It would be easy to dismiss Blake Edwards as a director of light entertainment. He has made many highly commercial films, many hilarious comedies and has employed some of the most outrageous sexual metaphors and offensive stereotypes in his films. His contribution to film culture, however, is enormous, diverse and unique. He is a great director, but not in the restrictive ‘high’ art sense of the term; his films blend both high and low by delving into the depths of the sordid while executing that depth with meticulous film artistry. Even though Edwards is particularly expert at comedy, and takes old forms such as slapstick well into the modern era, not all of his films are comedies, for instance Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Wild Rovers (1971), and The Tamarind Seed (1974). He is both a writer and a director of many film genres and whether the films are westerns, detective stories, musicals or comedies, there is a sensitivity, a bleak view, that is unique to Edwards: an insecure world of tense relationships and pain.
Edwards is from an era of filmmakers who are not film-school educated. He learnt his craft through immersion in the industry. His mother married his stepfather, a veteran production manager, when he was three years old and they moved to Los Angeles. Edwards wrote, produced and had small acting roles before directing his first feature Bring Your Smile Along (1955). He is as much a writer as he is a director, having created works for radio and television. These early creations demonstrate an interest in detectives, a subject he would stick with throughout his career. Some of his ‘detective’ works include the radio series, “Richard Diamond: Private Detective” for Dick Powell (1949) and the television series “Peter Gunn” (1958). His film Gunn (1967) and his television film Peter Gunn (1989) are based on the initial Gunn creation. Edwards has written many films for and with others, especially for Richard Quine in the ’50s, and he has written or co-written most of his own screenplays. Edwards attributes his special technique of “Topping the Topper”, compounding one joke with another, to working as a writer with Leo McCarey. (1)
The Edwards canon includes highly commercial and popular successes as well as drastic failures. From 1955 until The Son of the Pink Panther (1993), Edwards directed 39 films. Six of these, mainly the earlier ones, I have not been able to see. Edwards has both benefited from the commercial side of Hollywood and suffered from its artistic restraints. Some of the most successful and best known of his films are Operation Petticoat (1959), The Pink Panther series of films of the ’60s and ’70s and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The lesser-known and less successful works, although no less worthy of merit, are What Did You Do In the War Daddy? (1966) and That’s Life (1986). The lowest ebb in Edwards’ career, a time of deep hurt and conflict with major studios, was in the early ’70s. At this time, his films – Darling Lili (1970), Wild Rovers and The Carey Treatment (1972) – were severely cut and altered. It was following The Carey Treatment that Edwards left America to work in Europe. There he wrote the script for his profound satire on Hollywood, S.O.B. – not to be made into a film until 1981. He returned to America to make“10” (1979) which was a box office success: this film marks a turning point towards his more personal films of the ’80s. Many of these later films present as cheap sex comedies, and yet they explore tender themes, particularly those of diminishing artistic creativity and a concern with virility, death and ageing. Some of the most prominent films to explore these themes are, The Man Who Loved Women (1983), That’s Life! and Skin Deep (1989).
The later films are autobiographical and Edwards’ adverse experiences with the studios reverberate at many different levels of dialogue and manner. Both S.O.B. and Sunset (1988) are explicit in the way they expose deceit and malice within the film industry. The callous ring of the line “You’ll never work in Hollywood again” finds variation in both of these films. Edwards’ convictions are transparently masked in comedy and fantasy: film stories exist within film stories, and personal truths exist within fairy tales. Sunset, set in Hollywood 1929, is the search for film-truth and that truth manifests in the running joke, “And that’s the way it really happened – give or take a lie or two.”
S.O.B. is about a film producer who dies trying to retrieve his negatives from a major studio. It is introduced in the manner of a fairy tale and is concluded as one. The films that are not explicitly concerned with the film industry project an equally harsh world in which to survive. The male is often treated unfairly by his boss and fired from his job: Walter (Jimmy Smits) in Switch (1991), Walter (Bruce Willis) in Blind Date (1987) and Dennis (Howie Mandel) in A Fine Mess (1986) all suffer this fate.
No matter how lucid or obscure the autobiographical may be, filmmaking is Edwards’ ultimate topic and deep affection. For him, the processes of filmmaking are a way of uncovering truths. At first unknown to a viewer, Sunset and The Party (1968) begin as films being filmed on location: their surface peels away and finds another surface world, another film world beneath them. Affection dwells in the creative ways different eras and types of film tradition are incorporated into the films: cartoon, silent, western, screwball and romantic. The Pink Panther films not only begin with a lengthy cartoon sequence, but they themselves are cartoon-like, featuring destruction, return-to life situations and characters larger than life. The Great Race (1965) is more or less a series of slapstick episodes and it is dedicated to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. A Fine Mess is in part a re-make of the Laurel and Hardy short, The Music Box (James Parrott, 1932), and does not simply duplicate the comic pair; rather, it multiplies them and gives form to all kinds of male comic partnerships – smart and dumb, fat and thin, mean and dupe. Sunset ends in the manner of an early film-strip: Wyatt Earp (James Garner) looks out of a moving railway carriage window as the young cowboy/showman, Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) performs his horse tricks by the side of the track.
Of course, an audience need not know about an author’s life in order to enjoy the work or to sense that it is personal. The odd thing about Edwards’ films is that the more one studies them and the more one knows about his life, the more complex and intense the autobiographical becomes. Edwards’ films involve his family and friends, in all sorts of curious ways and at different levels of production. His son Geoffrey Edwards is sometimes credited as co-screenwriter, co-editor and some of the films are Geoffrey productions. Daughter Jennifer Edwards acts in many of the later films and Julie Andrews, who he married in 1969, often plays lead roles. Moreover, Andrews’ parts often go against type. She plays sexually mature roles, and she does not always sing, see for example her roles in The Tamarind Seed and The Man Who Loved Women. More intriguingly, Andrews often plays the wife or partner of the middle-aged male who is in sexual and artistic crises. This male character is usually an artist of some kind: a music composer in “10”, a sculptor in The Man Who Loved Women, an architect in That’s Life!. Sometimes the personal is so intense that it is bizarre, almost to the point of embarrassment. At the end of The Man Who Loved Women, Andrews and Jennifer Edwards embrace each other in sadness at the funeral of the main character, David Fowler (Burt Reynolds) – as two of the many women in his life who truly and deeply loved him.
As a post-war Hollywood director, Edwards occupies a somewhat unique position. He has continued to work in the style of Hollywood classicism despite industrial and aesthetic changes. He is not considered part of the New Hollywood, (2) and he is noted for his “Hollywood professionalism.” (3) Nevertheless Edwards is, in a sense, also modern; he, the creator of these comedies of manners, is seen not simply as another Ernst Lubitsch, but as an extension of him. For Myron Meisel, Edwards “projects the philosophy of Lubitsch forward in time, rather than backward, and his distinctively different visual style represents an appropriately modern response to the very different world to which he applies his wiles.” (4) The films seem to have the lavish quality of the studio days: palatial homes, expensive cars and ‘highly’ dressed women. At the same time, they have a sense of the modern in the abstract way they splash colour and evoke mood: strokes of red for sexual passion, strokes of blue for male malaise. The films involve both light romance and the sexually vulgar. Moreover, this classic/modern visual style is in unison with its music: the sound of classic, jazz, pop. Henry Mancini’s musical scores, in particular, Peter Gunn, The Pink Panther, and “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s are as indelible to the popular mind as is Edwards’ distinct vision. The Edwards/Mancini collaboration exemplifies this beautifully executed, high/low confident style.
Despite Edwards’ enormous contribution to film culture, he has had very little attention given to him by critics. Peter Lehman and William Luhr’s two volumes are the only book length writing on him currently in existence. Andrew Sarris is early to give Edwards recognition by including him in The American Cinema, Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Sarris marks 1963 as the time when Edwards began to deserve more than cult recognition: “Since 1963, Edwards has emerged from the ranks of commissioned directors with such personal works as The Pink Panther , Shot in the Dark , The Great Race, What Did You Do in the War Daddy? and Gunn.” (5) French critics write about Edwards’ films with exceptional sensitivity. (6) Adrian Martin not only writes lovingly of the films, but he also shows the value of Edwards’ work for film criticism – especially for a criticism that is constrained by purism, by a “recourse to the high moral ground.” (7) Martin’s 1980 appraisal of “10” in Cinema Papers is an important article for offering another way to read the later films. He not only identifies two different readings for “10”, one humanist the other reactionary, but also a third: one that implicates the viewer in their relationship with the cinema.
Implicating the viewer in the cinematic process occurs by way of looking at others looking: looking through doorways, opposite apartments, frames, mirror reflections and telescopes. This method of looking involves complex moralities: outward appearances can be deceptive and situations can be viewed from many different perspectives. In A Shot in the Dark a chain of different perspectives occurs: a servant watches another servant, watching another servant who is watching another servant listening to a conversation behind a door. The essence of Victor/Victoria (1982) is a complex exercise in seeing and believing: a female (Andrews) acts as a man who is impersonating a female performer. King Marchand (James Garner) doubts what he sees and needs to see Victor/Victoria naked in order to confirm his beliefs. A key line in the film is “People believe what they see.” In both Switch and Victor/Victoria a neighbour will peep from a doorway and make false conclusions about what they see; the viewer, however, knows that what the neighbour sees is untrue and that the values the neighbour makes are based on outward appearances. This also happens with disguise in dress, and it is a particularly elaborate and complex affair with the swapping of military uniforms in What Did You Do in the War Daddy? In Gunn cross-dressing implicates the viewer in making false assumptions: the film’s suspense rests on these false assumptions, the truth revealed to the viewer at the end.
While Edwards offers these rich engagements, I must admit that it has taken me a long time to warm to his films, especially some of the later ones. I have learnt, however, that it is useless to either defend or to criticize the racism and sexism in them. That kind of discussion misses the contradictions that exist in the humanity and the humour of these films; it also fails to appreciate much of his artistry which is less concerned with the obvious, the gender issues, than it is with the tortuous passing of an era. Stuart Byron identifies a common Edwards theme: gallantry. For Byron, Edwards is “the last classicist, which means the last traditional sexist.” (8) In many of the later films, the male hero is forever coming to terms with his sexual urges, and this can be difficult to watch. At the same time, women can be extremely cruel to the men, and the men are often punished for their desires. Gunn (Craig Stevens) is of a bygone era, the ultimate gentleman out to save women. Whether one takes the films to be misogynist or patronizing towards women, Edwards’ world is one of ideological contradiction. One looks through his vision, and it is his vision that kills him (or his alter-ego rather, in the guise of Burt Reynolds) at the end of The Man Who Loved Women. In the last spasm of Hollywood classicism, Reynolds’ character falls out of his hospital bed and dies groping at his vision of the night nurse’s legs, rendered in silhouette by the light through her dress.
Another feature of Edwards’ films that can cause resistance, and yet is so special to the director, is their obscenity, their violation of social codes: the old woman farting in “10”, the garlic breath of the Italians in Daddy, and the gross Japanese stereotype (Mickey Rooney) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Edwards’ comedy is in part that of an old tradition, one that stretches back to Aristophanes and is typified by farce, obscenity and sexual metaphor. (9) Edwards executes this humour as a fine art, and it can often indicate painful male experiences. Space is one method: the narrow passage of the submarine in Operation Petticoat is both a sexual metaphor and a venue for embarrassing sexual encounters between male and female. Moreover, the submarine is in the shape of a phallus, painted pink – a further embarrassment for the Caucasian male. Images of castration and anality are also ways of indicating pain for the male: in A Fine Mess, a statue is shot in the genitals, and in The Party a billiard cue is repeatedly jabbed into Hrundi V. Bakshi’s (Peter Sellers) behind. The toilet humour in The Party reaches nightmare proportion when Bakshi, in excruciating pain, desperately wants to urinate and is unable to access a toilet. In this long sequence the pain intensifies through the imagery of a spurting fountain, a cat in its litter-box and the eventual turning on of the sprinkler system. These are just some of the events that taunt the protagonist before he finally finds a toilet.
Edwards’ professionalism involves a meticulous use of timing. His films are acutely measured and his protagonists attempt to survive in a world that breaks apart and turns into chaos. Just when a character needs to get out through a door, a door handle comes off and leaves him useless or trapped. Dialogue and actions are timed to meet with precision. Gunn’s line, “May God strike me dead if it isn’t the Gospel truth”, is followed by a massive explosion. Car chases are timed to either collide or miss vital connections. Telephones ring at either opportune or inopportune times and often in bedrooms, exposing private lives. The synchronizing of watches in A Shot in the Dark is plagued with watches stopping, thus creating a massive play with tension. The opening sequence of this film is an exquisite exercise in timing: no sooner does one person enter a door or leave through a door, another enters – just missing the other. This sequence is a miniature piece of orchestration in itself as it plays to, and lasts for the length of, Mancini’s musical number “Shadows of Paris.”
The films are like poems in the way they repeat scenes and themes with variance. Sunset repeats the moving relationship of two cowboys in Wild Rovers. Blind Date repeats the theme of alcoholism from Days of Wine and Roses: all with another twist. The patterns are intricate, and like the best of all art, one could search endlessly to discover them. Edwards’ films may seem as if they belong to another era, but what makes them so passionate and different is that Edwards is acutely aware of his position and is prepared to take the past forward into another time no matter what the consequences.
Bring Your Smile Along (1955)
He Laughed Last (1956)
Mister Cory (1957)
This Happy Feeling (1958)
The Perfect Furlough (1959)
Operation Petticoat (1959)
High Time (1960)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Experiment in Terror (1962)
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
The Pink Panther (1964)
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The Great Race (1965)
What Did You Do in the War Daddy? (1966)
The Party (1968)
Darling Lili (1970)
Wild Rovers (1971)
The Carey Treatment (1972)
The Tamarind Seed (1974)
Return of the Pink Panther (1975)
The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)
Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)
Curse of the Pink Panther (1983)
The Man Who Loved Women (1983)
Micki and Maude (1984)
A Fine Mess (1986)
That’s Life! (1986)
Blind Date (1987)
Justin Case (1988) made for television
Skin Deep (1989)
Peter Gunn (1989) made for television
Son of the Pink Panther (1993)
Victor/Victoria (TV movie, 1995)
Stuart Byron, “Blake Edwards” in Stuart Byron and Elisabeth Weis (eds.), The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy, New York, Viking Press, 1977, pp. 92-95
Serge Daney “Strange Bodies”, Cahiers du Cinema in English No.3, Trans. Jane Pease, Rose Kaplin, Nell Cox, 1966, pp. 26-27
Jean-Francois Hauduroy, “Sophisticated Naturalism, interview with Blake Edwards by Jean-Francois Hauduroy”, Cahiers du Cinema in English No.3, Trans. Jane Pease, Rose Kaplin, Nell Cox, 1966, pp. 20-26
Dave Kehr, “Blake Edwards”, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 2nd Edition, Chicago, St James Press, 1991, pp. 257-259
Harlan Kennedy, “Blake Edwards: Life After ’10’”, American Film, July-August 1981, pp. 24-28
William Luhr and Peter Lehman, Blake Edwards, Athens, Ohio University Press, 1981
William Luhr and Peter Lehman, Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards Vol.2., Athens, Ohio University Press, 1989
Adrian Martin, “’10’”, Cinema Papers, June-July 1980, pp. 201-203
Adrian Martin, “Blake Edwards’ Sad Songs of Love”, Freeze Frame, July 1987, pp. 10-13
Alain Masson, “Allegro Vivace (L’amour est une grande aventure ”, Positif, #321, June 1989, pp. 60-61
Myron Meisel, “Blake Edwards” in Jean-Pierre Coursodon with Pierre Sauvage (eds.), American Directors Vol.2., New York, McGraw Hill, 1983, pp. 117-132
Andrew Sarris, “Blake Edwards”, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, New York, Dutton, 1968, pp. 91-93
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Good Grief: Where’s the Performer? by June Werrett
Compiled by Albert Fung
The Films of Blake Edwards
Short pieces on some of his films.
- Edwards in Harlan Kennedy, “Blake Edwards: Life After ’10’”, American Film, July-August 1981, p. 26
- Peter Lehman and William Luhr argue that Edwards’ films refer to a past, but not in the superficial Hollywood style of allusionism. See their “Introduction”, Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards Vol.2., Athens, Ohio University Press, 1989, p. 3
- Adrian Martin, “Blake Edwards’ Sad Songs of Love”, Freeze Frame, July 1987, p. 10
- Myron Meisel, “Blake Edwards” in Jean-Pierre Coursodon with Pierre Sauvage (eds.), American Directors Vol.2., New York, McGraw Hill, 1983, p. 123. Andrew Sarris also compares Edwards to Lubitsch: “Edwards confirms on a minor scale what Lubitsch established on a major scale, and that is the correlation of buoyancy with conviction.” See Andrew Sarris, “Blake Edwards”, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, New York, Dutton, 1968, p. 92
- Sarris, p. 92
- I’m referring to two critics and their writing in particular here: Serge Daney, “Strange Bodies”, Cahiers du Cinema in English No.3 , Trans. Jane Pease, Rose Kaplin, Nell Cox, 1966, pp. 26-27; and Alain Masson, “Allegro Vivace (L’amour est une grande aventure)”, Positif, #321, June 1989, pp. 60-61
- See Martin in “Movie Mutations: Letters From (and To) Some Children of 1960”, Film Quarterly, 52 (1), 1998, pp. 39-53. This is part of a correspondence, initiated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, between four young film critics, scholars, programmers and writers, exploring their thoughts on the cinema. Martin is one of them.
- Byron identifies four major themes: winners and losers, cartoon, gallantry, fathers and sons. See Byron, “Blake Edwards” in Stuart Byron and Elisabeth Weis (eds.), The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy, New York, Viking Press, 1977, p. 94
- I am referring to “Old Comedy”: a kind of comedy produced in Athens during the 5th century. Aristophanes is the leading exponent of “Old Comedy”. See The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, 1990.