MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, Burt Kwouk, Robert Wagner, David Niven
Extras: Commentary Track, Theatrical trailers, Photo Galleries, Documentaries, Pink Panther Cartoons
Let’s start by setting the Wayback Machine to the early 1970’s. TWA released a series of commercials aimed at international travel. Directed by Stan Dragoti (who later guided George Hamilton as the funniest Dracula in 1979’s "Love at First Bite"), the spots featured the comic legend Peter Sellers in a variety of nationalities: Italian, Scottish, American. Yet by our current standards, they were far from PC depictions: the thrifty Scotsman, the amorous Italian, the bland American businessman, all brought to life under Sellers’ amazing gift for mimicry.
The reason I bring this up is illustrate what made Peter Sellers truly a genius and a global humorist: his uncanny ability to take those cultural stereotypes and somehow strip them of caricature and, most importantly, judgment. He saw the universal in how one culture cannot stop loving or how another culture fusses and primps. In Sellers’ hands, humanity, in its wonderfully diverse shapes and sizes, was a child eternally caught with a guilty hand in the cookie jar, perpetually finding any way to escape punishment — and with cookie in hand. To laugh with Peter Sellers is to laugh with the whole world. (Even his last film, the dismal "Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu," just might be the exception that proves the rule.)
Nowhere was this gentle talent evident than in his Jacques Clouseau. The bumbling but endearing French policeman was born in 1964’s "The Pink Panther," through another comedic maestro: writer/director Blake Edwards. Interestingly, Peter Ustinov was originally cast to play the part. A last minute withdrawal by Ustinov and a chance encounter with a casting agent brought Sellers the role that remains the central public image of the actor a generation after his passing.
Forever clumsy but determined to effect justice through the dogged performance of his duties, what was a supporting part in "The Pink Panther" fast became the audience’s focus, more so than David Niven’s suave thief Sir Charles Litton, Capucine’s as Clouseau’s duplicitous wife and Robert Wagner’s as Litton’s overeager to please but perplexed nephew.
The series as we know it today codified in "A Shot In The Dark," released the same year. As written and directed by Edwards (with William Peter Blatty as co-writer; yes the same Blatty who wrote "The Exorcist"), Clouseau’s misadventures took on almost Sisyphean dimensions with the additions of two ultimately recurring foils: the exasperated Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) and Clouseau’s butler/sparring partner Kato (Burt Kwouk). Between Dreyfus continually teetering between sanity and homicidal megalomania and Kato popping out unexpectedly (at home or at restaurants) to fight Clouseau to keep him "alert," the formula carried through four more "Panther" film until Sellers’ untimely death in 1980. 1982’s "Trail of the Pink Panther" unsuccessfully attempted to bring the character back via outtakes.
MGM/UA has been the Panther’s home from the start and in honor of the colorful feline’s 40th anniversary, MGM Home Entertainment pays homage to Clouseau with a beautifully designed, technically aces six-disc (as in half a dozen) DVD special edition containing "The Pink Panther," "A Shot In The Dark," 1976’s "The Pink Panther Strikes Again," 1978’s "Revenge of the Pink Panther," and 1982’s "Trail Of The Pink Panther," as well as some meaty supplements and even a fistful of Pink Panther cartoons. 1972’s "The Return of the Pink Panther" – considered by many to be the best Clouseau sequel – is under another DVD banner and in bad need of a overhaul, judging from the new high-definition, <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced transfers and newly remixed 5.1 soundtracks offered in "The Pink Panther Film Collection" DVD Collector’s Set.
Whereas "The Pink Panther" and "A Shot In The Dark" really nailed the Clouseau formula, the subsequent entries (save for "Return") gradually showed the strains of keeping the pratfalls fresh and inventive. "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" took the good Inspector into James Bond spoof territory, with the certifiably mad Dreyfus creating a doomsday ray gun and mobilizing the world’s assassins to "rub out" Clouseau. "Revenge of the Pink Panther" follows a more traditional plotline, involving international crime syndicates. "Trail," released two years after Sellers’ death, utilized outtakes from previous vehicles and edits them around a story about a television reporter (pre-"Ab Fab" Joanna Lumley) investigating the inspector’s disappearance. Alas, there were reasons these outtakes were never used, resulting in a less-than-fitting cinematic eulogy to the actor and character. Each film could be seen as a case of diminishing returns, but there are individual moments of comic brilliance and timing in all of them that more than justify presenting the films basically as a single unit. I could try to describe these moments, but using words to explain Sellers’ and Edwards’ brand of "subtle slapstick" is like ending a joke with "and then he got a pie in the face!"
The fun starts with the packaging. Clad in black vinyl, a four-part gatefold unfurls (a la "Alien Quadrilogy") to reveal the six discs, two to a "page" along with very 60s-looking artwork of Clouseau and the supporting characters from the films. The two discs per page format, however, means that if you want to watch a film out of sequence, there’s a 50-50 chance that you will have to move one disc to get to the other, like moving cars in a tandem parking space. To wit: the "Pink Panther" DVD blocks the "Shot" DVD and it basically means taking two DVDs out of the package to watch one movie. A handy-dandy instruction sheet is included.
Measuring at just about 2.35 aspect ratio, all the transfers are <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced and show marked improvement from the previous 1999 DVD releases. The transfers here exhibit excellent color fidelity and saturation. Pure, deep blacks and solid hue definition contribute to sharp, high-detailed images. In the 1970s films where softer, diffused cinematography was used, the picture is still a faithful representation. Flesh tones are natural, save for the makeup of the 1960s films that favors "fuller" skin tones. The source prints are practically immaculate, with very rare speckles and blemishes. Even though the earlier releases were fine for their day, they still exhibited a high degree of film grain, along with some <$pixelation,pixelation>. Here, the transfers as a whole are smooth, clean, fluid and never anything less than exceptionally vivid.
The remastered <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 soundtracks for the films are fine but don’t excite as much as the visual presentation. Given the recording technology of the original mono soundtracks (except "The Pink Panther," released in 4-track magnetic stereo), the fidelity is a little wanting. Overall, the audio presentation is clean, the dialogue nice and defined and Henry Mancini’s wonderful saxophone-infused "Pink Panther" theme and electric-guitar heavy "Inspector Clouseau" motif (used primarily in "A Shot In The Dark") given additional presence with the increased front soundstage of the 5.1 palette. Surround channels don’t get much workout, other than the main title sequences. LFE is also largely silent, save for a few crashes and booms spanning the five films. However, having said that, "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" wins the Best Soundtrack award. I don’t know if it’s the "epic" scope of the plot, but the audio for this disc had more definition and oomph than the others. For purists, the original mono tracks are available, along with French and Spanish mono audio options.
Now, the supplements. Hmm…I would love to say that the extras are every bit as flavorful as the film presentations. Yet, while I can’t say that they are, what’s there doesn’t disappoint. I guess in these days of overstuffed DVDs, I just expected more.
Each film gets newly created animated menus, in tune with the artwork of the package, as well as the original theatrical trailer, all of them presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>. There is also a "Shots in the Dark" still gallery for each film, offering publicity shots, film moments and poster artwork. With "The Pink Panther," a commentary by writer/director Edwards guides us through the film as well as a trivia track. (At one point, the silent Panther was slated to speak with a "Cary Grant-type" voice!) Accessible as a subtitle option, the trivia track pops up quite frequently with those wonderful, unnecessary, semi-significant factoids about particular scenes, actors, lines, and what-not. It’s fun for a while, but someone did their homework but it pops up practically at minute intervals for the entire length of the film! Edwards’ interesting but sporadic commentary fills in some additional details and reminiscences.
The sixth disc houses the bulk of the features. The centerpiece is a half-hour documentary "The Pink Panther Story." New video interviews with Edwards, producer Walter Mirisch, author Ed Likov, script supervisor Betty Abbott Griffin, editor Ralph Winters and "Strikes" stunt coordinator Joe Dunne all chime in about the genesis of the project and how Sellers shaped and molded the originally minor character into the universally known bumbling icon, down to refining the accent for gems like "beumb," "peek-a-beu," etc. The most startling revelation is that Edwards and Sellers had a tumultuous working relationship, each vowing never to work with each other – an oath made five times! They also pay proper homage to composer Mancini. But where are the interviews, either newly produced or archival, with Herbert Lom and Burt Kwouk? They are as much a part of Cousteau as Sellers.
The Pink Panther as animated character also gets under the microscope. In the "Cartoon Theater" section, six Pink Panther cartoons are offered, including the first Oscar-winning short, "The Pink Phink." The presentations are standard full screen and look quite good with solid, stable colors and excellent detail. An eleven minute featurette, "Behind the Feline: The Cartoon Phenomenon," charts the beginnings of the Panther, from design concept to main titles prop, to bona-fide television and motion picture star. Interviews with Edwards, Mirisch and animator David DePatie illustrate how the Panther came into being, how the Mirisch Brothers ordered 156 Pink Panther cartoons, putting the fledgling DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (both DePatie and Friz Freleng were refugees from the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes asylum) on the map. It’s all very intriguing and a story of rags-to-riches for DePatie-Freleng, but it would have been complete, both historically and philosophically, to have feedback from Richard Williams (of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" fame) who produced the main credits for the 1970s Panther films and, in many respects, surpass the 1960s title sequences in design and animation technique.
Despite the few caveats with the supplements, MGM really has done the Pink Panther films proud with the Collector’s Set. Six discs, great transfers, remastered audio, a fistful of cartoons and a few thoughts and words from the fabulous feline’s creators. Run, don’t walk, to get this amazing box set. Just don’t "beump" your head on the way!