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DVD Review: The Pink Panther Film Collection/Sherlock Holmes

By Glenn Abel

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photo The game's afoot -- and the foot's in the mouth -- with a full caseload of DVDs featuring two of popular culture's most in-demand detectives.

Sherlock Holmes stalks evildoers in MPI's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," a pair of black-and-white beauties turned out by Fox in 1939.

Meanwhile, Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling inheritor of the Holmes tradition, pops up in MGM's handsome set of the five original "Pink Panther" films.

"Panther" wrangler Blake Edwards hasn't lost his black-comic touch, as Oscar viewers learned a few months back when the frail director plowed his wheelchair through a stage wall. For the DVD set, Edwards delivers a delightful solo commentary on the first and best film, "The Pink Panther." A half-hour docu on the "Panther" films checks in with the series' other surviving principals.

Lost prematurely, of course, was Peter Sellers, the comic genius that Edwards calls "the enigma of my life." The sickly actor died in 1980, not long after struggling through "Revenge of the Pink Panther," the last real Sellers-Clouseau film.

Edwards slips into melancholy at times as he watches actors like David Niven romp through the original film, from 1963. "I remember most of them fondly," he says. "And they're mostly all gone."

It's not clear that Edwards' affection extends to the moody Sellers. "He alternately loved me and hated me," the writer-director says. "I would say he hated me more." But, "When he was fun, it was the best fun in the world."

Edwards would rather talk about Niven -- "sophisticated, elegant, clever, fun" -- and the director's great musical partner, Henry Mancini, who "still lives in my heart to a considerable degree."

MGM's "Panther" set wastes no time in showing off its quality once the menu queues up, as the tenor-sax notes of Mancini's eternally cool theme song slink out of the speakers.

The DVDs' fine (5.1) audio is complemented by the vivid widescreen images on the first "Panther," a gorgeous relic of the swinging '60s. The reproduction allows contemplation of detail such as the amazing topography of Niven's hair. There's a lot for the Technicolor to take in -- fabulous clothes, beautiful people and to-die-for European locations. "I enjoyed myself immensely," recalls Edwards, who demanded filming in those locales so he and his jet-set pals could party in style.

The first "Panther" was to star Peter Ustinov, but he abruptly left the project, to be replaced by British comic Sellers, a virtual unknown. The producing Mirisch Co. sued Ustinov, but found it difficult to prove damages once Sellers quickly became an international sensation.

"When the picture started out, David Niven had the leading role," Walter Mirisch recalls. "When it finished, Peter Sellers did. And the script had barely changed."

The subsequent "Pink Panther" films elevated Sellers to franchise player, jacking up the physical comedy -- to the exclusion of many of the elements that gave the first film its wry charm and class. Sellers quickly set the tone in the giddy and wildly popular sequel "A Shot in the Dark," giving Clouseau a malapropian French accent nipped from a hotel concierge.

Edwards laughed all the way to les banc -- raking in the boxoffice riches and, later, the merchandising bonanza from the Pink Panther cartoon character. A brisk DVD documentary tells the tale of the Panther. A bonus disc collects his animated adventures.

The feature films collected in this set range from the nostalgic pleasures of the first film to the sludge of "Trail of the Pink Panther" -- a barely watchable collection of Sellers outtakes borne along by a why-bother story -- but with Peter Sellers onscreen the laughs never completely faded away. DVD viewers are both warned and encouraged. photo

Many actors have tried, but none has surpassed Basil Rathbone's embodiment of Sherlock Holmes. The razor-sharp profile, hawk nose and cocaine eyes seem torn straight from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle. This is, undeniably, one of the great pairings of actor and character in film history.

Odd to think, then, that the first Holmes film with Rathbone and his faithful Dr. Watson, Nigel Bruce, gave neither man starring credit. That honor on "The Hound of the Baskervilles" went to the romantic leading man, Richard Greene.

The lapse in logic was quickly corrected, with Rathbone and Bruce going on to top-bill 13 famed Holmes movies between 1939 and 1946.

The UCLA Film and TV Archive has rescued the films from public domain hell, in a restoration that aims to return them to 35mm theatrical condition using original elements and acetate copies. The results as seen on MPI's DVDs are indeed impressive, with shadows and light elegant and edgy. Wear is within reason and the audio suffices.

Film historians' commentaries have been added to some of the feature films, explaining, for instance, just how the 19th century detectives ended up battling Nazis in WWII.

The MPI collection -- whose titles are available separately and in sets -- started rolling out last fall. The series concludes at the beginning, with "Baskervilles" and "Adventures," both made by Fox before Universal took over and "modernized" the Doyle stories. The Uni films have their moments -- "Woman in Green," for example, is grand and grisly entertainment -- but there's no topping these initial releases, set in Victorian times.

"Baskervilles" remains one of the most famous and fondly remembered Holmes films, but it is largely Dr. Watson's tale. Nigel Bruce's Watson quickly became a buffoon in the series, but here he is not to be trifled with. (Rathbone later defended his friend and co-star against critics, saying a "less lovable" actor would have ruined the series.)

The restoration puts Fox's amazing sets on full display, including the fog-engulfed moor where the hound fillets his victims. The commentator, chipper British author David Stuart Davies, churns out minutiae and unmasks plot inconsistencies.

"Adventures," made a few months later, immortalized the line "Elementary, my dear Watson" -- catchy, but never from Doyle's pen. The film is based on a play by William Gillette, with two original but true-to-the-canon mysteries.

The movie opens with one of the series' best moments as Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) exchange pleasantries and mortal threats as they share a carriage ride. Ida Lupino melts hearts in her last ingenue role.

Holmes magazine editor Richard Valley does a decent job on the commentary, but spends far too much time telling the life stories of all involved, even the bit players.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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