The First 'Pink Panther' and a Martinized Version

Steve Martin as Inspector Jacques Clouseau, posing with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop.

Steve Martin as Inspector Jacques Clouseau, a role made famous by Peter Sellers. Sony Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Sony Pictures

New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell and Scott Simon compare the remake of The Pink Panther, starring Steve Martin and an all-star cast, with the 1963 version, which featured the redoubtable Peter Sellers.

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(Sound bite of Pink Panther theme song)

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Pink Panther movies have always made a lot of money, but they haven't always been critically acclaimed, or especially funny. The Pink Panther was a smash in 1963. Then came The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Revenge of the Pink Panther, Trail of the Pink Panther, Curse of the Pink Panther. Those movies were a collaboration between Peter sellers and director Blake Edwards.

Now there is a new Pink Panther movie starring Steve Martin. It opened at the top of the box office, but to faint critical praise.

Ms. BEYONCE KNOWLES (Singing): Oh boy you looking like you like what you see. Won't you come over and check up on it, I'm gone let you work up on it. Ladies let 'em check up on it, watch it while he check up on it. Dip it, pop it, work it, stop it, check on me tonight.

SIMON: So is the bumbling Inspector Clouseau more lovable than his movies? Our entertainment commentator Elvis Mitchell joins us.

Elvis, thanks for being with us.

ELVIS MITCHELL reporting:

Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You've seen all these movies, I gather.

MITCHELL: Yes, I do feel like I've endured the Curse of Pink Panther in more ways than one.

SIMON: So do you go to just see Inspector Clouseau fall down?

MITCHELL: That's what you go to see now. That's what the movies are nowadays, as a matter of fact. The first one was basically a spoof of the old fashioned international thrillers.

SIMON: Mm-Hmm.

MITCHELL: And that seems to have been forgotten, that genre, as well as what made the movies funny in the first place.

SIMON: I know what made the movies funny for me, and it was the Clouseau character, although David Niven is a lot of fun to watch too.

MITCHELL: Remember the whole sort of sequence between David Niven, Robert Wagner and Peter Sellers going in and out of a bedroom?

SIMON: Yes.

MITCHELL: Him going out for warm milk, and the windows being left open. That's basically prime Blake Edwards sort of doors opening and closing, people falling down, kind of sophisticated pratfalls, slapstick farce.

SIMON: Let's play a clip from the first Pink Panther, if we can. And in this scene, it's Inspector Clouseau played by Peter Sellers, of course, visiting David Niven and a very young Robert Wagner in their jail cell. Now, Inspector Clouseau suspects that they have taken the Pink Panther diamond.

Mr. PETER SELLERS (as Inspector Clouseau): Just thought you'd like to know, the trial is all set for tomorrow morning. It shouldn't take too long.

Mr. DAVID NIVEN (as Sir Charles Lytton): Well, that sounds encouraging.

SELLERS (as Inspector Clouseau): Yes, it's encouraging for me, but bad for you.

Mr. ROBERT WAGNER (as George Lytton): Have some coffee, Inspector.

Mr. SELLERS (as Inspector Clouseau): You know, you two could save yourselves a lot of trouble if you would tell me where the jewel is.

Mr. NIVEN (as Sir Charles Lytton): Take in some of that porridge Inspector. It's guaranteed good for sleuthing.

Mr. SELLERS (as Inspector Clouseau): You refuse to cooperate, eh?

Mr. WAGNER (as George Lytton): We've offered you porridge and coffee. It's all that's left.

Mr. SELLERS (as Inspector Clouseau): Well, I'm glad that you're enjoying yourselves, because you're going to be here for the next 20 years.

SIMON: Now, was part of the...

MITCHELL: I think he was talking about the audience.

SIMON: Well, now so much of the humor is physical. It's David Niven falling out of the window into snow, and then walking into a group of people in tuxedos; that sort of thing.

MITCHELL: The whole ski jump sequence, it's, you have to keep it in mind, remember that Blake Edwards got his start working with Mack Sennett. I mean he goes back to a silent era of comedy when humor was communicated primarily visually.

SIMON: Yeah.

MITCHELL: And you can certainly see the influence of those movies and that character on Steve Martin. You can go back 20 years or longer ago than 20 years actually, to movies like The Man With Two Brains and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. I mean, he was playing guys who were essentially bumblers not unlike what Peter Sellers did in those movies. But also bumblers with a supreme, almost saturnine kind of confidence, that has to be undermined as soon as sex is introduced into the equation. They have no idea of how to deal with it.

And that's the thing that Edwards is doing in the first Pink Panther movie, too, is bringing this cool elegant detective who had no idea how unworldly he actually is. At the end, we remember, too, he ends up in jail; he's tricked by everybody.

SIMON: Do a lot of the movies kind of start off well with a lot of the visual humor but then die for lack of a story line?

MR. MITCHELL: I think there's always been some sort of attempt to shackle a story line onto it, and after a while Clouseau sort of became this character who would just wander into circumstance and leave it in shambles, and also, as it became more and more ridiculous, I guess in some ways dumber, his accent became more and more difficult to understand and more and more of a joke, as if Peter Sellers was in a way saying there's nothing to play except to sort of us make this as buffoonish and absurd a character as possible.

SIMON: That's right. I mean we heard that clip from the first Pink Panther, and you could understand Peter Sellers. It was a very mild French accent, but my memory is, in those later ones...

MR. MITCHELL: Give me some money for your minky. Your what? Your minky.

SIMON: That's right.

MR. MITCHELL: All those sort of things. He'd become kind of the European Norm Crosby, I guess, after awhile.

SIMON: We've got a clip from this most recent one, Steve Martin, I guess getting, I haven't seen this one, so he's getting an English lesson before coming to the United States.

(Soundbite of The Pink Panther)

Unidentified Woman #1: I would like to buy a hamburger.

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Actor): (As Clouseau) I would like to buy your hamber(ph).

Unidentified Woman #1: (As English teacher) I.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Clouseau) Uh(ph).

Unidentified Woman #1: (As English teacher) Would.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Clouseau) Weeerd(ph).

Unidentified Woman #1: (As English teacher) Like.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Clouseau) Like.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As English teacher) To.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Clouseau) Tua(ph).

Unidentified Woman #1: (As English teacher) Buy.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Clouseau) Be-bey-bee(ph).

Unidentified Woman #1: (As English teacher) A.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Clouseau) A.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As English teacher) Hamburger.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Clouseau) Demberger(ph).

Unidentified Woman #1: (As English teacher) Hamburger.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Clouseau) Hamber(ph).

Unidentified Woman #1: (As English teacher) I would like to buy a hamburger.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Clouseau) Deberger(ph).

SIMON: Is Blake Edwards involved in this production?

MR. MITCHELL: I'm sure somebody just sent him a check.

SIMON: Yeah, okay, well, that we assume, but I mean creatively.

MR. MITCHELL: No, no. I mean, I'm sure they think he's been put out to pasture now. His funny days are behind him. The director of this is Shawn Levy, who brought us the estimable Cheaper by the Dozen, which could also be a title for this movie too. And you think why weren't the Coen Brothers brought in to do a movie like this? Because you see The Big Lebowski, that feels to be as influenced by what Blake Edwards did, or even parts of Fargo, which is to say somebody investigating a crime who may or may not be as smart as people think she is, just pulling up clues or not pulling together clues. Now also, the Coens are as masterful at slapstick as was Blake Edwards, and the movie requires that kind of precision.

SIMON: Elvis, thanks very much.

MR. MITCHELL: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Our entertainment commentator, Elvis Mitchell, who is the host of The Treatment on KCRW.

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