Back Tracks takes a break from holiday merriment to celebrate the life of Blake Edwards, who died yesterday at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy of laughter.
“[Sometime] ago when I first began, one of my early films was run at a producer’s home one night, and someone who shall remain nameless for the moment came to me and said, ‘Billy Wilder was there and the saw it and you know what he said? He said, ‘You know it’s shit, but it’s funny shit.’ Now, had anybody else said that – this is proof of how I feel about Billy – I would have taken exception to it. But I didn’t. I said, ‘My god! Billy Wilder thinks I make funny shit!’ I mean, that’s all I needed. So whether it’s shit or it isn’t – whatever it is that I try to do well – I try to do well. And I hope it’s funny.”
So spoke Blake Edwards on the evening of October 24, 1993, accepting the Directors’ Guild of America’s prestigious Preston Sturges Award. Edwards was only the award’s third recipient, after Richard Brooks and Billy Wilder himself. Few could contest that Edwards, indeed, made “funny shit,” making an art of low comedy. (His stabs at serious drama, however, shouldn't be overlooked, either.) Edwards passed away Wednesday, December 15, at the age of 88, but the legacy of this world-class filmmaker will undoubtedly continue to inspire generations to come. Despite a cynical worldview that earned him the nickname “Blackie,” Edwards had the knack for comedy. Of all the memorable screen creations guided and/or created by Edwards, from Holly Golightly to Victor/Victoria to Peter Gunn, it’s likely that one is the most famous of them all: the Pink Panther. In the long-running series of films, the Pink Panther is a much-coveted diamond; more familiar still is a cartoon cat (shepherded to life by animation director Friz Freleng) who introduced each film in increasingly zany title sequences. Think of the Pink Panther in any of his forms, however, and you’ll most likely hear a sinuous, slinky tune composed by Henry Mancini for Edwards’ film; along with Hitchcock/Herrmann, Spielberg/Williams and Burton/Elfman, the Edwards/Mancini team is one of Hollywood’s most cherished of all time. The director well knew the importance of having that slip, trip or pratfall timed to just the right music. Henry Mancini instinctively knew how to compose that music. In fact, all four of Mancini's Academy Awards were for films directed by Blake Edwards.
In celebration of the life of Blake Edwards, Back Tracks turns the spotlight on the soundtracks of the eight Pink Panther films directed by the one and only Blake Edwards, all of which were scored by his close collaborator Henry Mancini. Hit the jump to meet bumbling Inspector Jacques Clouseau, his faithful manservant Cato, the ever-frustrated Chief Inspector Dreyfus, dashing thief The Phantom, and of course, the original cool cat, the Pink Panther himself!
The Pink Panther (RCA Victor, 1964 – reissued RCA/Buddha, 2001)
In the film of the same name (released in the U.K. late in 1963 and on American shores in 1964), the Pink Panther is a valuable diamond; the story is recounted that when one looks at the diamond, he will see an image of a pink panther. Blake Edwards had a masterstroke for the movie's opening titles, enlisting DePatie-Freleng Productions to animate a sequence that would set the tone for the film that followed: the titular panther is pursued by a white-gloved hand, the signature of the suave thief the Phantom (portrayed in the film by David Niven), and is quickly joined by a cartoon version of Inspector Clouseau (the iconic Peter Sellers) who, despite a magnifying glass, still can’t see a thing. RCA’s soundtrack album was, as per Mancini’s custom, a re-recording of the film’s major themes for the record-buying audience. In addition to the now-famous title song with saxophone by Plas Johnson (which went Top 40 as a single; the soundtrack itself went Top 10), other highlights of the score include “It Had Better Be Tonight,” an Italian-style love song recently covered by Michael Bublé and performed in the film by Fran Jeffries (and on disc by Mancini’s chorus), and “Something for Sellers,” a great example of Mancini’s feel for what we today think of as lounge music. In 2001, an expanded CD release was afforded The Pink Panther, containing four bonus tracks from 1975’s The Return of the Pink Panther. Due to complicated rights entanglements, the original recordings as actually heard in the film have never been released on LP or CD.
A Shot in the Dark (Score unreleased, 1964)
Released less than one year after The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark is thought by many to be the finest film of the series. Ironically, it’s the only film in the Edwards series to not feature the panther or the title theme. It did, however, introduce Herbert Lom’s Inspector Dreyfus and Burt Kwouk’s Cato to the supporting cast. A Shot in the Dark, based on Harry Kurnitz’ adaptation of Marcel Achard’s play L’Idiote, wasn’t originally intended to be a vehicle for Sellers’ Clouseau, but director/co-screenwriter Edwards seamlessly transformed the script into just that. Mancini’s score offered another memorable title theme slightly reminiscent of his “Peter Gunn,” but for reasons unknown, his longtime label, RCA, opted against the release of a soundtrack album. Instead, “A Shot in the Dark” was issued with a choral rendition of “The Shadow of Paris,” a song heard in the film, on a single, RCA 47-8381. Robert Wells provided the lyrics to the song, which in the film is sung by an uncredited vocalist believed to be Fran Jeffries. Again due to rights issues, no soundtrack has ever been released for A Shot in the Dark, although this writer remains optimistic that one may yet appear in the future.
The Return of the Pink Panther (RCA, 1975 – reissued RCA, 1999 and BMG Spain, 2001)
Battles between Sellers and Edwards were epic; despite their successes on the previous Panther films and the cult favorite The Party ("Birdie num num!"), the two parted ways. The Mirisch Company and United Artists hated to give up on the franchise, so Inspector Clouseau arrived in 1968 with Alan Arkin in the title role, Bud Yorkin behind the camera, and Ken Thorne as composer. (For those interested in Thorne's score, Kritzerland released it on CD in 2009.) Audiences couldn't accept anyone but Sellers as the Inspector, so the door was closed on further Panther-related projects. But time heals all wounds, and in 1975, Edwards and Sellers reunited for The Return of the Pink Panther. Christopher Plummer replaced David Niven as the Phantom, with Lom and Kwouk returning to join Sellers. RCA duly issued an album to Edwards’ slapstick extravaganza, the success of which revealed that the moviegoing audience hadn’t forgotten about The Pink Panther. Mancini offered a veritable feast in his score, from a variation on the title theme (with sax this time by Tony Coe), to a song, “The Greatest Gift,” with lyrics by Hal David. He played the piano solo on two selections on the soundtrack, “Dreamy” and on the vocal track of “The Greatest Gift,” and even offered a nod to modern times with the cue “Disco.” This is Mancini in his best seventies groove, and the sound couldn’t be more delicious. A straight reissue was released by BMG Spain in 2001, and it is also available in two-fer form with the original Pink Panther soundtrack as released in 1999.
The Pink Panther Strikes Again (United Artists, 1976 – reissued Rykodisc, 1998)
The Pink Panther Strikes Again picks up directly where The Return left off, and opens with Clouseau visiting his nemesis (and former boss) Chief Inspector Dreyfus in an insane asylum. The craziness is imminent as Clouseau’s visit sets off the Chief Inspector into delirium. He hires a group of assassins to kill Clouseau, and sets up shop in a German castle to test a powerful ray-gun. The script by Edwards and Frank Waldman is the most outlandish yet, but it also just might be the funniest in the series. This is truly “go for broke” comedy. Mancini’s fourth Panther score was filled with a treasure trove of new material. Of course, though, the theme had to reappear; in a clever title sequence animated by the legendary Richard Williams, the Panther and Clouseau take a trip through the movies. Mancini complies via a “Pink Panther Theme” with interpolations from The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain, and even Batman. Strikes Again was a wild film from start to finish, and it was another box office bonanza. Mancini finally provided Sellers with his own motif in the form of the evocative and recognizable “The Inspector Clouseau Theme,” and “Come to Me” was the film’s big love theme, heard in instrumental form on the soundtrack LP as well as with a vocal by Tom Jones, with a special guest appearance by Peter Sellers. Don Black wrote the lyrics to both the Oscar-nominated “Come to Me” and “Until You Love Me,” a rather intentionally dreadful cabaret ballad sung in the film by the character of Ainsley Jarvis, a female impersonator. Jarvis was portrayed by Michael Robbins but dubbed by none other than Edwards’ wife Julie Andrews, who a few years later would play a woman-playing-a-man-playing-a-woman in Edwards’ Victor/Victoria. The other cues show off all sides of Mancini’s facility for dramatic scoring, from outright adventure to pulsating jazz. Rykodisc reissued The Pink Panther Strikes Again in a deluxe edition with six bonus tracks including an alternate instrumental of “Until You Love Me” and the film’s end credits sequence. This edition is now out-of-print but well worth seeking out.
The Revenge of the Pink Panther (Capitol, 1978 – reissued EMI/Manhattan, 1988)
Two years later, the Edwards/Sellers/Mancini triumvirate delivered The Revenge of the Pink Panther. The major set piece of this film is a slapstick chase through Hong Kong that leads to a firecracker factory, all set to Mancini’s “Hong Kong Fireworks,” a perfect example of how the composer could compose music that sounded like the visuals. A soundtrack was released on Capitol, with two versions of the famous theme (with Tony Coe returning on saxophone) and a new song with Leslie Bricusse lyrics, “Move ‘Em Out,” as sung by Lon Satton. The album also featured the film’s recording of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” the Gigi standard performed with devilish relish by Peter Sellers in inimitable fashion. The soundtrack was issued on CD in 1988 with no additional music.
Trail of the Pink Panther (Capitol, 1982 – reissued EMI/Manhattan, 1988)
The sixth film in the series to be directed by Edwards was also the last to feature Peter Sellers. The extraordinarily talented if equally tortured actor had passed away in 1980 but Edwards forged ahead with plans for two more films to be shot concurrently, one of which would miraculously star the late star. Trail of the Pink Panther uncomfortably shoehorned flashbacks and outtakes of Sellers from previous installments into a new story which ended with the inspector in hiding; a body double provided a shot from the back only. The film was dedicated to Sellers by Edwards; the odd couple, despite their differences, often brought out the best in each other. As befitting a film largely comprised of old material, the soundtrack LP released by Capitol mainly consisted of recycled music. The only new material featured on the album is the Trail variation of the title theme and a cue entitled “The Easy Life in Paris.” This underwhelming LP was released on CD in 1988 in its original form.
Curse of the Pink Panther (recorded, 1982 – released Quartet, 2010)
1983’s follow-up, Curse of the Pink Panther, could be considered little other than a disappointment, despite some moments of typical Edwards mayhem and solid physical shtick. Ted Wass starred as New York cop Clifton Sleigh, who is enlisted to find the missing Clouseau. Of course, mayhem ensued. Yet one of Curse‘s chief assets has been one of its least well-known, and that asset is the score by Mancini. European label Quartet Records saw fit earlier in 2010 to give his score to Curse of the Pink Panther its first-ever release in any medium (Quartet QRSCE014). Despite Mancini coming off Victor/Victoria (another Edwards collaboration) with an Academy Award in hand, Curse of the Pink Panther received no soundtrack album whatsoever. Even RCA’s Ultimate Pink Panther compilation featured no music from the score. Quartet's release, produced and annotated by Jose M. Benitez, reveals the score to be complex, well-crafted and quintessentially Mancini. The score for Curse is pure Mancini comedy, with touches of a then-modern sound and of course, playful adventure in Panther style. Hit this link for a full review, from which this has been excerpted, of this exciting release.
Son of the Pink Panther (RCA/Milan, 1993)
The eighth and final Blake Edwards-helmed Pink Panther film (the series totals 11, counting Inspector Clouseau and the two recent Steve Martin remakes), Son of the Pink Panther saw the director picking up where he left off a decade earlier. Son starred Roberto Benigni as the illegitimate son of Sellers’ Clouseau, and also returned to the fold Herbert Lom, Burt Kwouk and stalwart supporting player (and Sellers pal) Graham Stark. Despite Edwards’ game efforts and a return of Mancini to the composer’s chair, this film was met with critical and commercial indifference, and today is only somewhat more watchable than its two direct predecessors. RCA/Milan issued a soundtrack album in 1993, including the title theme produced, arranged and performed by Bobby McFerrin. Mancini makes a brief cameo in the film, handing over his conductor’s baton to the cartoon panther in the opening sequence. A more traditional version of the theme is also included among the album’s fourteen tracks, with Phil Todd taking the sax part.
This disc, now budget-priced from Sony Special Products, is solid one-stop shopping for all of your musical Panther needs. Over its 24 tracks, The Ultimate Pink Panther offers selections from six of the eight Edwards-helmed films, eliminating any music from Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther. An attractive booklet with notes by set producer Didier C. Deutsch is included, as is discographical information for each track. As the definitive Pink Panther anthology (too bad no unreleased music could be uncovered, however), this one is recommended.
1993’s Son of the Pink Panther proved to be the final film for both Edwards and Mancini. The beloved composer died the following year at the age of 70. Edwards went on to direct the 1995 Broadway musical adaptation of Victor/Victoria, starring his wife Julie Andrews reprising her title performance, before embracing retirement. In a way, though, it’s appropriate that both men went out doing what they did best in the medium they loved best, on an installment in one of the most enjoyable series in film history. Listen to any one of the soundtracks above, and chances are you’ll be left with a smile on your face, recalling any number of “splurches in the kisser” or zany, off-kilter mayhem devised by that master farceur and dean of film comedy, the one and only Blake Edwards. R.I.P., Mr. Edwards.