Monday, February 27, 2006

THE PINK PHINK (1964)

I recently received, via Amazon, the complete collection of Pink Panther cartoons on DVD. While I imagine the later discs to be somewhat rough and monotonous going, it is the early films from the first few years of the Panther's reign as the best thing going in theatrical cartoons in the mid-60's (as Warner Bros. had already begun their decade-long spin into dessication from what was once an artistically inspired outfit, and Disney barely put out any shorts anymore), that I had been awaiting for some time. The biggest pleasure, it turns out, is being freed from the annoying laugh tracks that were attached to the films for television, the likes of which I have had to deal with since my childhood. To hear and see The Pink Phink, the very first Pink Panther short, free from this unnecessary audio intrusion was the first and most immediate pleasure I received when I plugged in the initial disc from the collection. The next immediate pleasure was to rediscover the simple joys that a perfectly designed and well-written cartoon can bring.

There is an explosion on the screen like a pink sunburst, and then the cat appears; the Pink Panther, that is. Calm, cool, and collected (the Three C's, Arthur Fonzarelli would call them); the Panther is all of these, seated serenely with his early omnipresent cigarette holder clenched in his smirking fangs. Once almost expects this entire cartoon to be completely colored in pink, and eventually, it will be, but the film starts off far more subtly. In fact, almost too subtly: when we first see the Panther in the story proper, he walks onto a nearly entirely white, stark backdrop, with only a few lines scrawled at screen left. The cat follows these lines and eventually we see a forced perspective shot of a long hallway with blue walls. It is the first indicator that we are inside of a building, specifically, a house. The camera pans further left and we meet The Little Man for the first time, a character who would appear time and again as the Panther's nemesis, and whose mustachioed look was based on the company's own Friz Freleng. The Little Man is painting a wall with bright blue paint, and takes no notice whatsoever of the large pink cat. The Panther dips a finger in the paint, tastes it, and finds the color blue not to his liking at all. He replaces the can with one full of pink paint, and the Little Man continues to paint unaware of the change of pails, with the new color going over the old blue one. Now, he notices it, and turns to find his blue can gone, but a trail of blue drippings leads him to a door.

It is remarkable how much is conveyed in this cartoon with only the simplest line drawings. We don't see the walls about the room in which the door is placed. Only the door, the keyhole of which the man looks through and gets an eyeful of blue paint. Perturbed, he runs at the door to knock it in, but it opens politely as he approaches it, and he stops short to find his blue pail sitting there undisturbed. It seems all is well as he picks it up to return to his work, but the door flies open again and smashes him against the wall, as the Panther passes unseen by the crushed Little Man, who is revealed when the door closes in a blue wallsplatter.

The Little Man then stretches to the ceiling to paint a length of wall to about a third of the way from the floor; unbeknownst to him (he apparently has horrible peripheral vision), the Panther is painting that bottom section of wall with pink paint. When they pass, the Panther goes under the Little Man, who gets to the end of the section and notices the pink part; he frantically tries to paint over it with the blue paint, but the Panther does the opposite to the top section. (I like how messy all of the painting is; when colors go over each other, there are streaks of the previous color, and even at the end of sections, there are mistakes clear on the doors next to them.) The Little Man tries to paint a column blue, but the Panther paints it pink on the opposite side of him; they continue this pattern round and round until they are both running in circles and the whole thing ends up looking like a pink-and-blue barber's pole. The Panther leaves a trail of pink footprints, and the Little Man imagines that he is combatting a mouse. Pink camouflages himself on a pink wall, with only his eyes visible when he looks out at the Little Man. Pink paints a pink stripe down the Little Man's back, who turns and touches the wall, tickling the Panther, who takes off when the Man is not looking. He leaves an imprint in the paint of his body, but the Man now believes that he is combatting a giant mouse, and leaves to bring back a giant mousetrap, complete with an enormous wedge of cheese. As he goes to place the trap, a pink reaches in from offscreen and pulls out and then lets go of the measuring tape in the Little Man's pocket. An offscreen "Yow!" and "Snap!" are heard as the tape reaches its target, and the Little Man stomps back in trapped withing the spring-loaded doom of the giant mousetrap. Most amusingly, as he smolders off the screen, an actual mouse runs in and makes off with the huge hunk of cheese.

A series of gags are then employed to demonstrate the Panther's effectiveness against the Little Man: a set of half-doors are painted first blue, then pink, and the Man tries to win this fight by bringing in a giant brush and painting both halves blue in one stroke, but then the unseen Panther simply flips the entire door over pink; the Little Man paints a set of stairs blue, and is almost finished, but the Panther pours a can of pink from the top, leaving the Man to stomp furiously up the stairs, leaving little blue footprints; and the man finishes painting an entire room blue, but the Panther calmly walks in, sets up a sprinkler, and sprays every inch of it pink in seconds. The man does a doubletake when he looks in on the room again, and it is at this point (4 1/2 minutes into the cartoon) that he finally spies the Panther. He takes after the cat with a shotgun, blasting the Panther's tail black, but when the Little Man lets his guard down briefly, the Panther pours an entire can of pink paint into the barrel. The Panther then appears through each window of the house, and the man shoots at him accordingly, but he only succeeds in painting the entire house pink with a few shotgun blasts. The man goes bonkers, and grabs every can of paint that he can find, and on a background entirely white, buries the pile of cans in the yard. Suddenly, the grass and trees and bushes all sprout up around the pink house in exactly the same hue, and even the sun pops up in the sky, shiny and pink. The Panther espies the glory before him, and pulls the For Sale sign out of the ground, and moves into the house. The Little Man, mouth agape, goes to the mailbox to bang his head on it. The mailbox reads "The Pink Panther".

So sharp. So clever. So simple in design, but so perfect in execution. There is nothing used here that is more than what is necessary for each scene and for the story. The Panther films would eventually lose this focus, but early on it is used more often than not, and there are several gems in the first few years. This film would win the Academy Award, and while I have a few beefs with the Academy about some of the winning (or even nominated) films over the years, this one is not one of them. This film is simply marvelous, in every sense of the phrase.

The Pink Phink (DePatie-Freleng) Dir: Friz Freleng & Hawley Pratt
Cel Bloc Rating: 9

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