I won’t spoil, but it makes for a conclusion that’s both intense and hilarious. In a more serious movie, the scene would work well as a genuinely suspenseful standoff, but as soon as Clouseau walks in, you know you’re in for a laugh.
Return of the Pink Panther is an easy recommendation for lovers of classic comedy. This isn’t the best movie in the series. Sometimes the Sir Charles story drags a bit, and it’s not quite as funny as A Shot in the Dark, but this is a worthy entry in the Pink Panther series. It’s definitely worth seeing before you watch the next movie in the series, The Pink Panther Strikes Again. After all, the Dreyfus subplot becomes the main story. But we’ll get to that. On that note, Strikes Again is often considered the funniest movie in the series, and for good reason.