Sunday, December 19, 2010


Strange, isn't it…almost all the successful work done by Blake Edwards is linked to music by Henry Mancini. While a few composers are best known for soundtracks done for specific directors (most obviously Bernard Herrmann for Hitchcock and Nino Rota for Fellini), it's very rare to find hit movies from one director mated so often to hit songs by one composer.

Blake Edwards (July 26, 1922-December 15, 2010) found his hit movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) matched by the Top Ten hit "Moon River." A year later, "Days of Wine and Roses" was in movie theaters and the theme song was being sung by bad quartets and mediocre torch singers all over the radio. And when it comes to instrumentals, it's impossible to think of Blake's hit TV series "Peter Gunn" or hit series of "Pink Panther" movies without those theme songs coming to mind.

Edwards was a bit too prolific, and his wide variety of hit-and-miss movies has diminished his legacy as a director and writer. He no doubt has a cult following for at least some of these: Operation Petticoat (1959), The Great Race (1965), What Did You Do In the War Daddy (1966), The Party (1968), Darling Lili (1969), Wild Rovers (1971), The Tamarind Seed (1974), S.O.B. (1981), Victor Victoria (1972), 10 (1979), and many more.

Born William Blake Crump, he entered show business with his middle name ands step-father's last name, assembling a varied list of credits including the role as young and ineffective hero in "Strangler of the Swamp," a 1946 obscurity that boasted some moody low-budget effects (lots of fog) and a confused, Evangelical script that managed to work in God's role in vengeance and redemption in handling a swamp zombie; a twist on Christ's role in repelling vampires. Edwards had more luck as a script writer for radio ("Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar," a witty private eye series starring Edmond O'Brien) and screen ("Operation Mad Ball" with Ernie Kovacs). He became a director of noir TV shows: "Richard Diamond," "Mr. Lucky" and ultimately "Peter Gunn."

Through his many decades making films, Edwards was adept at drama and often had his best successes with comedy. He was one of the few directors in the 60's and 70's to try and bring back the visual gags of the silent era, although in everything from "The Party" to "The Great Race" and the Panther series, there were some painfully obvious and labored moments that were quite leaden. But mixed in, were inexplicably brilliant vignettes ("Birdy Num-Nums" in "The Party") and superbly timed bits that never grow old (Sellers as Clouseau spinning a globe, and inevitably resting his hand on it while it's still in motion, slamming toward the floor). Edwards usually knew exactly the right angle for the maximum effect.

Perhaps his best work is actually in the thriller "Experiment in Terror" (1962), which boasts of some eerie scenes shot in shadow, a brilliant use of voice (Ross Martin made his film debut mostly heard but not seen), and a strong, believable pace in presenting the drama of Lee Remick being caught up in a tense and deadly blackmail scheme.

In creating the musical settings for Blake Edwards' best work, Henry Mancini pioneered the jumpy tempo ("Pink Panther Theme") that Bacharach would eventually trademark, turned out melodies that schlock lyrics couldn't destroy ("Moon River") and produced almost a bombastic parody of boogie-woogie and jazz in "Peter Gunn." But he also was a maestro who could conjure up just the right instrument for just the right effect: the autoharp, for example, striking some somber notes in the theme for "Experiment in Terror." Since there's no shortage of places to cop a copy of "Moon River" or the "Pink Panther Theme," it's the Illfolks choice to salute the memory of Blake Edwards.

Edwards, who had bouts with depression and chronic fatigue syndrome, had a famous love-hate relationship with Peter Sellers, and was certainly a maverick in doing things his way (including the highly criticized topless exposure of wife Julie Andrews for a key scene in "S.O.B.") He acknowledged that he was a complex, difficult man, one in need of psychiatric treatment (he even wrote a few film scripts with his therapist!). He was aware of Hollywood's love-hate reaction to him and to his work:

"I like the old Chinese proverb: If you wait long enough by the river then the bodies of your enemies will float by. That used to console me through the dark patches. And then one day I realized that downstream from me there was this whole gang of people I'd been rude to, all waiting for me to float by."

EXPERIMENT IN TERROR THEME Instant download or listen on line. No capcha codes, wait time, or whines about paying for a premium account.


Duncanmusic said...

Oh, I am SOOOOooo with you on the "Birdie Num-Num" quote from 'The Party'. Peter Sellers as an awkward Ravi Shankar-figure was brilliant and the ensuing and over the top this one with that one premise of the romp made this 17 year old roar with delight at the was also one of the first ADULT comedies I ever saw in the theatre. Apparently my parents were enamored enough of the Pink Panther to risk bringing me (at 17) my brother (14) and sister (11) to see 'The Party'. "Birdie Num-Nums"spoken with a passable Indian accent brought instant laughs in our home for years. It was ALMOST as funny when I finally got to see it again about three years ago. I also DID enjoy the music more than I remembered...(used to own the S/T but never listened to it much) now I wish I had.
Blake Edwards' films remained a got-to-go-to for my parents until they died. I'll always be grateful for the gift of my parents laughter courtesy of Blake Edwards' mainstream comedic sensibilities.

Ill Folks said...

"Birdie Num-Num" was actually a track on "The Party" soundtrack album! The main draw was Claudine Longet singing "Nothing to Lose," which wasn't a hit. The title track "The Party" was sung by "The Party Poops." (oof!)

The Japanese CD version is just "The Party" but the British CD version also includes the soundtrack to "The Great Race."

I think quite a few Blake Edwards soundtracks had Jack Davis art in the cover, upping the ante on zany.