ANIMATION ANECDOTES
September 17, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

The Art of the Pink Panther Movie Titles

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.”

14 Comments

  • There was a well-known film critic — it might have been Roger Ebert — who compiled a list of things that would tip him off, within the first few minutes, that a movie was going to be bad: if it had a character in it named “Cole”, for example. Another sure-fire sign of a bad movie, he said, was if it had an animated opening title. But he made an exception for the Pink Panther movies, and for good reason. Of all the animated titles in the history of cinema, they are surely the gold — or should I say pink? — standard.

    “The Pink Phink” may have established the pantomime format of the series, but there are a couple of early theatrical shorts in which the Pink Panther and other characters do speak, namely “Sink Pink” and “Pink Ice”; and in “Pickled Pink” he befriends a voluble drunk, played by Mel Blanc. They’re all good cartoons, but I find them a little disconcerting just the same.

    Speaking of animated opening titles that feature a character who embodies elegance and style, honourable mention should be given to Shelley Long in the 1989 comedy “Troop Beverly Hills”. John Kricfalusi’s animation here is clever, appealing and full of personality. If the film had been more successful, the title might have served as a template for an animated series based on it. Ironically, when Kricfalusi had the freedom to pursue his own artistic vision, the results were often too disgusting for words; but the work-for-hire he did on “Troop Beverly Hills” was really first-rate.

  • Asked what his favourite character was when in Toronto Friz Freleng said, “My wife likes Bugs Bunny. I like The Pink Panther. I make money from him.” Some think that crass. They don’t stop to reflect that any source of income is always a good thing for an artist which Friz was. When I brought him up here many in the animation industry locally said he was old hat and could teach them nothing. “He has one thing he can teach you,” I said. They asked, “What’s that?” I said, “How to be in demand at his age.” I brought Friz up here expecting no one but myself to be interested in meeting him. That is how heavy the negativity was. My Board of Directors told me to call him and cancel. When I picked up the phone to dial I heard Friz’s voice saying, “Reg, this is Friz. I can’t come up. De-Patie-Freleng has folded. I’m back at Warners. They don’t want me going anywhere they do not approve of and they don’t approve of you.”” The phone had not even rung. I thought, “Cool. All I have to say is, ‘Gee, Friz, that’s too bad,’ and I’m off the hook..” Instead I said, “How do you feel?” Friz said, “I have you my word and my wife’s looking forward to the trip.” I said, “Then I guess you are coming.” I flew Friz and Lilly up First Class Air Canada. I had told them who he was. The Captain put Friz in his seat. Friz landed the plane when it hit Toronto (this was before 9/11. We have lost so much). The event was a HUGE success. I published the talk Friz gave. People said, “We learned A LOT FROM him.” So did I. Love the man, his wife and his family: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbZwISKdfnQ .

    • WOW! Such a great story and it speaks volumes of the caliber of man Isadore Freleng was.

    • I’m sure Freleng’s remark got an appreciative laugh from the audience and nobody thought any the less of him for it. I’m reminded of how Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston always seemed to take greater pride in their work on later films like “The Aristocats” and “Robin Hood” than on earlier classics like “Snow White”. Like Freleng, they were artists who continually challenged themselves and refused to rest on their laurels.

      I won’t fly Air Canada again for a number of reasons — long delays, lost and damaged baggage — but the fact that they once allowed Friz Freleng to land one of their commercial flights is going straight to the top of the list! “Lucky for me this thing had air brakes!”

  • Should be noted in passing that the first Clouseau sequel, “A Shot in the Dark”, also had animated titles from DePatie-Freleng. That movie began as an adaptation of an unrelated play, but at some point Edwards decided to shape it for the Clouseau character, with no reference to events of “The Pink Panther”. It did define the official PP sequels, introducing Chief Inspector Dreyfus and Kato.

    The style of the titles was different, and it centered on a little caricature of the inspector, a three-headed villain, and lots of little bombs. Again, there was a catchy instrumental theme by Henry Mancini.

    That spawned “The Inspector”, another series of theatrical & television cartoons. The title character was redesigned and paired with a dim patrolman and a blustering boss to replace Kato and Dreyfus. The three-headed villain appeared just once, and was tweaked into the affable Brothers Matzoreilly, a regular segment on the studio’s “Super Six”. Again, Mancini’s movie theme was featured throughout.

    The Inspector appears to have been superseded by the caricature appearing in the Williams animated titles. Recently saw a toy bank modeled on the latter but haven’t seen anything of the Inspector in decades, aside from DVDs of the old shorts.

    • These titles were actually animated in England at TVC studios supervised by George Dunning. Friz did go over to London at one point. It is my opinion that the reason the titles were produced in England was so United Artists could expend money impounded under tax laws related to foreign motion picture companies. I have also wondered whether the storyboard, created by British or Scottish born John Dunn, might have qualified for the release of those funds as well due to his possible British citizenship at the time.

      • It’s true that Dunn was born in Scotland, but his family migrated to northern California in 1926, when he was only seven. It’s likely that he became a naturalised U.S. citizen during his service in the Army in WWII, if not earlier; foreign-born servicemen were strongly urged to do so. If he did, he would have immediately ceased to be a British subject, as U.S. law did not recognise dual citizenship with the United Kingdom (or most other countries) during his lifetime. Therefore Dunn’s country of origin would not have been a factor in United Artsts’ decision to have that animation produced in London.

  • No one ever seems to mention the animation for the original movie’s trailer…

    • That trailer is very interesting. I have speculated that Ken Harris did a fair amount of the animation on that as well. It was probably produced under a tight deadline. I recall Ken insisting (in 1974) that all the animation he did on “The Pink Panther” was for Warner Bros. The timing of when that work was accomplished is a little mysterious to me. It also leads me to wonder whether Ken’s animation on the first Chuck Jones “Tom and Jerry” cartoon was done when Ken was still employed at Warner Bros. Cartoons Inc. I know that he was working on “The Incredible Mr. Limpett” and Ken is credited on some of the final Warner cartoons released. Limpett was premiered January 20, 1964. The release date of Jones’ “Penthouse Mouse” (credited in part to Harris) was July 27, 1963. The feature film “The Pink Panther” was released December 18, 1963. It was apparently filmed around 19 November 1962. Usually the titles of a film are made in a rush close to the release date. One thing for sure is that the work scene was hopping that year.

  • I’m sorry Jim! If I may make one correction: DFE produced 28 shorts in ’68 ( not 17) 19 of them were Pink Panthers. The first ten PP shorts were directed by Friz Freleng, and the next 19 consecutive ones were directed by Hawley Pratt.

    • Always better to get as much information and accurate information in print as possible. Corrections and additions are ALWAYS appreciated!

  • It makes sense that Pink Panther would be Freleng’s favorite character. It was his own company’s and not a “Warner Bros.” character to be shared with so many others.

    If he’d been a consultant on “Roger Rabbit” (which frankly hasn’t aged well), it would have been a much better movie.

    • I don’t think it would work considering the results of most of the Looney Tune completion films that Friz was involved with.

  • Richard Williams personally cleaned up much of Ken Harris’ key animation drawings on “The Return of the Pink Panther” titles.

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