The Pink Panther (1963) … Remembered

panther2The Pink Panther (1963) could be the greatest physical comedy film ever produced.  I loved this film and some its successors when I was a small kid, impressed by a bumbling guy who falls down a lot.  I remember renting this film with a handful of others and was impressed with its musical theme and star, Peter Sellers.  Critics have said that this was supposed to be a film for David Niven, who plays Sir Charles Lytton in the movie, but Peter Sellers was so funny that he basically carried the film and became its main selling point.  Today, The Pink Panther is known as a cartoon, a silly film made by Steve Martin, but is really a Peter Sellers classic that defined clumsy police officers you can barely understand sometimes, which in itself is hilarious.

panther1The film starts by explaining just what The Pink Panther is and why it is important.  The Pink Panther is a diamond with a flaw in the center which looks like a panther.  Later, something is stolen by mysterious forces in a two minute sequence and they get away.  Some police try to track down the thief, but he runs off.  We later learn that this is the renowned Phantom and his accomplices.

We then transition again in an amusing exchange and some police try to run down some criminals in France.  One of the women runs into an elevator and changes clothes, making her appear quite unlike the woman who originally ran into the elevator.  She gets away.  We next see Inspector Jacques Clouseau in his office declaring his promise to find “that woman” and The Phantom.

panther4We then meet a young Princess, who has possession of The Pink Panther we saw at the beginning of the film.  Rebels have taken possession of the country and demanded the diamond, but she seems bent on refusing their wishes.  David Niven plays Sir Charles, who encounters Inspector Clouseau at the villa where the Princess is staying.  He is so clueless that he does not realize his own wife is partnering with Sir Charles to steal the diamond.  

At this point of the film, the most hilarious parts are the physical comedy and the dialogue.  The funny part is how Peter Sellers plays it so straight all the time, then never breaks his serious composition, even when tripping over the carpet.  One of the most well-known parts of the movie is the bedroom scene where Clouseau parades around trying to be coy and attractive, but he comes off as only clumsy and silly.  Another funny part is the costumed party, where Sellers wears this uncomfortable-looking suit of armor.  It’s amusing.

[Sir Charles Lytton kisses Princess Dala.]
Princess Dala: If I were my father, I’d have you tortured.
Sir Charles Lytton: No. If you were your father, I doubt very much if I would have kissed you.

panther3David Niven also plays his part well and has many great bits of dialogue, like the above quote.  I can see how the film was originally setup for him given this much screen time and his top billing.  He smooches the Princess and tries to charm her, but she is wise to his games.  They have several scenes in a row where they talk and talk, making me wish at some point someone would fall down.  

Peter Sellers is known for carrying a string of sequels to The Pink Panther, but the original was an ensamble effort.  Niven’s accomplice is played by a young Robert Wagner, for example.  He tries to seduce Clouseau’s wife just like David Niven.  

This is not an epic film.  Most of the scenes are dialogue driven and set in a simple hotel.  Peter Sellers gets more funny as the film goes on, stealing each scene.  I’ve read that a lot of the scenes involved improvisation and I can see a lot of that being true.  Maybe I’m old fashioned, but scripting a Gorilla trying to break into a safe is pure gold.

This film made lots of money on rentals and this may have contributed to its enduring reputation.  This is how I learned about it.  All in all, this movie is still not too bad today, even compared to the silly remake by Steve Martin, who goes way too over-the-top.  The original is unstructured and the improvised elements really make it all the more appealing.