THR's Todd McCarthy Remembers Blake Edwards

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Blake Edwards, 1977

Chief film critic pays tribute to the writer-director for 'expertly bringing class to the pratfall.'

At its best, from the mid-1950s through the early 1980s, Blake Edwards' career represented an unexpected extension of the spirit of classical Hollywood comedy in the Ernst Lubitsch-Billy Wilder vein. Like his Germanic forebears, the Oklahoma-born Edwards was able to blend unashamed, pie-in-the-face slapstick with genuine sophistication as he continually addressed the issue of maintaining a civilized demeanor while faced with the ever-present threat of anarchy and loss of control.

Originally an actor but then a screenwriter who followed Wilder, Preston Sturges and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in moving to the director's chair, Edwards is most popularly associated with Peter Sellers and Inspector Clouseau series. When The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark were released in 1964, they seemed like the last word in transatlantic class given a wonderfully vulgar boost by the low-brow pranks of the star's comedic improvisation and linguistic mangling. Perhaps inevitably, the continuation of the cycle through six more films directed by Edwards was marked by diminishing returns, but for a while Edwards was able to mix these mercenary projects with comedy-dramas that adroitly mixed the bitter and the sweet.

After a string of strongly written comedies, notably Mister Cory and Operation Petticoat at Universal and High Time at Fox, Edwards achieved a new level of elegance and mixed moods in Breakfast at Tiffany's in 1961. Much has been made of late as to how significantly the filmmakers tidied up the more unsavory aspects of Truman Capote's story and there is always the insufferable embarrassment of Mickey Rooney's Japanese caricature, but the unforgettable images of Audrey Hepburn in New York and the poignant feelings caught prevail over the shortcoming and compromises. Even when slapstick reigned in such films as The Great Race, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? and The Party, all of which stand up well today on repeated viewings, one finds lovely grace notes of emotion tucked away amidst the mayhem that has conquered the characters' attempts to uphold standards of civilized decorum. The Party, in particular, remains something of a marvel in its perhaps over-extended but nonetheless protean attempt to recreate the aesthetics of a silent movie, just as it incidentally evokes the feel of Hollywood just before everything literally went to pot in the late 1960s.

While several of Edwards' later comedies suffer from mismatched or less than stellar actora -- he must often have missed such earlier collaborators as Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, David Niven and even Tony Curtis in his later years -- in two films the chemistry was just right, 10 and Victor Victoria. In both of these great sex comedies, Edwards made use of the era's new liberality but provided the needed dramatic backbone and tension by imposing limits and rules. Edwards continued to make excellent old-fashioned farces well into the modern era of anything goes, expertly bringing class to the pratfall.