"How long have you been a Princess, Your Highness?"
"All my life."
"Oh, that's a long time to be anything."
Judging the end of a great director’s career is usually not an enjoyable task. I always think of Howard Hawks’ RIO LOBO. In some ways, it seems like one of his films, it has elements familiar from his films, but if you have a desire to defend it as a good film based on some sort of adherence to the auteur theory, you’re going to find yourself doing some bending over backwards. Sometimes this becomes difficult. Because with great directors there’s sometimes a limit in how far you can bend. For Blake Edwards, SON OF THE PINK PANTHER is that limit.
In the decade following CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, Edwards directed eight features, an impressive clip for any filmmaker. These films vary all over the map in quality but even the worst titles among them contain a certain amount of zip that bear the mark of the director. A good example is 1991’s SWITCH, which has a weak story that falls apart by the one-hour mark but it has a fantastic lead performance by Ellen Barkin and there are moments throughout which feel like vintage Edwards.
For several years before making SON, Edwards had pursued returning to the PANTHER universe, with names such as Gerard Depardieu and Rown Atkinson mentioned to play the offspring of Clouseau. But the honor finally went to Italian comic Roberto Benigni, who was best known in America, if at all, for the arthouse hit JOHNNY STECCHINO and appearances in several Jim Jarmusch films. In addition to the expected supporting players, the script called for the return of the character Maria Gambrelli, unseen since A SHOT IN THE DARK, who would be the mother of Clouseau Jr. Instead of the expected appearance by Elke Sommer in the role, the part went instead to Claudia Cardinale, who actually played Princess Dala back in the original PINK PANTHER in 1964. Following a screening of A SHOT IN THE DARK several years ago at the American Cinematheque, someone asked Elke Sommer during a Q&A about this film. She confirmed that she had been approached to reprise the role of Maria Gambrelli but it wasn’t something that interested her, not with Peter Sellers gone. She then asked the person, “How was it?” He hemmed and hawed and Sommer offered, “It was shit, wasn’t it.” Which got a big laugh. I won’t go as far as Sommer’s speculation but the sad truth is that SON OF THE PINK PANTHER, which opened at the very end of August 1993, feels like a balloon with all the air let out. It’s a rather lifeless piece of work, suggesting the possibility that Edwards wasn’t totally at the helm during production and then had it further taken away during editing. It’s a real shame because there really does seem to be an idea somewhere here, but the movie never feels like it knows what it is.
Princess Yasmin (Debrah Farentino), the daughter of the King of Lugash, is kidnapped in Nice, with one of the ransom demands being that he abdicate his throne. Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) is assigned to investigate but, after a coincidental fender-bender with the kidnappers, encounters a local police officer named Jacques Gambrelli (Roberto Benigni) who displays certain strange quirks that cause a familiar twitch to return to Dreyfus’ eye. Curious, he seeks out the officer and after meeting Gambrelli’s mother Maria Gambrelli (Claudia Cardinale) learns the truth: that Jacques Gambrelli is the secret offspring of his late nemesis Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Compounding this is that, after the traffic accident, Gambrelli was the only person to get a good look at the princess and can identify that it was her in the van meaning that he may be the only person who will be able to find her.
By the time Roberto Benigni actually appears, about one-sixth into the film, you almost wonder how many people have given up already. SON is the only film in the series without a pre-credit sequence, something that would have come in useful to bring us up to date and start things off with a jolt of energy. Compounding this is the re-do of the main theme, performed by Bobby McFerrin, a version that I’ve never liked. The opening section of the film is devoted to the kidnappers plotting and pulling off their plan which feels aimless and poorly directed. It’s also strangely dark and violent—in fact, many of the scenes throughout the film involving the kidnappers feel like they belong in a different film. The tone is never well-established and it feels like the wrong emphasis is constantly being placed on elements that never really matter.
Benigni and Herbert Lom’s Dreyfus turn up at the same point, but it feels like these characters are denied a proper introduction. As it stands, the characters are simply there and the bad plotting of Dreyfus involved in a car accident with the kidnappers doesn’t help matters. In a 1992 Army Archerd column, Robert Wagner implies that there was a version of the script that included the character of George Litton and it’s a shame he got written out. It’s easy to imagine that the Pink Panther diamond would have figured in with the plot which would have helped matters since the kidnapping of the princess feels strangely under-plotted and over-convoluted at the same time. Ultimately, various plot tangents, such as the shenanigans involving the throne of Lugash, feel truncated and by a certain point they seem to just fall out of the picture.
One of the few real points of interest in the film is its treatment of the character of Dreyfus. More sympathetic than he has ever been before, at first he seems to show interest in Gambrelli more out of curiosity than anything else. The character in this film comes off as more of an Edwards surrogate than ever before, as if the director is trying to find some sort of peace with the memory of the great comic actor he once worked with. As Maria Gambrelli, the luminous Claudia Cardinale provides the movie with a surprising amount of depth and soul, something I’m not sure would have come from Sommer (the events of SHOT are, no surprise, never referenced). I’m much more aware of Cardinale’s place in film history than I was when I first saw this film—that’s what multiple viewings of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST get you—and her presence here in relation to her appearance in the first film in the series seems somehow meaningful to me. Her role in THE PINK PANTHER even gets referenced when, presented with a picture of Yasmin, she muses, “Not bad for a Princess.” The thing is, soulful depth and sentimental acceptance of the past is not the sort of thing that SON OF THE PINK PANTHER necessarily needs to provide. There should be laughs and the film is sadly lacking in them.
Roberto Benigni provides the film with most of the energy that is there and he works tirelessly at it every moment he’s onscreen. His basic persona means that he wasn’t going to be a clone of Sellers’ Clouseau and he could have worked in a movie that was better. But he does a good job. Debrah Farentino as the Princess is gorgeous and also gives the impression that she could have displayed a real spark if the film were better. As it is, her character is too erratically written for it to add up in the end—is she rebellious, assertive, a spoiled brat? It’s never entirely clear. Lom seems older, but works well, in this slightly different version of his character. There’s a cute round-robin of “What?”s to various pronunciations of the word “bump” early on. There’s a funny moment where Benigni, impersonating a doctor, stands in front of a hospital and yells “Ambulance!” as if hailing a cab. Bit player Natasha Pavlovich gets a laugh as a belly dancer in a Lugash nightclub. There’s also some funny destruction caused by Benigni is the nightclub scene. Maybe there are a few other small chuckles here and there. There’s some nice Scope use. I’m trying to be generous here.
Robert Davi plays the main bad guy, yet another element of the PANTHERs that recalls the Bond films. Jennifer Edwards is one of the kidnappers, as is character actor Mike Starr, who seemed to be in every other film in the early 90s, including GOODFELLAS and ED WOOD. Anton Rodgers, very funny in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, is wasted here in a similar role as Gambrelli’s Police Chief—the joke that the character is blatantly trying to foist Gambrelli onto Dreyfus is lost in the shuffle. Herb Tanney is there as the Police Chief’s assistant, billed as “Sputare Tanney”. Burt Kwouk gets decent screen time as Cato in the final third (by that point, his presence is very welcome) but it would seem that André Maranne sadly died before this film was made, so another actor plays someone named “Francois”. Graham Stark again plays Auguste Balls—the character of his assistant does not appear, but his wife Martha, again played by actress Liz Smith, does, even thought she had previously only been seen when Balls was played by Harvey Korman. There—I can’t prove any better that I’ve been paying way too much attention to these movies lately.
With a running time of only 93 minutes and scenes that seem to haphazardly start and stop throughout, there has to be a fair amount of footage that was deleted, but who knows what difference it would have made. One early trailer contained a scene where Clouseau enters a building that promptly blows up (a discarded prologue for a pre-credit scene?) and also some footage of a celebration taking place at the Clouseau statue which is seen later. The soundtrack album contains music that may go here and it’s also possible this would have been the introduction for Dreyfus, getting flustered in the middle of a celebration for the late detective. The cast list also includes a listing for “Clouseau’s Ghost” but no such apparition appears in the final film. And the opening credits feature prominent billing for Shabana Azmi, who is apparently a huge star over in India but her small amount of screen time here (I’m presuming she originally had more to do, but in a 2004 interview she mentions only working three days on the film) make it seem hardly worth the trouble.
Henry Mancini provides a delightful score, with a very good theme for Gambrelli and an exciting action climax, which contains a particularly enjoyable burst of trumpets at one point. And thankfully, the classic Pink Panther theme is allowed to return and make one last appearance over the closing credits. This would sadly be his last film score before dying of cancer less than a year later and I suppose it looks like SON will be Edwards’ final film as well. It isn’t exactly a high point in their collaboration but there’s something about their final film works both together and separate being this film that lends the entire series a sense of completion. This, combined with the character arc of Commissioner Dreyfus seemingly standing in for Blake Edwards’ acceptance of who the man known as Peter Sellers was, means that I can’t look at SON OF THE PINK PANTHER with a great deal of animosity. It’s not much of a defense, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. Maybe it just has to be a movie that is strangely fitting to view at the end of August. The series of films comprising the world of the Pink Panther and Inspector Clouseau as originated by Blake Edwards, Peter Sellers and their collaborators will live on and any attempts by others to capitalize on it will always pale by comparison. If anything, that’s a thought to end summer on.