The Pink Essay

It was during the closing ceremony of the X Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota, in April 2006, when I heard for the first time “La Pantera Mambo”, a mambo version of the famous Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther Theme interpreted by La 33, a very talented and popular Colombian salsa band.  The location, a huge warehouse inside the Exhibition’s Palace of Bogota, was pretty crowded. Everybody was dancing and having fun. On stage, the winds were protagonists and as well the singer of the band. He was very happy giving all his energy to the public. “Mambo, que rico mambo, mambo, mambo!” (Mambo, what a tasty mambo, mambo, mambo!). I started to dance with my friends and began to sing the chorus. While dancing, a lot of images of the Pink Panther cartoon came to my mind and I wished I could see the Pink Panther dancing to the incredible mambo tune that was being played. I wondered how would the character move under that mambo rhythm? How would he walk? How would he manage his long cigarette holder?

When the band finished playing the song, more images of the Pink Panther cartoon kept arriving to my mind. The mambo tune activated a flow of pink memories of my childhood that I could not stop. Suddenly, I was remembering not only the Panther but as well the little white pointed-nosed guys, the titles of the episodes, the backgrounds, the colors and the props.

When I was a kid, back in the 80s, I used to be a big fan of the Pink Panther. I never missed the TV show that was broadcasted every Saturday in the afternoon. I was so into the show that I used to record every episode in the Betamax video system that my dad had at home. It was a pity that all my Pink Panther cartoon archive was confined to the useless Betamax technology. Otherwise, that night I could have seen a couple of episodes of the Pink Panther and laugh with them.

The Pink Panther was such a great show. It was also very unique, from his format to his broadcasting schedule to his music to his stories. Starting with the fact that the show was not a part of the traditional Saturday morning cartoons. Although I liked those early morning shows, for instance The Snurfs, The Transformers, The Thundercats and The Looney Toones, none of them was so appealing to me as the Pink Panther one. Besides that, the Pink Panther was appealing also to my parents, and we used to watch the show together. 

Even now I can remember the sequence of the opening credits of the Pink Panther TV show very well. It began with the sound of a drums’ solo and a live-action pink racing car (a futuristic sports model) advancing on a road toward the camera. Then, the screen was split into several boxes showing different animals while a voice started to sing:

   “Think of all the animals you’ve ever heard about.
    Like rhinoceroses and tigers, cats and mink.
    There are lots of funny animals in all this world.
    But have you ever seen a panther that is pink? Think!
    A panther that is positively pink.”

And then, in one of the screen boxes it appeared the Pink Panther cartoon featuring clips from different episodes. The singing voice continued:

   “Well, here he is. The Pink Panther. The Pink Panther.
    Everybody loves a panther that’s pink.
    He really is a groovy cat.
    He’s a gentleman, a scholar, and an acrobat.
    He’s in the rinky-dink Panther. The Pink Panther.
    He’s as plain as your nose. He’s the one and only truly original…
    panther pink from head to toe.”

Finally, the car was shown in full screen stopping in front of the famous Hollywood Chinese Theatre in L.A. In capital letters, THE  PINK PANTHER SHOW was announced as the main feature of the Theater. The driver of the car, a white blonde boy dressed in a pink striped shirt and blue jeans, took out his racing helmet and pressing some of the controls of the car opened a secret lateral door. The singing voice:

“He’s the one and only truly original panther Pink Panther from head to toe!”

So the Pink Panther and the Inspector characters step out of the car and walked into the theatre to watch their Show in the middle of a wonderful mix of animation and live-action (perhaps the first one that I saw in my life). What followed that great TV Show opening was 20 minutes of great animation, so funny, so imaginative, and enjoyable by audiences of different generations and cultures.

I am very impressed by the fact that The Pink Panther cartoon is so cool and so contemporary even nowadays. Or maybe I am just being nostalgic? I do not think so. I am sure that this pink character will remain as one of the most important cartoons of all times. The Pink Panther has one of the most sophisticated and high stylish graphic designs ever made; his humor is smart and innovative; and his colorful adventures are plenty of charm. Perhaps this is due to the cause that the Pink Panther cartoon was one of the last cartoons created for the theaters, for the big screen. He was one of the last survivors before most of the animation art was reduced to the limited space of Saturday mornings TV broadcasting.

The history of The Pink Panther cartoon is quite interesting and unique as the majority of its episodes. All started in the early 1960s, during a very hard time for the animation industry. The golden age of the theatrical cartoon short had come to its end during the previous decade and there was no money to afford the production costs of making animated short films.  With the emergence of TV popularity, animation started to be confined to the Saturday morning kiddy strip. Friz Freleng, a live long animator who used to be the Senior Director of the Warner Brothers studio for almost 30 years (he won 4 academy awards with his animation works in the Looney Toones), had decided to join cartoon producer David DePatie in the so called DePatie-Freleng Enterprises after the Warner shut down the animation studio in 1962. DePatie-Freleng Enterprises was intended to focus on the TV animated commercials and industrial films. In 1963, Blake Edwards, a live-action film producer/director, asked Friz Freleng to design a cartoon cat for the title sequence of a new comedy movie for United Artists, The Pink Panther, starring Peter Sellers as a clumsy, accident-prone French detective named Clouseau. Freleng accepted the challenge and created one of the most famous animated characters of all times.

When the animated Pink Panther character appeared in the opening and closing sequences of the 1963 Blake Edwards’s film, it immediately catch audiences of different ages with his incredible charm. It was just a love at first glance story with the public. In the middle of an ancient Indian palace, a king was giving a monumental diamond to his daughter, when the princess looked into the stone, all the magic began and it never stopped. The Pink Panther cartoon emerged from the stone in the middle of a pink dust cloud, with a long cigarette holder in his right hand, a monocle, and tiny long red nails.  The music of Henry Mancini with its deep tenor saxophone melody and continuous hi-hats was being played while the pink feline was moving smoothly, playing with the title letters, painting them, suffering the explosions of a camera flash and the hit of a gun that let him totally gray, he was even driving a gondola. Indeed, the film’s title sequence was much better that the live action film that followed it. This fact moved United Artists to sign a multi-year contract for a Pink Panther theatrical cartoon series with DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. The idea was to produce a series of short cartoons for theatrical release to be shown prior to feature films. The formula seemed to be the same of the Warner Brothers cartoons directed by Freleng for more than 30 years and the emerging DePatie-Freleng Enterprises did not hesitate in accepting the United Artists proposal.

The Pink Panther cartoon started to appear as a short film (6-minute long) in theaters and won an Academy Award with his debut short Pink Phink in 1964. Freleng himself was in charge of directing the initial Pink Panther cartoons before delegating the direction to his former layout man from Warner Brothers, Hawley Pratt. Though the theatrical Pink Panther cartoons continued for almost twenty years, there are the earlier entries – those directed by Friz Freleng and Hawley Pratt – which are considered classics, and those are the ones that remain in my memory so clear that I can even remember them as I had seen them yesterday.

The Pink Panther cartoon made creative use of absurd and surreal themes through a completely wordless pantomime style, set to the ubiquitous Henry Mancini’s music and its multiple variations. Almost all the Pink Panther cartoon situations are immersed into the realms of the surreal. They have an interrupted temporality that abolishes linearity in favor of a dream and comic logic. The animation medium seems to be the most apt to convey dream-like states of mind and the Pink Panther cartoon develops this idea to its ultimate consequences. It replaces logical causality with surprise, and develops slapstick humor as a non-narrative kind of cinematic attraction. Since the cultural references were muted, the character and its stories became more universal and lasted in the audiences consciousness, and unconsciousness as well, for a longer term. As a result of these characteristics, the cartoon had also a cross-cultural appeal that made him popular around the world because it did not rely on contemporary American pop culture to be understandable.

Since I am very interested in humor and comedy, I could not avoid relating the Pink Panther cartoons to the classic silent movies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It is perhaps the slapstick feature what makes them so close. In many Pink Panther shorts, the running gag is that the accidents caused by the Pink Panther are always inflicted upon an excitable, hysterical, hot-tempered, little, pointy-nosed white man whose fate is similar to the one of Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam. This little white man can turn up to be anybody, from a drunk to a librarian, and no matter what kind of role he is playing he is always under that tragic fate. Let us remember for instance that scene of The Pink Phink (1964) when the little white man is trapped in a giant mousetrap that he brought for catching the Panther. Or that other scene of The Pink Blueprint (1966) when the Pink Panther takes the ladder where the little man is standing and makes him to fall. Once in the floor, a hammer hits the little white man’s head.  Or how about that scene in We Give Pink Stamps (1965) where the little white man, acting as a janitor, obtains a rifle and tries to shoot a tiger-skin rug where the Pink Panther is hidden.  Before he uses his rifle he gets a shoot in his face that turns all his body into gray. In Pink, Plunk, Plink (1966), the little white man is the conductor off a symphonic orchestra and the Pink Panther hits him with the powerful sound of a horn sending him directly into a wall; later, the Panther pulls the little man’s suspenders making his pants to fall; and finally, changing the conductor’s baton with a firework rocket sends the conductor directly to the sky. And how not to mention the scene in Psychedelic Pink (1968) where the panther finds a “J” letter and wants to play golf with the “i” letter’s dot. The Panther hits the dot and sends it directly to the little white man’s head causing him to fall from a ladder. Once in the ground, the little man is hit by a bunch of capital letters on his head. And the list goes on and on…and for sure there are more and more slapstick gags to mention and as well to compare with scenes of the silent movies of Chaplin and Keaton. However, that is not the purpose of this essay. Instead of that, my purpose is to comeback to the Pink Panther character and to try to decipher the kind of character that he is.

First of all, Is he or is she? What is the gender of the Pink Panther? Some people would speculate is a man, others would say it is a woman; others would say is a neutral, an androgynous kind of animal. His/her sex is a mystery that would remain unresolved as the gender of angels. The only certain fact is that the Pink Panther is naked, does not have a dress and its only genital part shown is its long tail. I would prefer to think of the Pink Panther as a male, but that is perhaps a male bias that would let me identify with him easily.

Second, It is the Panther a hero or a villain? Neither of them, the Pink Panther is a trickster that is continuously crossing the borders that separate villains from heroes. The Pink Panther is an every day kind of man who is accident-prone, and who, no matter how much he tries to be helpful, causes calamity. Whether he succeeds or fails, he remains always comfortable and cool-as-a-lettuce because even his failures are the result of best intentions hampered by lack of experience, or by conditions that conspire against him. The Panther shows human foibles in a very sophisticated way, trying always to do the right thing and having a life free from complications. Due to these facts, many viewers can identify with the Pink Panther. He represents a free spirit human being, which his own dreams, failures, and hopes for improved conditions. He does not even have a social class, he is neither rich nor poor, he does not own a house. Indeed he is more like a street man wondering around the world as a nomad in a very relaxed and bohemian mood. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he looses, and no matter what happens to him he remains always cool trying to do the things in his own way.

The world where the adventures of the Pink Panther take place is a very minimal one, highly designed in a modern style, with barely sketched floorboards, empty spaces, flat colors and a surreal atmospheres. Some cartoons, like Psychedelic Pink (1968), abandon reality altogether. Others use construction places as The Pink Blueprint (1966) and Prefabricated Pink (1967). Others are located inside buildings such as We Give Pink Stamps (1965) and The Pink Pill  (1968). It seems to me that what was called “limited animation” by the animation industry during the 50s and 60s influenced in a positive way the setting up of the Pink Panther world. Without following a realistic approach Freleng and his colleagues where able to recreate an absurd, surreal and comic world where the adventures of the pink feline could take place. “Limited animation” was based in the use of abstract art, symbolism, and limited movement to create animation at a low production cost. Depending upon the suspension of disbelief to tell a story, DePatie-Freleng Enterprises created stories that existed more in the viewer’s imagination than in the physical screen. Without relying in the limits of the real world, the “limited animation” techniques, once pioneered by the UPA in the 50s, helped the world of the Pink Panther to gain its absurd coherence.

The rhythm and timing of the Pink Panther cartoon was also a key element in giving coherence to its imaginative and fantastical world. Based on the Henry Mancini’s slinky, tenor sax-centered theme, the character learned to move at a very smoothie pace that fit very well with the color of its skin. Because the dialogue was entirely absent in the cartoon, the musical cues were in charge of embellishing and propelling the visual action. Sound effects where also added to the action to exaggerate, even more if that was possible, the slapstick and pantomime comedy. I used to be captivated by the special way in which the winds where linked together with the sounds of explosions and hits. The trumpets’ volume went up when a door was smashed upon somebody’s face or when somebody was falling. The dynamics and the creative variations of the Mancini’s theme wrapped, aurally, the entire Pink Panther world.

It is wonderful to realize how a simple theme such as the Mancini’s one can become so popular among different generations and cultures. It is perhaps its simple phrasing what makes it so easy to remember and enjoyable to whistle. It is perhaps the cliché of its misterioso melody. Or maybe it is just the Pink Panther cartoon what has made the musical theme so memorable. Whatever the reason is, this groovy theme is worldwide known and it has even been adapted not only to salsa by La 33 but as well to surf music by The Ventures.

Another feature that helped consolidating the Pink Panther world was the use of the language. But, Did not I say it was a silent cartoon? Yes, I am referring to the use of the language in the titles of the Pink Panther shorts. The titles were always puns and they were very funny even translated to the Spanish language. Although 124 Pink Panther animated shorts were made in total from 1964 until 1981, I will just mention a short list of the titles to give an idea of the creative use of the language. Who would ever imagine that the word “pink” was supposed to be so funny? The Pink Phink, Sink Pink, Pickled Pink, Pinkfinger, Shocking Pink, Pink Ice, Pink Panzer, An Ounce of Pink, Reel Pink, Bully for Pink, Pink Punch, Pink Pistons, Vitamin Pink, The Pink Blueprint, Pink-A-Boo, Super Pink, Pinknic, Pink Panic, Pink Posies, Pink of the Litter, In the Pink, Jet Pink, Pink Paradise, Prefabricated Pink, Pink Outs, Sky Blue Pink, Pinkadilly Circus, Psychedelic Pink, Lucky Pink, The Pink Pill, Prehistoric Pink, Pink in the Clink, Tickled Pink, Think Before You Pink, Slink Pink, In The Pink of the Night, Extinct Pink, Pink Pranks, The Pink Flea, Pink-In, Pink Da Vinci, Pink Streaker, Salmon Pink, Pink Plasma, Pink Elephant, Pink Campaign, Mystic Pink, Pinky Doodle, Sherlock Pink, Rocky Pink, Pink Pictures, Pink Arcade, Pink Lemonade, Pink Trumpet, Dietetic Pink, Pink Lightning, Pinkologist, Pink Press, Pink Bananas, Star Pink, Pink Breakfast, Pink Quackers, Doctor Pink, Olym-Pinks.  It happened that in the world of the Pink Panther, every word that was placed next to the “pink” one would transform into a hilarious pun. The only appearance of the world “PINK” on the screen made the audiences to laugh.

In conclusion, if animation is protesting against rigid forms, the Pink Panther cartoon is one of the best examples of this wonderful art.  Watching and remembering the Pink Panther cartoon makes me breath the free spirit of life and drawings. And that does not mean that life has a pink color. It just means that life is warmth and is movement. Movement is life. Animated cartoons are relieved of all responsibility to the factual world. Hence, they function better on the land of deliberate fantasy, surrealism, dream logic, and absurd.

*This essay was originally written for the media theory seminar taught by Henry Jenkins at MIT, Comparative Media Studies program, spring of 2007.

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