The 1963 comedy The Pink Panther introduced two indelible characters to the world. One, a bumbling French detective named Jacques Clouseau, was brought to life by the incomparable Peter Sellers. The other, a mischievous cartoon cat, was created specifically for the film’s opening credits by noted animators Friz Freleng and Hawley Pratt. Both characters were immediate hits with audiences, and two long-running series were born.
While the animated Panther continued to appear in the credit sequences for most of the Pink Panther films, the character was spun off into its own series of theatrical shorts in 1964. And the series struck gold right from the start, as the first Pink Panther short, The Pink Phink, won that year’s Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Cartoons.
The Pink Panther cartoons rely almost entirely on the visuals to entertain the audience, as dialogue is seldom a part of the action. In many ways, the cartoons function as throwbacks to the silent era, with the Pink Panther himself a direct descendant of the equally whimsical (and initially silent) Felix the Cat. But the Pink Panther is a step removed from most of his animated contemporaries; his cartoons lack the gleeful violence of the Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry, while eschewing the gentler aspects of the Disney lot in favor of a sharper edge. The Panther is a sly yet ultimately appealing creature, the mischievous architect of his own improbable, sometimes surrealistic cartoon reality.
The Panther thoroughly disregards authority, intent on doing his own thing, and though his actions are entirely disruptive, we root for the relatively peaceful Panther to get his way over the more temperamental “Man”–literally embodied by a small, animated man who is quick to anger and seeks to quell any hint of the Panther’s rebellion. (Is the smooth-as-silk Pink Panther really a hippie at heart?) In The Pink Phink, the Panther thwarts “the Man” at every turn, and for seemingly no other reason than the cat prefers the color pink. [At this point, one wonders if the cartoon’s relatively simple plot was inspired by Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) and the “pink-blue” dress argument; it’s worth noting that the writer of this cartoon, John W. Dunn, did work briefly as an animator for Disney during the creation of that earlier feature.]
At first glance, the Panther’s actions in The Pink Phink come across as mere contrarianism. But are Freleng and company trying to make a broader statement about race? Considering the time period in which this cartoon was released (right in the midst of the 1960s movement for civil rights in the United States), an argument could be made that the Pink Panther’s insistence on slathering his favorite color–the color of his own skin (fur), no less–on every ounce of the building’s facade is his attempt to force “the Man” into accepting his color, and by extension, his very existence.
Or it could just be as simple as the Panther being an asshole while the Man simply tries to get his work done. Who knows? But isn’t it fun to speculate about the deeper motives behind a pink cartoon cat?
The soundtrack to the Pink Panther’s antics mainly consists of variations on composer Henry Mancini’s iconic theme song to the original Pink Panther film. The jazzy tune, by turns smooth and jaunty, is the perfect accompaniment to the Panther’s adventures. And honestly, why would he have need to talk, when Mancini does it for him so beautifully?
The Pink Phink was the first–and last–Pink Panther short to win the Academy Award. The series received one other nomination, for 1966’s The Pink Blueprint. Curiously, that latter cartoon was a veritable remake of The Pink Phink, with the Panther and the Man fighting over the construction and color of another house.
The Pink Panther series ultimately produced 124 theatrical shorts between 1964 and 1978, a pretty impressive run considering that theatrical cartoons had largely subsided in popularity during that period of time. It’s a testament to the Panther’s enduring popularity that the character has been revived numerous times over the years, most recently for a 2011 Christmas special.
And, of course, as the cartoon spokesperson for fiberglass insulation.