The Pink Panther (series)


Of all of the bumbling personas ever to grace the big screen, there has perhaps never been one as beloved as Inspector Jacques Clouseau, a detective so inept that it is a wonder he ever solved a case. His antics redefined slapstick in a way few had since Chaplin, thanks to the comic genius of a man named Peter Sellers, who would forever be adored as the incompetent inspector from the numerous Pink Panther films.

Sellers first donned his signature overcoat in 1963’s The Pink Panther, a film in which, surprising as it may seem now, he wasn’t the star. Rather, the story focused on Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven) a dashing playboy and cunning jewel thief. His prey is the giant diamond of immeasurable wealth known as the Pink Panther. The only person who can foil his plot is a French detective named Clouseau, who is in hot pursuit of someone he only knows as “The Phantom.”

Clouseau redefined the word “inept” – stumbling around, clumsily destroying any inanimate object within arm’s reach, and speaking in an almost-indecipherable accent. But, through all of the tripping, all of the breaking objects, Clouseau miraculously still manages to get his man.

When The Pink Panther debuted, it was clear that Sellers had stolen the film with his mastery of physical comedy that adored him to audiences of all ages. Also memorable was the toe-tapping theme song by Henry Mancini, with its trademark sax melody, and an amusing animated sequence for the opening credits that featured a pink panther paired with a caricature of Inspector Clouseau which perfectly set the mood for what lay ahead.

The film was an international blockbuster and the opening cartoon sequence would spawn a Saturday morning animated series (and a breakfast cereal). The Pink Panther had left its mark and that could only mean one thing – sequels.

Clouseau’s adventures would continue in 1964 with A Shot in the Dark. This time around, Clouseau is summoned to the villa of a wealthy man named Benjamin Ballon, to investigate the homicide of his driver. Everyone is convinced that the lovely maid Maria did the deadly deed, except for the bumbling Inspector, who sets out to prove her innocence. Along the way, his many memorable and hilarious moments include infiltrating a nudist colony to gather clues.

Appearing alongside Clouseau were a number of characters that would become beloved regulars in the many sequels that followed. One such cohort was a servant that Clouseau hired named Cato, whose job was to launch surprise attacks on his boss at every opportunity to help keep his fighting skills honed. And then there was his poor boss, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, a man slowly being driven insane by the incompetence of Clouseau.

Director Blake Edwards had another hit on his hands with A Shot in the Dark. With a masterful combination of physical and verbal comedy styles, it would help set the standards for screen comedies of the future. And yet, at the time at least, it seemed that this would be the end of the magical pairing of Edwards and Sellers, who both decided to move on to other projects. Then, almost a decade later, the two joined formidable forces again for the next film, The Return of the Pink Panther.

Released in 1974, this sequel finds Clouseau back on the trail of the Pink Panther diamond, which has been stolen from its supposedly secure surroundings. Clouseau suspects that Sir Charles is up to his old tricks again and sets out with a series of disguises, most memorably a pool cleaner and a telephone repairman, to solve the mystery of the missing diamond. And along the way, he manages to drive his boss Dreyfus closer to the edge of insanity.

With another box-office success, it was clear that there was plenty of life in the Pink Panther franchise. Another sequel would follow two years later called The Pink Panther Strikes Again. This time, we find Dreyfus incarcerated in a mental institution, as he desperately tries to convince his keepers that he has found his wits again and is safe to return to society. All seems to be going well until a visit from the bumbling Clouseau sends him back to insanity. He promptly breaks out from the facility and proceeds to end his problems once and for all.

Holed up in a secluded castle, Dreyfus kidnaps a scientist and his daughter and forces the old man to create a doomsday machine. He then broadcasts around the world that he will destroy the United Nations building unless the world gets together and kills Clouseau.

Nations around the world dispatch their top assassins to hunt a completely oblivious Clouseau, who is busy with such tasks as fending off increasing attacks from his faithful servant, Cato. After numerous failed attempts on the Inspector’s life, Clouseau sets out to find Dreyfus, arriving at the castle disguised as a dentist who had been summoned to help Dreyfus with a painful tooth. The results of this meeting are one of the funniest ever captured on film and lead to a fantastical conclusion in which the fate of the world lies in the hands of Inspector Clouseau.

With the success of the latest film, it was of course time to shoot another – the last the Sellers would appear in (sort of) called Revenge of the Pink Panther. In this 1978 offering, Clouseau is the target of French gangster Philippe Duvalier, who orders a bomb planted in the Inspector’s car to rid the world once and for all of the inept but dangerous Clouseau.

The plot is unsuccessful, thanks to a car thief who steals the auto from Clouseau before it detonates, but the world doesn’t know that, thinking he has met his demise. While the world pays tribute to the late great Inspector, he sets out covertly to solve the crime, with the help of trusted manservant Cato and Duvalier’s disgruntled secretary (played by a young Dyan Cannon). The trio ends up in Hong Kong, with Clouseau donning a Godfather disguise, and concludes with a madcap finale involving a fireworks factory.

After so many successful films under their belt, it was a no-brainer to keep the franchise going. Sadly, those plans were forever altered when Peter Sellers suffered a fatal heart attack in 1980. The world mourned his loss and it seemed the franchise was finally over. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Two years later, The Trail of the Pink Panther was released. This time around, Inspector Clouseau sets out to find the elusive diamond again, then mysteriously vanishes. All of this was accomplished through the use of previously unused footage of Sellers, combined with classic scenes that were used as a retrospective of the Inspector’s life.

Less successful than its predecessors, the film still managed to spawn yet another sequel, The Curse of the Pink Panther. This time around, producers tried replacing Sellers with actor, Clifton Sleigh. Despite the return of the other cast regulars, the film bombed. It just couldn’t be the same without Peter Sellers.

For the next sequel, rather than try to recast Clouseau yet again, filmmakers decided to star a successful Italian comedic film star, Robert Benigni, as Clouseau’s illegitimate son in The Son of the Pink Panther. Audiences didn’t buy this premise either and the film performed dismally at the box-office. It would seem that, at long last, the Pink Panther franchise was fini, closed, over with, done, that’s it.

Not so fast though. In 2006, the whole franchise was re-booted, this time starring Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau and Kevin Kline in the role of Dreyfus. Rather than a remake, this was an all-new contemporary adventure, with the hopes of introducing these beloved characters to a whole new generation of fans. The Pink Panther debuted at #1 at the box-office and was successful enough to green-light it’s own sequel, The Pink Panther Duex, released in 2009, which was also a hit.

And yet, no matter how successful the new films may be, and despite the considerable talents of Steve Martin, even he would understand that for the millions of people who grew up laughing at the antics of Peter Sellers, there will always be only one Inspector Jacques Clouseau – perhaps the most beloved bumbler to ever grace the film screen.

If you were a fan of the Pink Panther films, we would love to hear your favorite memories in our comments section below, as we give a tip of the ol’ inspector hat to Peter Sellers, a comedic genius who made the world a far funnier place.

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