Suspended Animation #337
Born from a movie title sequence, and featuring no voice so he must convey his thoughts through pantomime, the Pink Panther is perhaps the only cartoon character based on elegance and “style” and one of the few theatrical cartoon stars to be created after the 1950s.
The Panther also has the distinction of being one of the few cartoon characters to be multiplely-owned. Those who have a piece of the Panther include DePatie-Freleng (the studio that first animated him), Julie Andrews (widow and heir to Blake Edwards estate, Edwards being the producer/director of the first feature), Mirisch Productions (production company of the first feature) and MGM (due to the fact that they acquired United Artists, who first distributed the picture).
David DePatie and Friz Freleng had been at Warner Brothers when the shorts department closed down. They formed their own company and went into the business of doing commercials. Blake Edwards, a TV and Feature producer was completing his comic farce, The Pink Panther.
The film’s story was about a smooth thief, known as the Phantom (David Niven), attempting to steal the most valuable jewel in the world, “The Pink Panther.” The jewel has been so named because of a flaw in it that looks “like a tiny pink panther.” Making life difficult for the thief is the fact that the famous, bumbling French Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is on his heels. It was a delightful “caper” film with strong elements of farce and slapstick.
DePatie, who was an associate of Edwards received a call one day from the producer-director. He stated his latest film was “screaming” for an animated title sequence. Freleng had his crew draw up around eighty different designs for a “pink panther.” They showed them to Edwards who immediately pointed to one and claimed that “was it.” The design chosen was one from the group by Hawley Pratt.
Pratt had been one of the key layout artists in the classic days of Warners. In fact, in the early Sixties Freleng and Chuck Jones had begun giving Pratt co-directing credit on many shorts. Pratt was considered one of the better draftsmen at Warners and even did a large number of children’s and Little Golden Books throughout the 1950s-1960s.
The studio went to work and created the opening titles. In them, the animated Panther appears out of the flaw in the gem. He is sitting on his haunches (some scenes in the first title make him much more panther-like than human), holding a cigarette in a holder. He turns to the audience and smiles, scampering through the credits in an unprecedented manner. At the film’s end, he reappears to hold up a “the end” sign.
Ken Harris did much of the animation but there was additional work by Warren Batchelder, Dale Case, Manny Gould, George Grandpré, Laverne Harding, Bob Matz, Norm McCabe, Manuel Perez, and Don Williams with Corny Cole as the graphic designer.
The title got almost as much praise and applause as the film. Supposedly some audiences remained in the theater after the film just to see the opening credits again. The publicity impressed United Artists and they decided to take a chance and ordered DePatie-Freleng to make a couple of theatrical shorts based on the character.
The studio went to work on The Pink Phink (1964). This short established all the key elements for the series. First, the Panther remained silent. However, this meant that no one else could talk in the short either. The producers felt that if any of the other characters talked, it would appear as if the Panther were mute.
The short debuted on December 18, 1964 and was successful critically and financially receiving an Oscar for Best Animated Short.
De-Patie-Freleng began producing shorts in quick succession, around eight to twelve per year. The peak year was 1968 with 17 released that year alone. Pratt directed many of the early shorts. It was the beginning of not only a long running series of theatrical cartoons but several television series and specials and a flood of merchandise.
Animator Ken Harris remembered animating the titles for the first film: “I didn’t especially like the character, but I didn’t dislike it. He was kind of hard to animate, with long legs and tail, but it worked out all right. I probably did 60% of the animation on the titles at the beginning.
“The layout for the cartoon character was done by Hawley Pratt who worked for the DePatie-Freleng Studio in Hollywood. He did the original drawings and came up with the design and style of the character which was then approved by the film’s director Blake Edwards. That happened in 1962-63 which was my last year before Warner Bros. closed their cartoon department.
“For The Return of the Pink Panther, it was Dick Williams’ idea to do Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, George Raft, Cyd Charisse, Esther Williams, Noel Coward, Groucho Marx, Cagney, Cooper, Carmen Miranda and all those old time movie stars.
“We even had Cecil B. DeMille. It was my idea to have the Panther dancing and jiggling his rear end. We ran some reels of their old films and looked at books with typical poses of Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly. If anything, I think it turned out we were most influenced by Gene.
“The Pink Panther credits last about four minutes and take about twelve weeks to animate. For The Return of the Pink Panther, I did most of the animation myself working with one assistant, John Ellis.
“I didn’t particularly like the character of the Pink Panther at first. He’s very uppity by nature although he’s suave and debonair but now I’m used to his tricks and enjoy drawing him.”
Richard Williams remembered, “Ken was amazing. He was 77 years old and came over here (England) and spent weeks wiggling his behind backwards and forwards in order to feel the correct movement for that opening shot of the Panther.”
Animator Tony White who animated the titles in The Pink Panther Strikes Again said, “In The Return of the Pink Panther we sent-up old-time stars but for The Pink Panther Strikes Again, we decided to send up old movies. Among the films included were King Kong, Singin’ In the Rain, The Sound of Music and the ‘Big Spender’ number from Sweet Charity.
“We also had Buster Keaton and Dracula as well as a spoof of the famous Hitchcock silhouette.
“For instance, we showed King Kong snatching at planes on top of the Empire State Building then Clouseau snatched off Kong’s mask and underneath it was the Pink Panther’s tiny head. Then we had the cartoon Clouseau swimming underwater with Panther as a shark suddenly appearing and bearing down on him as a send-up of Jaws. Clouseau is becoming more of a central character, but the Pink Panther is responsible for lousing up everything he does.
“The back of the Panther’s head is very difficult to draw. If I ever have any problems I usually sleep on them and everything turns out all right the next day. I spent about twelve weeks working on the titles for The Pink Panther Strikes Again with Richard Burdett as my assistant. I love drawing the character and hope to animate him again some day.”