As many Star Wars fans will attest, the law of diminishing returns can have a devastating effect on movie franchises, because the original magic tends to dissipate with each successive trip to the well. Watching The Pink Panther Film Collection, a lovingly packaged collection of five features and supplements, is like witnessing a particularly sobering lesson in mortality. At the peak of their abilities, director Blake Edwards and star Peter Sellers were complementary talents, with Sellers' indelible bungler Inspector Clouseau finding an ideal home in Edwards' elegant and infectiously silly capers. Together, they represented a welcome throwback to Hollywood comedies in the vaudeville tradition, starring the likes of Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, and the Marx brothers. But three decades and several sequels later, after the jokes have curdled and a withered Sellers has literally clowned his way to the grave, what happens to the series' legacy? Can a proper eulogy omit mention of 1982's Trail Of The Pink Panther, which exhumed Sellers outtakes two years after his death and brought back ailing original star David Niven, as overdubbed by celebrity impersonator Rich Little?
The answer is yes, according to "The Pink Panther Story," a fawning 30-minute featurette included on the six-DVD anthology. Edwards, producer Walter Mirisch, and others acknowledge the friction between the director and his eccentric star, and even cop to their mercenary reasons for making three quickie sequels 12 years after A Shot In The Dark, but they clearly want The Pink Panther's legacy to rest in 1964. It says something when a promotional documentary seeks to distance itself from three of the five movies in the set, with zero mention of Trail—surely one of the more interesting footnotes in bad-cinema history.
Ironically, Trail's warmed-over heist plot brings the series full circle to the original, when the title The Pink Panther referred to the flaw in a coveted royal diamond. Because the later movies were identified so closely with Clouseau, it's easy to forget that he was merely one in an ensemble at first, sharing screen time with Niven, Capucine, Robert Wagner, and Claudia Cardinale. If not for Sellers' hilarious pratfalls, The Pink Panther could be mistaken for a luxuriant caper movie like Topkapi, which is precisely what makes the movie so funny. It acts as the straight man, while Sellers gets to play mischief-maker.
Pushing the Clouseau character front and center, Edwards and company inserted him into an existing script for A Shot In The Dark, by far the series' strongest installment. Where the other sequels go off on absurdist tangents and non sequiturs, Shot remains tied to a witty plot about Clouseau's attempt to protect a pretty maid (Elke Sommer) accused of murder. Time and again, he releases her from jail, only to find her hovering over another corpse, which doesn't stop him from snorting at the overwhelming evidence against her. For the first and last time, the series synthesizes its best qualities: Edwards' meticulously orchestrated long takes, just the right dose of Sellers' physical shtick, and a well-balanced story that allows for more coherent comedy.
Yet the seeds of the franchise's demise were also planted in A Shot In The Dark, which introduces two recurring characters who would wear out their welcome: Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), a police boss whose contempt for Clouseau leads him to the depths of eye-twitching insanity, and a young Chinese kung-fu expert (Burt Kwouk) ordered to constantly ambush Clouseau for training purposes. Dreyfus' lunatic obsession with Clouseau gives a little comic spark to 1976's The Pink Panther Strikes Again, in which Dreyfus assembles an entire global crime syndicate for the sole purpose of killing Clouseau. But that frenetic behavior grows tiresome in 1978's Revenge Of The Pink Panther, matched by the now painfully unfunny Sellers, who thickens his French accent and dons a number of humiliating disguises. When Sellers appears in a pirate getup, complete with a peg leg and an inflatable parrot, it's enough to make viewers wish the Pink Panther movies never existed.