Friday, January 29, 2016

The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation (1965)

The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation (Mirisch/DePatie-Freleng, 1965)
Dir.: Friz Freleng & Gerry Chiniquy
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9


Pat Harrington, Jr. died a couple of weeks ago, and with him went another little piece of my childhood. When it was announced that the Emmy-winning actor had departed the realm of the living on January 6, every obituary that I read concentrated on what most seem to have agreed was of primary significance in his long career in show business: his role as Dwayne F. Schneider on the 1970s sitcom staple, One Day at a Time

I, too, watched that show in my youth and was quite fond of his character of the building superintendent who befriended and watched over the divorced mom and her two constantly squabbling teenage daughters. Schneider was a brash, outspoken, and quite funny character, and could easily be described as "The Fonzie" of the show. Harrington was indeed the main reason to tune in to One Day at a Time from week to week, though I will readily admit that after the first couple of years, I was really watching the show for Valerie Bertinelli, who was adorable and in my age bracket (and is four years older than me, so knock it off, ya pervs...)

Harrington started in television in the late '40s, but became famous a decade later when he starred as one of The Steve Allen Show's "Man in the Street" regulars, playing Italian golfer Guido Panzini, which he did in rotation with other popular characters portrayed by the likes of Louis Nye, Don Knotts, and Tom Poston. I didn't see any episodes of that show until I was much older when the Comedy Channel would play them in their early years (before they went "Central"), so they had no effect on me as a kid. Over the years, Harrington guest-starred on dozens of popular primetime shows and game shows (such as my beloved Match Game), and I remember seeing him from time to time on many of them. He was most memorable to me on an episode of the silly favorite F Troop, where he parodied Don Adams' Maxwell Smart character -- his character's name was B. Wise (instead of Get Smart; get it?) -- as a spy in the Old West.

But since I was a kid, I also knew Harrington as a voice actor; in fact, at some point during the run of One Day at a Time, I saw Harrington in an interview where he broke into the voice of one of my favorite cartoon characters in those Saturday morning cartoon-watching days: The Inspector. (It may have been on The Tonight Show, but I cannot remember fully, just that I saw him do it.) But I had already made the connection, because I was (out of many things that I was and am) an early reader of movie and cartoon credits. To this day, I sit through the entire credit roll of any film that I see in theatres -- even on a second or third viewing -- and very rarely skip out on this tradition. (It has to be a real emergency, like sudden illness, the building collapsing around us, or impending bladder eruption.) I love opening credits sequences, or even closing ones where obvious thought and care have gone into their making. One thing is clear: whether the credits are simple or intricate, I don't just want the present; I want everything that it is wrapped in as well.

And so I was an early adopter of the need to read through the credits of everything. It was also more necessary in those days, because you just couldn't hop on to the internet or your phone to find out immediately who someone was in whatever you were watching. If you were obsessed with cinema or animation, you had to make careful note of what you were watching, and if the credits were incomplete (as they often were), you were screwed until you could find a published source.

Lucky for me, even after their theatrical runs, the Pink Panther and Inspector cartoons that were being played on TV in the 1970s often (but not always) had their opening titles intact. It was there that I learned that Pat Harrington, Jr. did voices in the Inspector series (along with other well-known actors like Larry Storch and Paul Frees). And in listening to any of the Inspector's lines in these films, it is easy to make out Harrington's voice. What I did not know in those days, and did not find out until much, much later, was that there was another character in the series that Mr. Harrington handled as well. The other main character in the series, in fact: the Inspector's much put upon toady, Sergeant Deux-Deux. (I know... it blows the mind...)

In the very first Pink Panther theatrical feature film in 1964, the name "Pink Panther" actually refer to a famous jewel involved in the film's central mystery, though the even more famous cartoon character with that same name is also introduced in the credits sequence. The film and one of its main characters, the bumbling French detective, Inspector Clouseau -- portrayed by the nearly always brilliant Peter Sellers in what is actually a supporting role -- were massive hits in the pop culture of the day.

While The Pink Panther was cleaning up in theatres, Sellers and Edwards were filming an even better sequel, A Shot in the Dark, though it was an accident of circumstance that we have the film at all. Sellers was filming an unrelated adaption of a stage play, and it was not going well. To appease the notoriously egotistical actor, the producers hired Edwards, with whom Sellers had just made The Pink Panther, to take over the reins of the film. Edwards and William Peter Blatty (later of The Exorcist fame) rewrote the screenplay with Sellers' Clouseau character inserted and given the main role. As a result, The Pink Panther suddenly had a sequel that followed its U.S. premiere release by only a scant three months.

By the end of 1964, the first Pink Panther cartoon, The Pink Phink, would be released, win huge acclaim, win an Oscar as well, and give a jumpstart to a long-running series of theatrical cartoons that would see 124 shorts produced through 1978. And with the popularity of the pink jungle cat onscreen would come other series of cartoons produced by David H. DePatie and animation legend Friz Freleng, the first of which revolved around a reimagining of the Inspector Clouseau character, known in the cartoons only as "The Inspector".

The animated version of Inspector Clouseau was first introduced in the opening credits sequence of A Shot in the Dark. He was a fairly raggedly drawn character, in keeping with the tone of the other characters in the sequence, and he did look somewhat like Sellers' character. The sequence is about three minutes long, and largely involves the Inspector looking through keyholes or listening into telephones and getting shot in the face over and over again, and having all manner of terrible accidents befall him due to his ineptness. The sequence was directed by George Dunning, who would go on to direct the Beatles' Yellow Submarine by the end of the decade. [I love this bit of film -- it is one of my very favorite credits sequences, and if you want to read more about it and see images from it, visit the article I wrote about it here.]

When it came time to put The Inspector in his own series, DePatie-Freleng redesigned the character to make him a little more distinctive and smooth out his rougher edges. The flat hat from his original appearance was rounded so that it became more closely akin to the stalker-style fedora that Sellers wears in the film series, though in color, it matches exactly his trenchcoat in the cartoon. The trenchcoat itself has been given a very high collar that runs about two-thirds of the way to his hat. The Inspector has also been given, when his hat is on, a bald look, though in some shots in the first film, such as when he gets blown up by the bomb in the street, there are numerous hairs to be seen sticking out from his charred head. The end result, though, is a character that is capable of a broader range of emotion and reaction than the sketchier version of the Inspector in A Shot in the Dark.

The first film of the series, The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation (released to American theatres in December of 1965), not only has a terrible (read: wonderful) pun within its title, but also follows through on the double promise of that title. There is indeed a De Gaulle Stone in the film, and there will be a De Gaulle Stone Operation by the end of it. In Paris, at the Sûreté, the police headquarters, the Commissioner (who looks and sounds a good deal different than the one played by Herbert Lom in the movies) gives the Inspector the job of guarding the "family jewel" of the French president, thereby making it the "De Gaulle Stone". 

The Inspector, naturally, inspects the stone, thinking that he is looking at it through a jeweler's loupe (an eyepiece used for magnification). "Well, it's obviously a cheap grade of glass," he says. The Commissioner points out that maybe he should look through the loupe instead of the diamond, and sure enough, the Inspector has the oversized jewel lodged in his eye socket. He is told that the diamond is worth exactly 10 billion francs, and that in his responsibility of guarding the jewel for 24 hours while the De Gaulle residence annual spring cleaning is taking place, if he loses the De Gaulle Stone, he will end up paying for it.

"Well, in that case," says the Inspector, "I simply shall double the standard security measures." The Inspector calls for his assistant, Sergeant Deux-Deux. A black-gloved hand appears around the door frame and opens its palm upwards. The Inspector places the De Gaulle Stone in the palm of the hand and instructs Deux-Deux to have the diamond processed for fingerprints. The hand disappears with the diamond... and then Sergeant Deux-Deux walks into the room, asking, "You called me, Inspector?" 

Deux-Deux's accent is decidedly more Spanish than French. The Inspector tells him yes, and then turns directly to the camera, throwing out this aside: "I could never understand how he got into the French police force." The Inspector asks Deux-Deux to hand him the jewel, but the Sergeant denies having it in his possession. "The one that I placed in your black-gloved hand a moment ago," stresses the Inspector. "But, señor, I am wearing the white gloves," pleads the Sergeant. The eyes of the Inspector bulge out as he realizes that he has handed the diamond to parties unknown, and he turns towards the Commissioner in fear. His boss is already clenching his enormous fists and seething, his teeth gritted around his cigar, which is destroyed by a chain of small explosions. "In the name of Josephine," yells the Commissioner, "get that stone back here!" The Inspector and his toady are followed out the door of the Commissioner's office by assorted flung books and flowerpots.

The scene switches abruptly to a city sidewalk, where we see an odd three-headed figure with a single pair of arms and single pair of legs striding along. The figure is completely black in clothing -- consisting of a trenchcoat and a trio of tall hats --and its hands and faces are black as well. Two of the faces, which each have completely yellow eyes, have a constant scowl embedded on them and have straight teeth in their mouths, while the expression of the third is very different. His eyes are slanted inward and has a pair of very bucked teeth protruding over his lip. It is instantly clear that we are likely in for some Asian stereotyping. This is fully identified when the three heads of the figure speak... "I'm Weft!" says the first head, and the second one follows with "I'm Wight!" The third, the one with the slanted eyes and buckteeth finishes the introductions with "I'm Wong!"

This exceedingly strange figure is known as the Brothers Matzoriley (the spelling is according to Jerry Beck in his guide to the Pink Panther universe), who first appeared in the opening credits of A Shot in the Dark along with the Inspector. In that piece, they begin the animated segment by opening their trenchcoat to reveal the first of the credits. Then they get blown up by a bomb underneath one of their hats, and other characters take over the credit sequence. But here in the very first Inspector cartoon, they are pretty much placed center stage.


Weft and Wight start to argue about how their caper was pulled off, and Wong interjects with a saying that he says is from Confucius, but whom Wong names as "Confusion": "Three head not always better than one." The other two heads tell him to shut up, and shove Wong down into the coat. Wong opens up the jacket with a second pair of hands (perhaps revealing that they are actually three people walking around on one pair of legs for some reason and not just some form of mutation) to appear inside and tells the audience, "Truth will always out! Cannot cover up!" Weft and Wong start pummeling Wong with their fists inside the jacket.

The fighting draws the attention of the Inspector, who starts blowing his police whistle. Wight says, "Quick! Get in the Matzo-Mobile!" and then we see a long black car with a bubble top, outrageous batwings thrusting upward from the back of the vehicle, and a front-mounted cannon. It looks like not just a parody of the vastly more famous Batmobile, but also like it could almost be the progenitor of nearly every vehicle that appeared in shows like the Wacky Races, including Dick Dastardly's Mean Machine, and others throughout the late '60s and '70s. Of course, this time period was also flush with hot rod mania -- embodied by "Big Daddy" Roth's Ratfink character -- and so crazy cars were kind of the rage, their designs only limited by the imaginations of their creators. (Keep in mind that I said that "it could almost be the progenitor"; I never said that it actually was.)


As the Matzo-Mobile takes off, it runs the Inspector right over, leaving him flat on the street. He pops right up and whistles for Deux-Deux, who arrives in a tiny police car. The Inspector instructs Deux-Deux to "Quick! Follow that Matzo-Mobile!" "Sí!" replies Deux-Deux, and then he thrusts the car forward, running right over the Inspector again in the process. "Come back, imbecile!" yells the Inspector, and Deux-Deux complies, putting it in reverse and stopping right on top of his superior. We are then treated to this classic bit that will be repeated in slight variations in many of the Inspector cartoons to come...

The Inspector: "You may turn in your police card!"
Deux-Deux: "Sí!"
The Inspector: "And don't say "Sí," say "Oui.""
Deux-Deux: "Sí! I mean, oui! I don't know what I mean. I wanna go home."

The Inspector takes control of the police car on his own, and the bell clangs on its roof as he rolls down the road at a reasonable rate of speed. The bell alerts the Brothers Matzoriley, who "let him have it" by using rear-mounted guns to shoot at the policeman. The bullets totally eradicate the Inspector's car, each one knocking away a portion of the vehicle until the Inspector is left running down the street on his own feet, still holding the steering wheel and with his other hand still ringing the bell, which hangs mysteriously in the air of its own accord. Another barrage of bullets from the Matzorileys removes the Inspector's trenchcoat, shirt, and then pants, leaving him to continue running along clad only in pink-spotted underwear.


Frustrated that they are still being followed, the Brothers Matzoriley push a button on the dashboard that shoots the body high up in the air on stilts that protrude from the wheels. They open a pair of bomb bay doors underneath the vehicle, and drop a single bomb, black and round with a lit fuse in the traditional cartoon style, but with the added accessory of a large black arrow that anchors it into the surface of the street. Naturally, the Inspector screeches to a halt on his bare feet right as he meets the bomb and... BOOM! There is a cloud of smoke, and then the Inspector is seen, charred and not amused at all by his predicament. The Matzo-Mobile has been converted into a flying machine by this point, sprouting a pair of wings and a propellor, and with its chassis greatly truncated from the way it appeared earlier. The villains laugh as they fly off with their loot.

A short while later, as the Brothers Matzoriley happily fly along, the Inspector reappears in a tiny police plane. He pulls a gun on the villains, saying "Grab a cloud, you sneaks, you!" From the front of their prop, the Matzorileys produce a large flyswatter, which proceeds to smack the Inspector silly. He plummets unseen, and he hear a large crash. We next see the roof of the Sûreté, bearing a hole in the shape of the police plane. The hole is connected to the Commissioner's office, and the plane is seen to be launched prop-first inside the Commissioner's desk. The chief of police opens a desk drawer and up pops the Inspector. The Commissioner curses at him in mock French, and tells his charge that the damage brings the total the Inspector owes to "55 billion francs! Plus one antique desk!"

In their lair, the Matzorileys feel safe. Wight (I should point out that he is voiced by the instantly recognizable Paul Frees) demands that Wong show them the diamond, and we are treated to the first moment where the "fractured English" card is really played full tilt. "Don't lush me!" screeches Wong, and then he says "Uh oh!" as he realizes the diamond is missing. "I just make discov-ely! We have hole in our pocket!" 

Back at the Sûreté, the De Gaulle Stone sits on a pillow on the Commissioner's desk, the jewel having been retrieved by parties unknown. As these things go, the Commissioner doesn't hesitate to put the diamond back in the hands of the Inspector, who is expected to do his job in guarding it safely. We know it won't go that way, but if it did, there would be no purpose for the cartoon.


Outside the Sûreté, the Brothers Matzoriley fly upward so that they are level with the floor where the diamond is. The Inspector goes to lock the diamond in a safe, which he does, and then he walks away without a second thought. But the safe is actually the Matzorileys in disguise, and the safe transforms before our eyes into the three-headed figure once more. They sneak away to get back in their car, but make enough noise with their talking to draw the attention of the Inspector. "Halt, halt, you insidious blackguard, you!" he shouts, as they make preparations to fly away. He runs at them out the window, but as he says "Halt in the name of the ---," they fly off, leaving him to fall to the ground below, his final word of "Lawwwwwwww!!" stretching out behind him (but not literally). We are then shown the Inspector lodged upside down in the roof of the Commissioner's car.

The Inspector narrates his next move. "I trailed my quarry to a disreputable hotel on the Left Bank." The hotel is the Hotel Fontainebleau, and after the Inspector and Deux-Deux enter the lobby, the Inspector walks into a nearby elevator and leaves his junior partner to guard the stairs. Before the doors to the elevator can close, the Inspector is squashed savagely by an elevator car containing the Brothers Matzoriley. The Inspector comes hopping on his tiny black legs out of the elevator, flattened so completely that we can only see his hat atop his legs as he stumbles about the lobby.


Next, the Inspector tries to peek through the keyhole of the hotel room in which the Matzorileys are hiding. For his efforts, he is shot in the face (though there is little in the way of damage done). The Inspector slides the doorknob a few feet away from the door along the wall and peeks through it again. Once more, he is shot in the face. He plucks the doorknob from the wall and calls Deux-Deux over. He asks the Sergeant, "What do you see when you look through the keyhole?" The squinty-eyed policemen concentrates with one eye on the keyhole, and then grabs the doorknob, jumping up and down in great joy. "Ole! Magnifique! Arriba! Carumba!" he yells in quick succession, his legs flailing in the air while a huge smile is planted on his face. The Inspector snatches the doorknob back from him, and sends him away. As Deux-Deux departs, he mutters excitedly, "Holy... look at that, I never seen it like that something..." This piques the Inspector's interest, but when he holds the doorknob once again up to his eye, he is shot in the face a third time.


Angrily, the Inspector flings the doorknob away and pulls his handgun out. He warns the villains that he will shoot by the count of three, but as he gives partway through counting, "One!" the door crushes him flat as the Matzo-Mobile comes crashing through as the robbers make their getaway. Flat under the door, the Inspector continues to count as if he hasn't noticed anything. "Two! Three!" he shouts, and then fires his gun. The bullet spits through the wood ineffectively and bounces down onto the top of the door.

The narration continues... "At last I closed in on the Matzoriley's hideout and surrounded it," reads the Inspector, and in the middle of the moonlit night, a half-dozen patrol cars screech to a halt in front of a house featuring three high spires (one for each brother?). The Eiffel Tower and Paris skyline can be seen far off in the background, implying the villains are hidden far from the city. "The Cossacks!" cries Wight. "Let's beat it!" Wong trades on another of his "Confusion" sayings, telling his brothers, "Place for hot ice is in glass of cool water." The Matzorileys place the De Gaulle Stone in a nearby glass of water, and Wong says, "Observe! Diamond enjoy welcome incognito!" Not sure how this is supposed to work in the real world, but in this cartoon, the De Gaulle Stone seems to disappear inside the water just before the Inspector and his squad of policemen burst through the door.


"Alright, men!" says the Inspector, "Spread out and search the premises. And also the grounds." The Inspector, holding up his ever-present magnifying glass, stumbles upon the glass of "ice" water on the table. "Well," he says, "I hereby confiscate this ice water in the name of thirst!" He chugs the glass of water containing the De Gaulle Stone down, and immediately begins to feel that something is very wrong. In a wonderful comic switch, the scene cuts very abruptly, as the next shot we see is of a French ambulance with the words "Merci-Wagon" emblazoned on the side, its siren wailing on the way to the Paris Infirmary. (While this short is not directed by Blake Edwards, it is nice to see that DePatie-Freleng continued to rely on the same style of gags that Edwards employed in the Pink Panther film series, this being that type of gag.)


At the infirmary, the surgeon holds the De Gaulle Stone up in the air during the surgery. "A very expensive looking gallstone," he says, and then hands the diamond off to the nurse to have it taken for a biopsy. However, the "nurse" turns out to be, once again, the Brothers Matzoriley in disguise. They sneak off, clad in a nurse's uniform (apparently built for three) with the diamond on a tray. In the end, they still win the prize.

The Inspector closes his narration off-camera as we see him resting in his hospital bed. "So, you see, whenever I think of the De Gaulle case, it brings back tender memories for me." The Inspector, still wearing his hat, sits up and lifts his t-shirt, revealing a large bandage in the shape of an X on his stomach. He pulls at the bandage and it makes him wince, causing him to lay back in bed. A final red card that reads "finis" is shown to close the cartoon, where a pair of eyes, possibly the Inspector's, appear in place of the letter I in the word. They blink and the short is done.

It's not great -- certainly not as quick off the blocks as the first Pink Panther cartoon -- but it does still hold up rather well. Yes, the more slapstick-styled jokes are pretty obvious, but the cartoon coasts by on the rather easy charm of the Inspector character, who may be quite obtuse but is always somehow loveable. The narration style wherein the Inspector is relating his cases to the audience, even if everything within them goes quite wrong for him, is told with a wink throughout to the audience and never becomes tiring. And the best part is always in how the Inspector reacts to situations, along with the asides characters such as Deux-Deux throw in as well. Deux-Deux himself is even more loveable, and as he will display throughout the series, he often has things more under control than the Inspector, and only fails because of the Inspector's misguided confidence in his own abilities. One other plus in the film are the rather impressionistic backgrounds of the buildings and settings of Paris and the French countryside. 

What brings the film down, ultimately, is the Brothers Matzoriley. They are an odd creation, and their appearance here brings a touch of weirdness to a scenario that doesn't really need it in its first episode. What is pretty evident is that they are an attempt to include another element from the credit sequence of A Shot in the Dark, and I guess it was decided they were one of the more memorable parts (they do get to deliver the first gag in the animation), and were thus upgraded for The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation. My inner five-year-old enjoys the look of the Matzorileys and especially the design of the Matzo-Mobile, but neither one is really necessary to the plot of the cartoon. In fact, they act more as distractions where perhaps a little more could have been brought to the gags themselves. 

And the worst aspect of the Brothers Matzoriley is the over-reliance on Asian stereotypes, both in design and language. Somewhere in their transition from the feature film to the cartoon short, where the Matzorileys are all completely the same in design, one of the characters was given slanted eyes and buckteeth. Were I to guess, and I am now, I would think the idea for the racial switching of the character sprang out of a conversation built around naming the characters (they are completely silent and have no names in A Shot in the Dark). Probably some riffing on the words "right," "left," and "wrong," where it was decided to have all of the names start with "W". At some point, the idea that "wrong" could be "Wong" must have triggered someone saying, "We could make him Chinese!" (or a far less kind description widely used at the time such as "Chinaman" or "Oriental"). I have no proof of this; I am merely spitballing here, trying to figure out how they got from Point A to B with this character that really didn't need to change at all, except that somebody at the studio wanted to go for some easy racial jokes.

Despite this, I think The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation is still a good, if slightly underwhelming, start to the Inspector series, which would continue for several years, with a total of 34 episodes released in the series. I, of course, devoured every one of these cartoons throughout my childhood, and the Inspector was definitely my favorite part of any of the various incarnations of the Pink Panther TV show. (The Tijuana Toads being my least favorite, as I recall it.) My favorite short of the series, Sicque! Sicque! Sicque! (1966), in which Deux-Deux torments the Inspector by going through Jekyll and Hyde transformations, also has a special place in my heart as it was shown the first time that I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show live in a cinema.

Best of all, this first Inspector cartoon shows Pat Harrington, Jr. in fine form as the lead character, and also as Deux-Deux and as Wight, the second of the Matzorileys. Its the sort of multi-character turn that the original Inspector, Peter Sellers, did throughout his career, even if Harrington was doing this as voice work only. Still, there is considerable variety in his chain of voices in the short, and shows how important he was to the success of the series. He convinced me as a kid, and its still working on me today, a couple of weeks after his death. If that is not fitting tribute to a major part of my childhood, I don't know what is.

RTJ


*****

No comments: