For those who don’t know, the idea for the Pink Panther came from director Blake Edwards. He was directing a film about a diamond heist featuring Peter Sellers. Famous diamonds are often named, and the diamond in this movie was named The Pink Panther. Edwards contacted Friz Freleng and David DePatie about creating titles for the movie with an animated panther. When matched up with Henry Mancini’s memorable theme music, a star was born. The animated titles and the character were widely praised. Fortunately for DePatie and Freleng, they had negotiated partial ownership of the character. That led to a major contract for over 100 Panther short cartoons for theatrical release.
Many Blake Edwards movies have notable amounts of slapstick comedy. So his teaming up with a great cartoon director like Friz Freleng was a match made in heaven. They both understood the same classic comedy that I cover on this blog and in my book.
For this review, I watched every short on the five-disc Pink Panther Classic Cartoon Collection DVD released in 2006. That is 124 cartoons, although a few of them are the same film, just retitled. It’s a good collection, but too many of the films include the laugh track that was added when the films were repurposed for television. Look for a new Blu-ray disc in 2018 that doesn’t have that. Over time, the quality of the shorts diminishes. No shorts from after 1969 are included here. That means none from the last two discs.
The Panther is a footloose comedian. A short can open with him in any situation, from being homeless to owning a diamond mine. What matters is if it appears to be natural for him. The worst way to start a story is with an unbelievable event. For instance, in PINK PRANK, one of the later films, they wanted him to be in the Arctic. So they had him on a passenger plane and a trap door opens under his seat, dropping him out with a parachute to land with. Clearly, it’s forced.
The most important element in a successful short is a worthy antagonist. If they found one he worked well with, they would bring them back for more. His most common opponent was a short man, with a large nose and small mustache. This is commonly known to be a caricature of Friz Freleng. Pay attention to how he works with the different adversaries. While we often think of the Panther as a “cool” character, he was able to experience quite a range of reactions, from fear to anger to frustration.
One quality I looked for was some form of narrative arc. A beginning, middle, and end. Usually, that meant the film was also consistently good from beginning to end. In later years, many of the shorts became just collections of sight gags on a random topic. While you want the story to build in intensity, It also helps to start off with a good laugh. One of my favorite opening gags is in LITTLE BEAUX PINK. Some of the cartoons on this list have very happy endings, which is an accomplishment.
While Friz Freleng directed the first few panther cartoons, Hawley Pratt was clearly the most successful. Actually, I didn’t look at director names until I finished selecting. I was typing the title in my notes, so it always went by while I wasn’t looking.
If you count, there are actually twelve cartoons here. So you get a 20% bonus, and the option to tell me which two you think I should cut.
HERE ARE THE TOP PINK PANTHER CARTOONS!
THE PINK PHINK. Directed by Friz Freleng, 1965
It would be unthinkable to not start with the very first Pink Panther stand-alone cartoon. Not only because it gave Friz his fifth and final Academy Award, it is also the quintessential panther short. It’s him vs. the little man, who is trying to paint his house blue. The panther, mostly unseen, finds multiple ways to paint over everything in pink. This is the comic variations on a theme. The Panther is at his coolest.
PICKLED PINK. Directed by Friz Freleng, co-directed by Hawley Pratt, 1965
This is one of two Panther shorts I have selected to have a significant voiced character. Putting a silent character working with a talkative actor is an uncommon situation, and one I should put more time into studying myself. Mel Blanc provides the voice of a well-dressed inebriate, what used to be known as a “swell.” The drunken swell was popular in silent films, and Chaplin played the part masterfully. The swell finds the Panther alone in the park and brings him home. He tries to make him comfortable but has to hide him from his wife, who is also voiced by Blanc.
THE PINK TAIL FLY. Directed by Friz Freleng, co-directed by Hawley Pratt, 1965.
This was the first of the Panther’s adventures fighting a small insect. The conflict was successful enough to be used over again a few times. He can’t sleep, and the situation is made worse by a mosquito entering his bedroom. They have a serious back and forth battle and the mosquito is both tricky and strong.
AN OUNCE OF PINK. Directed by Hawley Pratt, 1965.
I may be unduly influenced by the fact that I remember seeing this short as a kid and liking it then. This is the second of the two shorts that feature the silent Panther playing against a voiced actor. Larry Storch is the voice of a coin-operated talking scale that tells fortunes. It’s an inanimate object, but because the voice is so good, it has a lot of personality. The scale is able to manipulate the Panther by promising to tell him his future, but the time runs out and he has to insert another coin. It’s a great mix of both verbal and visual comedy.
THE PINK BLUEPRINT. Directed by Hawley Pratt, 1966.
Some great silent comedies have been created around the theme of house construction. Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy made some classics, and this animated shorts stands well with those. The plans, the tools, the building materials provide seemingly endless possibilities for things to go wrong. The Panther puts in some great surreal moments that are best done in a cartoon.
PINK, PLUNK, PLINK. Directed by Hawley Pratt, 1966
The Panther has taken up playing the violin and fancies himself ready for the symphony. He sneaks into the auditorium where they are playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The orchestra, with its classic formality, is a common target for the comic actor to make fun of. The little white guy is the conductor, and of course can’t tolerate any interruption. Ultimately, the Panther is able to take over from the conductor, and have the band play his theme song. It ends with a live shot of the Hollywood Bowl, with Henry Mancini applauding.
PINTO PINK, directed by Hawley Pratt, 1967.
The Panther is hitchhiking to Anaheim. When a horse laughs at him, he gets the idea to take the horse and ride him to his destination. Climbing on to the horse is dreadfully difficult, and often ends with the Panther getting the worst of it. It becomes a running gag to have the horse laugh at him when that happens. The horse laugh is a great punctuation to end each comic event. It has lots of good gags, but my favorite is when the Panther is standing on a ladder and is launched into the sky. As the ladder starts to fall, he begins climbing down the ladder. As it hits the ground and sticks, he is able to defy physics and simply step off the ladder. Again, the success of the horse as an antagonist led to a few more shorts with the same idea.
LITTLE BEAUX PINK. Directed by Hawley Pratt, 1968.
This short is not unlike the Tex Avery Drag-a-Long Droopy short where a sheep farmer moves into cattle country and a land war erupts. This is a good example of how a great opening gag can get the audience warmed up quickly. It cracks me up how the sheep moves the cowboy and his horse out of his way. The sheep and the cowboy also provide great comedy.
The next two shorts I am calling a tie. They both are about the Panther facing off against a mouse. They are simply too equally good for me chose one over the other.
PINK A BOO. Directed by Hawley Pratt, 1966.
When a partying mouse moves into his wall, the Panther tries numerous ways to remove him. The mouse has a funny design that I like quite a bit. Ultimately, he decides the best way to get rid of the mouse is to dress like a cat to chase him out. It’s an absurd idea, a panther having to wear a cat costume.
PINKNIC. Directed by Hawley Pratt, 1967.
This time, the Panther is stranded alone in a remote cabin in winter, with no food. Starvation looms. When a mouse wakes up, he is also starved, and ferociously tries to make a meal out of the big cat. This is a reverse of the usual predator/prey relationship, and it opens fresh ideas. At around the 4-minute mark, there is a hysterical gag with the Panther falling asleep. Through his drooping eyelids we can see the mouse slowly creeping up on him with a big hammer. It’s beautifully timed out.
IN THE PINK OF THE NIGHT. Directed by Art Davis, 1969
The Panther destroys his alarms clocks so he can sleep late. He decides it’s too important to get up, so he buys a cuckoo clock to help him. The cuckoo becomes an excellent antagonist, and the resolution of the story is unusually warm and positive. Interestingly, it includes a gag of the Panther being in a hurry to get out of the house in the morning, so rather than make a cup of coffee, he dumps the ingredients in his mouth and mixes them there. Rowan Atkinson did exactly the same thing years later in one of his Mr. Bean films. I wonder if he was inspired by this short.
PINKARELLA. Directed by Hawley Pratt, 1969.
A drunken witch drops her wand, and the panther finds it. The wand allows him to become fairy godmother to a street urchin. The age-old gag of slipping on a banana peel gets a fresh take with the magic wand. It is also the only appearance of a female Pink Panther, an unusual treat that he deserves for being such a nice guy.