Mancini’s Pink Panther hits 50

In the spring and summer of 1964, the Blake Edwards film The Pink Panther, starring Peter Sellers, became a huge hit. The farcical tale of an incompetent French detective matching wits with a suave jewel thief, The Pink Panther dropped slapstick and Sellers’s signature broad antics into a more or less straight heist story to create a comedy at once classic, ridiculous, and sophisticated.

Making just as big of an impact was Henry Mancini’s iconic score, now commemorated with a 50th Anniversary release. Mancini had already written hits, including the jazz-influenced “Peter Gunn Theme” for the TV detective series Peter Gunn and the Oscar-winning “Moon River” for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey Hepburn sang the latter in the film. Just about everyone with a recording contract covered it afterwards.

Yet Enrico Nicola Mancini would enjoy days of wine and roses far in excess of even these triumphs. When Blake Edwards, a collaborator from the Peter Gunn and Tiffany’s days, asked Mancini to score Panther, it proved a fateful assignment. Mancini answered with one of filmdom’s most famous themes and a future musical staple that to this day unites marching bands, PA systems at baseball games, and no-name jazz combos around a signature piece of Mancini magic. As John Caps reports in his book Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music:

That sound and that theme became great examples of an important Mancini principle of scoring: intentionally “funny” music behind a comedy scene is redundant and destructive. The “Pink Panther Theme,” though witty in itself, is not a joke, not a novelty number. It is, besides its grin, a seriously swinging piece of jazz-pop with an invigorating sense of both fun and sophistication. So it does not overkill the comedy. We first hear the theme during the film’s animated main title sequence, which, famously, morphs that panther-shaped flaw in the stolen gem into a wry, mischievous cartoon panther, which spends the credit sequence taking great liberties with the graphic lettering that spells out the movie’s cast and crew.

Early in the film’s postproduction process, once the idea of an animated main title sequence was discussed, the animators asked to hear a finished piece of main title music against which they could time their cartoon sketches. At that stage Mancini had not yet fixed his own ideas, but he said he would give them at least a rhythm. They created the panther, Bugs Bunny-like in the long ancestry of animated anarchists, to that bass line alone. The theme itself came after. It begins with a suspended chord of open fifths by the piano and a small hand chime with a triangle tapping out the tempo for three bars until a low piano/vibe/two basses/guitar combo plays the sneaking motif, first ascending, the descending unresolved. This creates, most efficiently, the suspense of a detective story while also making fun of it. At bar 12, or where Peter Sellers’s name appears in the credits (already undermining David Niven’s supremacy as the star), we hear Plas Johnson’s tenor sax with its unmistakably jazzy accents as it moves so naturally up in parallel fifths and then does a dying fall, slurring the last note like a bluesman.

Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music is available in at the special ebook price of $2.99 throughout July. Buy the Kindle version here. Buy the Kobo version here. Buy the Google Play version here. Buy the Nook version here.

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