Dial "P" For Pink (DePatie-Freleng, 1965)
Dir: Hawley Pratt
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9
I used to have a lot more love in my heart for the ol' Pink Panther than I do now. Growing up, I saw his cartoons nearly as much as I watched Bugs Bunny or Jonny Quest, and there always seemed to be some sort of Pink Panther Variety Hour or similar construct on NBC or whatever network all through my childhood. (I was especially fascinated by the version that had the puppet Abominable Snowman and the weird hands in gloves that moved like puppets, though they were only hands.) The Panther cartoons were always enjoyable to me, though I preferred the Inspector shorts (and still do). The difference between the Panther and, say, the Warner Bros. shorts, was that I have always had access to a multitude of the Warner's series, but the Panther went missing for a number of years. Except for one hour-long collection of Pink Panther cartoons that I purchased on VHS in the '80s, I have had to rely mainly on my golden memories of my youth misspent following the adventures of the generally silent, tall drink of pink.
The problem is that the Panther hasn't aged all that well in my eyes, and it is one of those cases where my memory is doing me a disservice by overwhelming the poor cat with my fond memories, and not quite matching up with what I now see on the screen. It is also perhaps that as a youth, I had little experience with the vast majority of theatrical cartoons and screen comedy in general, and thus I saw the bits in many of the Panther shorts as incredibly fresh, when in fact they were mostly rehashed gags. The Panther cartoons are not ornate by any means, nor were they meant to be, and that never played a factor in diminishing my memories as I now see the spare backgrounds and somewhat limited animation; I have always remembered that this was the case. They were lower budgeted cartoons for an industry in the 60's and 70's that had turned in that direction, and I understood that even as a child of twelve. (Another example of this is my fond memories of watching Yogi's Ark Lark as a child, and being fascinated with the plethora of Hanna-Barbera characters unleashed within the confines of one cartoon show. The show is well nigh unwatchable nowadays, but even back then I knew that it was a piece of crap. But where were you going to get Yogi, Huckleberry, Augie Doggie, Yakky Doodle and, especially, Snagglepuss in the same show? Well, not until the Laff-A-Lympics, at least... (Plus, they were fighting polluters and evildoers in a flying ark! I couldn't resist as a boy, because just how sound is that concept to an eight-year-old obsessed with Ranger Rick, Smokey the Bear, and Woodsy Owl in 1972? Deeply so...)
Dial "P" for Pink is the Panther still near the outset of his career, when Friz Freleng had not long before turned the reins over to Hawley Pratt, and there was still a small amount of sophistication and cool to the cat. The best Panther cartoons are where the cat is clearly in control of the situation; where his silence and smoothness cause his (usually) human foil to become profoundly exasperated as that character's idyllic pursuit crashes to the ground about him due to the silent and generally unseen interference from the Panther. Because it is one of the earlier films, it has a markedly higher degree of quality of most of the later films; and while a good many gags have been seen before in countless other films, the energy and the strict adherence to gags being logically silly, not stupid or incomplete (as in later entries), earns this short an ort of respect from my critical table.
The setup is as simple as can be: a burglar wants to break into a small safe in the middle of the night. This would all work out just fine if he hadn't picked the safe where the Pink Panther happens to be residing. Why the Panther is living in the safe is unknown, but it is interesting to note that the name of the jewel in the first Sellers Panther film is The Pink Panther. Perhaps the cartoon Panther that we see is a spirit that resides within the jewel and causes comical misfortune to befall those who attempt to steal it? This would explain many of the actions within the feature film, and the events in this cartoon. Except the burglar sees and interacts with the Panther quite tangibly by the end of this piece, and the Panther spirit does not explain the actions in the remainder of the Panther feature films (the only explanation you ever need for any of those films is: Inspector Clouseau), and it certainly doesn't hold for the other Panther cartoons which have nothing to do with safecracking. But it sure would explain why he is living, Oscar-the-Grouch trashcan-style, inside of a safe. The film itself consists of a variety of well-played and casually escalating gags involving attempts to either break open the safe or, later, steal it entirely, with the burglar constantly getting snookered by the calm countermoves of the Panther.
Three things of note in this film: 1) When the burglar first tries to unlock the safe, a loud burst of music assails his ears, and then a second time. When I was a child, this was extremely funny to me, but then a few years later I saw this same gag pulled on Harpo in Duck Soup. Now the gag is still funny to me, but in an entirely different way; 2) I like the way the cat will pop in and out of the top of the safe while the burglar is working on it from another angle. Even after the burglar sees the cat briefly pop up the top, he never actually tries to get into from there; and 3) there is no way this film would get made today, not with the Panther (as he does in many of the early films) smoking a cigarette on a long holder (a symbol of his classiness in those days), and even opening the top to discard a bowl of ashes at one point. I also wonder how it would go with parent's groups and the government if the cartoon characters of today, in our nation's current supposed "Age of Terror" attitude, wielded sticks of TNT and lighted bombs as much as the cartoon loonies of years past? I know the Looney Tunes crew still did this to a certain degree in Back in Action, but that was a nod to the more violent past, and I think that if a new Bugs cartoon were made today, it would definitely not come up at all.
As for the Panther and his cigarette smoking, it's a good thing that they dropped that characteristic early on, or he would have eventually gone the way of Joe the Camel. I do, however, find it hard to imagine that the Panther would have gone smoking through all of those Corning Insulation commercials if he had retained the sorry habit. One misplaced flick of ash and... POOF! He could have beaten Michael Jackson to the advertising punch...