Sunday, October 01, 2006

Pink Franchise

The Pink Panther had everything going for it. It had the great name, it had Mancini’s theme and it had Monsieur Sellers playing himself playing Clouseau. It also had a famous jewel thief chasing a famous diamond called the pink panther. It also had the famous pink panther himself, he of the credits, a road accident victim on the way to Vatican in his first film, and eventually star of his own cartoon. I loved the pink panther, the panther I mean. Basically he was just a black panther who was pink. But he was mostly silent. So this isn’t about him.

It’s about the franchise. The French put it best. “Même si la franchise a débuté dans les années 60, celle-ci se refuse encore de mourir”. Almost 43 years on, it is now middle aged. Sellers’ detective spawned a host of imitation products, eventually ditching all the cast of the first film except Clouseau. Sellers’ death didn’t stop Clouseau. Roger Moore, Alan Arkin, Steve Martin and Geoffrey Rush have all played him and Roberto Mantigni invented his son. Others will follow as long as someone thinks “la franchise” is making money. Sooner or later, a female clouseau will emerge.

The male Clouseau was bumptious and accident prone from the first. Sellers accent when speaking English was plainly French. Oui, but it was not exaggerated. The plainness would go in later episodes as his accent became sillier and more “pronuanced”. Diphthongs went wild every time Sellers opened his mouth. Monkeys became minkies in the Sellersverse. But in the first film, "The Pink Panther", he is almost restrained and very much aware of his power as l'inspecteur. Sellers remarked that Clouseau knew he was a buffoon; but he has an incredible knack for survival. Sellers lived the part of the role while on set and this would have enjoyed hamming it up as well as exercising genuine power. A French police inspector is no laughing matter, monsieur. There is now no role of “inspector” in any French Police force. In France, the Corps de commande et d'encadrement (Command and Management Corps) corresponds approximately to the lower commissioned ranks of a military force, or to what the British still call “inspector”. This lot were previously known as “officiers de la paix” (officers of the peace) if they were they were in uniform but were "inspecteurs" if they were detectives. This change of name is likely to be the work of Clouseau!

Clouseau, the detective, combined native dim-wittedness with the important knack of being the wrong place at the right time. In "The Pink Panther" he is fortunate enough to catch the crooks in a road accident. Comic-style in the sixties without seatbelts, no-one gets killed. However his glory is shortlived. He was defeated by the prosecution lawyer who calls him as their only witness. Clouseau is set up to take the hit and gets imprisoned himself as the culprit. And yet, despite this overwhelming bungle, he emerges the other side, proud to be a hero. He took the one thing he could from the thief: his reputation.

This idea informs all the films that follow. Clouseau absorbs both the reputation and the identity of the diamond. The second film is indeed, “A Shot in the Dark”. It wasn’t a Clouseau film for starters. It was based on “L’idiote” a comic mystery by Marcel Achard. Achard was a French journalist and dramatist. Achard was most famous because of his birth. Achard need the dispensation of the pope and the president to be born. His father married his sister's daughter. Achard had his relatives all confused and as a result his plays were sentimental and melancholic. It was Blake Edwards first film after he directed The Pink Panther. Sellers on screen persona had so entraced Edwards he wanted to immediate re-write “A Shot in the Dark” to remove the melancholy and include Clouseau. Closeau as L'idiote was too irresistable. It was re-done in haste. Barely months after The Pink Panther was a hit, A Shot in the Dark was re-promoted as Clouseau’s second on-screen adventure. Clouseau had two new doubtful allies. Bert Kwouk was Cato, a servant so evil and so well-trained, he could be relied to attack his boss at the most inconvenient time to keep him always on his toes.

And then there was Clouseau’s own boss. Herbert Lom was the picture of hate for the “protégé” he knew was a bumbling clown. His Dreyfus was a choleric Commissioner. He too has had his rank expunged from the gendarmes. There is no role called Commissioner in the French Police (the ex-inspecteurs get promoted to brigadier-majors and beyond). Dreyfus’s paroxysms of rage against the filthy good luck of his inferior office eventually turned him totally psychotic in later episodes. But the early brilliance of Cato and Dreyfus meant they stayed in the franchise. Producers were loving this. The second film outsold the first. They clamoured for more. Sellers wouldn’t sign up for a third trip in 1968 so neither would Edwards. Cato and Dreyfus aren’t there either. It went ahead anyway with Alan Arkin as Monsieur bumble. He is Clouseau in name only, honest but without the ineffable magic of the original. Nor was director Bud Yorkin a Blake Edwards who could coax genius out of his star. The film is about Clouseau on holidays in England. As a result M. Clouseau wasn’t himself. He wasn’t Sellers.

And so it was a rare fourth film in a franchise that could as justifiably take the tag of “Return”. It took 12 years but "The Return of the Pink Panther” was a true comeback. It wasn't bolted on to a French play. It wasn't a cipher. And it heralded the return of Edwards, Sellers, Dreyfus and Cato in only the second film to have the "Pink Panther" name. All seven films that followed have kept the Pink Panther in the title. The Pink Panther struck again, the Pink Panther had revenge, he had romance. Sellers died in 1980. But even after his death, Clouseau was still "On the Trail of the Pink Panther" thanks to Sellers ghostly outtakes. A year later, Roger Moore took on Clouseau in "The Curse of the Pink Panther." He was cursed, but Clouseau spawned a son. Ten years later Benigni grew up to be the British-French detective's Italian-French "Son of the Pink Panther". In so-now 2006, it is deemed barbarous to dream up new ideas. So we finally have the remake. Clouseau is now the American-French detective Steve Martin. And MGM have announced a sequel with Kevin Kline as the new Dreyfus. The Pink Panther series has been totally re-booted. 2008 is the remake of the return.

La franchise se refuse encore de mourir.

No comments: