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Comedy In The Edwards Style

Best pie fight, ever!

In his half-century and more in movies, Blake Edwards never won an Oscar. His brand of film comedy, which earned him hosannas from such distinguished critics as Jean-Luc Godard in France and Andrew Sarris in the U.S., was too dry and strenuous for Hollywood's arbiters of high taste. But in 2004 the Motion Picture Academy did vote him a Life Achievement award, presented by Jim Carrey. Cut to the wings, where Edwards is seated in a motorized wheelchair, his left leg in a cast. Suddenly the wheelchair scoots madly across the stage, crashing through a pasteboard wall and taking its passenger with him. Tragedy on Oscar night!

Actually, it was comedy in the Edwards style: infantile and erudite, physical and cerebral, an appearance of anarchy that is meticulously planned and executed. The writer-director was fine, and anyway a stuntman took the wild ride. The wheelchair gag, which served as a middle-finger salute to Academy propriety, could have come from any number of Edwards movies: the Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers; or such comedies of sexual obsession and reversal as "10" and Victor Victoria, starring his second wife, Julie Andrews; or The Great Race, The Party, A Fine Mess and his other tributes to silent-era slapstick. Sixty-two years after he made his movie debut, at 20, as a cadet in Ten Gentlemen from West Point, Edwards was proving to the Oscar burghers and a TV audience in the hundreds of millions that he was still a kid at heart. And when he died, at 88, of pneumonia in Santa Monica, Cal., with Andrews and their children by his side, Edwards might have boasted that he never did grow up.

Yet he did not always take his cue from Thalia, the muse of comedy. In his early prime Edwards was a jack of all genres and master too. He directed the wistful 1961 anaesthetizing of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, with Audrey Hepburn as the lady-tramp Holly Golightly. The next year he directed two intense dramas: the killer thriller Experiment in Terror, with Lee Remick as the bait for sicko Ross Martin; and the soberer, more piercing Days of Wine and Roses, JP Miller's tale of a middle-class couple, Remick and Jack Lemmon, on their descent into alcoholism from which only one surfaces at the end. ("You and I were a couple of drunks on a sea of booze," Lemmon tells Remick, "and the boat sank.") These three were among the few films Edwards directed that he did not also write or cowrite; Days of Wine and Roses was one of his very best.

Edwards's first laugh — a real scream — came on July 26, 1922, the day he was born as William Blake Crump in Tulsa. When he was four, and now in Los Angeles, his mother married Jack McEdwards, an assistant director (who would work as unit manager on Days of Wine and Roses). McEdwards's father, J. Gordon Edwards, directed the original silent-screen vamp, Theda Bara, in 23 films from 1916 to 1919, including Romeo and Juliet, Camille, Cleopatra, Madame du Barry and Salome. Blake had the movies in his adopted blood. At 16, if you believe the legend (I don't), he was befriended in New York by the 23-year-old theater prodigy Orson Welles, who allowed the boy to drop a few lines into Howard Koch's script for the notorious War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Four years later he was under contract to 20th Century-Fox.

Of Edwards's 29 acting credits, only six were prominent enough to earn him screen billing; Strangler of the Swamp, a below-low-budget rural melodrama, gave him a rare co-starring role. In 1949, realizing that he would not find fame in front of the camera, Edwards went into radio drama, then at the peak of its power. He created the series Richard Diamond, Private Detective, starring Dick Powell, the musical ingenue turned film-noir stud. Taking advantage of Powell's two strengths, Edwards made Diamond a singing detective, whistling the opening theme and crooning a song at the end. In the Philip Marlowe hard-boiled tradition — there were dozens on the air back then — Diamond spouted tough, ripe dialogue ("That guy gets shell-shocked if ya fry a potato") and jousted with thugs given florid verbiage ("You arouse my irascibility"). The series ran for four years on NBC radio; the TV version starring David Janssen, and in which Edwards did not participate, aired on CBS from 1957 to 1960.

In 1948, Edwards made his last film as an actor, billed sixth in a prizefight movie, Leather Gloves; the picture also marked the directorial debut of another young actor of slightly higher stature, Richard Quine. Edwards, then 24, and Quine, 26, formed a director-screenwriter tandem, and together they made B-minus programmers for pop singer Frankie Laine (Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder, Bring Your Smile Along) and fading superstar Mickey Rooney (All Ashore, Drive a Crooked Road). They created the character Rooney played on his 1954-55 NBC sitcom, Mickey; Edwards also wrote, and occasionally directed, scripts for Powell's anthology TV series Four Star Playhouse. As Quine the director moved to A pictures, Edwards the scripter went with him, working on the 1955 Jule Styne musical My Sister Eileen and the Army-comedy hit Operation Mad Ball, starring Lemmon, with Rooney in support. That was in 1957, by which time Edwards was ready to come out from under Quine's, Rooney's and Hollywood's shadow.

He got going with Mister Cory, starring Tony Curtis as a professional gambler, a character he would parlay into a one-season TV series, Mr. Lucky (also based on the 1943 Cary Grant film of the same name). Then, returning to his Richard Diamond roots, he created Peter Gunn, a nourish TV series about a dapper private eye (Craig Stevens) with a sultry chanteuse girlfriend (Lola Albright) and a stolid policeman pal (Herschel Bernardi). The opening scene of the pilot episode displays Edwards in full control of the program's tone. A sedan full of mobsters is pulled over by a police car; but those aren't cops, they're killers, who blast away at everyone in the sedan, leaving one corpse leaning on a blaring car horn that would wake the neighbors of anyone watching the show. Cue Henry Mancini's pummeling jazz theme — what people mainly remember from Peter Gunn — and a long tracking shot of weathered faces at the mobster's funeral. The series enjoyed playing with noir cliches and against them: the new Mr. Big is a small, soft-spoken type, played by The Love Boat's Gavin McLeod.

Between writing and directing episodes of Peter Gunn over its three-year span, Edwards was helming hit movies: the Navy comedy Operation Petticoat, teaming Curtis with Cary Grant, and Tiffany's. which won Oscars for Mancini's score and the instant standard, "Moon River," he wrote with Johnny Mercer, plus three other nominations. The next year, Mercer and Mancini won another Oscar for their theme from Days of Wine and Roses , which also earned nominations for Lemmon and Remick. Though Edwards wasn't nominated as director (not then, not ever), he was cruising from hit to esteemed hit. He could have kept directing serious pictures in the Academy-approved fashion. Instead, he and Maurice Richlin fabricated an all-star farrago called The Pink Panther , featuring Sellers as the clueless French detective Inspector Jacques Clouseau. That character, propelled by another infectious Mancini tune, would bumble through 11 features, eight of them by Edwards, and a long-running series of cartoons. For better or worse, the Clouseau aesthetic defined the rest of Edwards's career.

As with the Thin Man movies, the Pink Panther title had nothing to do with its main character: it was a diamond whose thief the Inspector was chasing. The film — a standard-issue comedy heavier on the Gallic glamour than on the abuse the clumsy Clouseau took and dished out — was a hit, and Edwards did a sequel, A Shot in the Dark, now with Sellers as the undisputed star. The actor and the director took a decade's hiatus from the character (Alan Arkin played Clouseau in a 1968 movie Edwards wasn't involved in), and reunited for The Return of... in 1975, ...Strikes Again in 1976 and Revenge of... in 1978.

Franchising, a sacred concept in today's Hollywood, was second nature to Edwards. Besides the Pink Panther series, he also turned Peter Gunn into a 1967 feature film, and transformed Victor Victoria into a Broadway musical that ran for two years. But he probably stuck with Clouseau because he wanted to see how many variations he could work on comedy shtick as old as the Greeks. Increasingly stylized into a form of kamikaze Kabuki, the Panther movies exaggerated Clouseau's knack for physical peril: engaging in martial-arts battles with his manservant (Burt Kwok), destroying priceless pianos and violins, walking too near a groin-level rotary fan, burning his hand, then sticking it in an ill-fitting vase or mug. Were the movies funny? Not so much as they were elegant experiments — pure, or strained, essays in the application of pain and humiliation.

Strained, too, was the relationship of Edwards and Sellers, whom Edwards later described as "a monster. He just got bored with the part and became angry, sullen and unprofessional." Yet neither could get out of the Clouseau, even after the actor's death in 1980. Two years later, Edwards presented Trail of the Pink Panther, containing outtakes of Sellers routines. In 1983's Curse of the Pink Panther he floated Ted Wass as a younger Clouseau type, and in 1993 tried to jump-start the franchise by casting Roberto Benigni as Clouseau's half-Italian offspring in Son of the Pink Panther.

The later Sellers-Clouseau films may have been a run-for-cover response for a director whose career had gone south. In the early '70s Edwards had made two movies at MGM: the Western Wild Rovers and the hospital-set comedy mystery The Carey Treatment, from a Michael Crichton novel. James Aubrey, head of CBS TV programming before taking control of the depleted old studio, tangled with Edwards and recut both films — the second one while the director was still shooting it. (When Edwards, in his 2004 Oscar speech, thanked his friends and foes and added, "I couldn't have done it without the foes," he was referring to Aubrey.) Accompanied by new wife Andrews, with whom he had made the musical flop Darling Lili, Edwards retreated to Europe, where he wrote a couple of scripts. He showed the first one to Aubrey, who didn't even finish reading it. Edwards took it back and made it himself. That was "10."

In conception, "10" is a comedy about male voyeurism raised to sexual obsession: George (Dudley Moore), a pop composer who lives, comfortable but restless, with Samantha (Andrews), spots the angelic blond Jenny (Bo Derek) on her way to her wedding, and follows Jenny to her Mexican honeymoon spot, where she asks him, "Did you ever do it to Ravel's 'Bolero'?" In execution, though, the movie was the extension of Pink Panther slapstick. In pursuit of the dream girl, Moore submits to a car crash, getting repeatedly whacked by a telescope, falling off a boat, into a swimming pool and down a mountain slope.

"10" continued Edwards's own preoccupation with the rowdier form of antique film comedy — from the custard-pie marathon in The Great Race (which Sarris said qualifies as "the last spasm of action painting in the Western World") to the Laurel-and-Hardy tribute A Fine Mess, based in part on Stan and Ollie's 1932 short The Music Box. If Edwards had a kindred spirit in late-century cinema, it was not the urbane Billy Wilder but the French master Jacques Tati, whose nearly wordless films (Mon Oncle, Playtime) also replaced surefire jokes with elaborate camera movements, long takes and scenarios of people, machinery — the rickety scaffolding of modern life — collapsing into chaos.

But Edwards also walked on the Wilder side, in the corrosive S.O.B., an embroidered hate letter to Hollywood (and to James Aubrey — it was the other script Edwards wrote during his self-imposed European exile). S.O.B. also bore a dark autobiographical streak, since it was about a formerly hotshot producer (Richard Mulligan) whose big-budget family musical starring his wife (Andrews) is a flop, just like Darling Lili; the producer resolves to recut the film with R-rated sequences, including a shot of his wife going topless. Yep, the movies' Sound of Music secular saint was to bare her chest. Fortunately for Edwards, Andrews was game for anything. In his Oscar speech he called her "the beautiful English broad with the incomparable soprano and promiscuous vocabulary."

She got to flash both of those attributes in Edwards's 1982 Victor Victoria, based on Reinhold Schunzel's 1933 German comedy about a female singer who masquerades as a male singer in drag. Largely dispensing with knockabout farce, this long, blithe, clever film earned Edwards his only Oscar nomination, for adapted screenplay. Andrews, Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren were shortlisted for acting awards; and Mancini, who worked on nearly every Edwards feature, took the statuette for best score. It was the director's last hit movie, though in 1995 he, Mancini and lyricist Leslie Bricusse brought a musical version to Broadway. For her performance, Andrews received a Tony nomination ; she declined it because the nominating committee had snubbed everyone else in the production, especially her husband.

Why did Edwards concentrate on broad comedy? Not only because it was dear to his creative heart, and it often paid off at the box office, but because he knew first-hand the baleful moods for which the most effective antidote may be a pie in the face. "Tragedy is when I cut my finger," Mel Brooks famously noted. "Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." Often in Edwards' life the two poles stretched out before him, then collapsed together. As a member of the Coast Guard during World War II, he got drunk one night and dived into a shallow swimming pool. The punch line to that caper was five months in traction at a Naval hospital. Edwards later said that Eleanor Roosevelt, on a tour of the hospital, solicitously asked how the young hero got injured.

Edwards was the Hamlet who played clown: a lifelong depressive who endured a 15-year battle with Chronicle Fatigue Syndrome (which he related in the 2000 documentary I Remember Me). At one point he became "seriously suicidal." As the New York Times describes the incident, "After deciding that shooting himself would be too messy and drowning too uncertain, he decided to slit his wrists on the beach at Malibu while looking at the ocean. But while he was holding a two-sided razor, his Great Dane started licking his ear, and his retriever, eager for a game of fetch, dropped a ball in his lap. Attempting to get the dog to go away, Mr. Edwards threw the ball, dropped the razor and dislocated his shoulder. 'So I think to myself,' he said, 'this just isn't a day to commit suicide.' Trying to retrieve the razor, he stepped on it and ended up in the emergency room."

The twin cappers to this story sound fanciful, the kind of multiple twists on a gag that Edwards called "topping the topper." In the second of his Pink Panther movies, A Shot in the Dark, Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, lounging cozily on a bed with Elke Sommer, lights the lady's cigarette and his own, puts the lighter inside his trenchcoat, the flame still burning, and the coat starts smoldering. "Is it stuffy in here?' he asks absently, and Elke says, "Your coat!" "Yes, it is my coat," he mildly acknowledges. Elke: "But it's on fire!" He removes the garment, and as he stomps out the conflagration near the bedroom door, another man briskly opens it, propelling Clouseau through an open window. Top, topper, toppest, all in 30 seconds of screen time.

A man who could turn every tragedy into a joke, Edwards even wrote his own obituary — 46 years ago in A Shot in the Dark, in an exchange between Elke Sommer and the good Inspector. "You'll probably catch your death of pneumonia," she says concernedly. "Yes," replies Clouseau/Sellers/Edwards, "but it's all part of life's rich pageant."

Richard Corliss. 10 Pink Panthers at Tiffany's: Farewell to Blake Edwards. TIME . December 18, 2010.


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