In 1964, MGM released a film titled The Pink Panther. Such a title conjures up a certain image in one’s mind, but the titular pink panther in the film was not an animal, or even alive, but a pink diamond. Someone must have felt though that you can’t have a title like The Pink Panther and not have an actual pink panther, so the studio turned to the duo of cartoon legend Friz Freleng and David H. DePatie to create a mascot. Add in a theme composed by Henry Mancini and the rest is history. The character was born and in some ways would become more popular than the films he was attached to, even though those films had nothing to do with the actual Pink Panther character, but he was popular enough that he made the leap to television to star in his own show appropriately titled The Pink Panther Show.
As a kid, I saw a little bit of The Pink Panther Show. Many cartoons from the 60s and 70s were still being shown in syndication or on smaller, broadcast, networks and a few cable outlets too. I remember no specifics of the show, and probably saw far more of the Pink Panther at my local hardware store since he was used to sell home insulation. He may have even had a run on television in commercials, but I could be mistaken. Regardless, I’ve seen more of the Pink Panther in 2021 than I have any year of my life and that’s because of a show called Toon in With Me. It’s a cartoon package show on Me TV that shows a lot of Pink Panther cartoons along with stuff from Looney Tunes, Popeye, and more. It’s a show I can watch and enjoy with my kids and it’s actually pretty cool to see these old cartoons still getting some airplay today.
If you have never seen a Pink Panther cartoon they’re basically just cartoon shorts without dialogue. The protagonist and everyone else is silent and the main theme is relied upon quite a bit for the music. It usually involved the Pink Panther character just going about his business which seems to always inadvertently make life miserable for an unnamed, pointy-nosed, man often just referred to as The Little Man. The show premiered in 1969, following theatrical releases for some of the shorts, and basically aired on television into the 2000s in some form or another. In 1978, ABC commissioned a Christmas special starring the Pink Panther and aired it December of that year. The special was produced by DePatie and Freleng and directed by Bill Perez. The half hour long special may have been longer than the standard Pink Panther cartoon, but it largely obeys the same rules of being a silent story set to music. There’s some singing provided by The Children of Saint Michaels Day School Choir, but they’re basically the only voices you’ll hear aside from the occasional yelp or shout of a character. I’m not sure how successful the special was. It probably drew a large audience since basically everything did back then, but it definitely didn’t have the staying power of other Christmas specials as I can’t recall any prominent, network, airings in the 80s or 90s.
This special is partially adapted from the O. Henry short story The Cop and the Anthem. In that story set in the early 1900s, a tramp by the name of Soapy tries to find shelter for the winter in New York by getting arrested. He goes through a series of trials that all fail to get him incarcerated. Finally, at the end of the story, he has an epiphany outside a church while listening to the organist and resolves to end his terminal homelessness by getting a job, only for a cop to come along and arrest him for loitering which results in a 3 month jail sentence (ouch, that’s harsh!).
The special begins with an introduction that’s basically an unrelated animation. The Pink Panther, dressed up as Santa, is on the roof of a house preparing to enter, but he knocks over the chimney separating it from the house instead. This takes us to the title card while the main theme plays, which we’ll hear a lot. When the special truly begins, we just see a lot of city sights around the holidays. The animation is no better than a typical television cartoon of this era, so it would appear no extra money came from MGM to make this one look “special.” As the camera pans and focuses in on various characters, we hear the children’s choir singing an original Christmas song called “Yuletide Spirit.” Eventually, the camera lingers on a pile of snow which gets blown away to reveal a sleeping Pink Panther.
Our protagonist is apparently cold, hungry, and poor and the events of this cartoon are largely going to revolve around the Pink Panther trying to score a meal. He sits up on the bench and there’s a bindle beside him. He unfolds the purple wrapping to reveal a lone can of peas. Actually, it turns out to be a can of “pea” as one pea is dumped onto his lap. Still, he looks happy and prepares to feast, only for a little bird to swoop down and take it off of his fork. Angry, the panther walks off kicking piles of snow out of frustration, only one turns out to be a snow-covered fire hydrant and he hurts his foot.
The panther then notices some kids buying roasted chestnuts from a vendor. One lands on the ground and the panther is so hungry he goes to pick it up and eat it, but it’s so hot that he drops it into a pile of snow. He furiously digs through it only to find a sewer vent underneath and the steam from the chestnut rises from below. Defeated, he sits with his shoulders slumped a moment, until a cop shows up to get him to move along. Can’t have the homeless uglying-up the park, now can we?
The panther roams around the city streets taking in the sights and does some window shopping because he apparently enjoys torturing himself. He comes across a man warming himself by a fire in an old drum and he immediately heads over to do the same. As he rubs his buns and points them at the fire, a nearby Christmas tree salesman is about to make a last-minute sale on a clearance tree when the scent of it apparently bothers the panther’s nose. He sneezes, and all of the needles fall off of the pathetic, little, tree. The panther just saved some old lady a few bucks, but at the cost of angering the salesman who chases him off.
The panther then comes to a delicatessen where a little puppy is barking at the window. The panther apparently lost his scarf when he ran from the tree guy, but smiles at the sight of the dog. They both look at the food behind the glass as a man pays for a large order and leaves. The little dog, seeing a string of sausages dangling out of the man’s bag, gives chase. He successfully pulls the wieners from the bag and runs for an alley. The panther runs after him likely hoping to snatch the sausages from the tiny puppy only to find out he has a very big friend lurking in the alley who frightens him off. Adding further insult, the little dog chases him away. On the bright side, his scarf has reappeared!
The panther finds himself in the street and nearly run over by a horse-drawn trolley (the setting of this special appears to be pre-automobile). He narrowly avoids becoming a pink pancake, only to be run into by a man chasing after the trolley. The collision causes a wrapped box to fall from the very encumbered man’s arms. The panther chases after him a moment trying to alert him to the missing gift, but the man gets on the trolley and is soon far off in the distance. Since he has this box now, the panther opens it and finds a Santa costume inside. He happily puts it on, I think just to get warm, and starts strutting down the street.
Nearby, a man is seated in a dressing room and he’s clearly under the weather. He’s wrapped in blankets and has his feet in a hot bucket of water trying to get rid of the chills while a well-dressed man looks on. There’s a Santa suit hanging on the wall and it’s clear the well-dressed man is a department store manager without a Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. When he sees the panther go strutting by in his own Santa suit though, his prayers are answered! He runs outside and apparently offers the panther a job as he smiles and heads inside with the man.
We then see Santa Panther seated in an ornate chair as a line of children greet him. They sit on his lap and apparently tell him what they want for Christmas (the cartoon is basically silent, after all) and the panther smiles and sends them on their way. It’s all going rather well, until a little girl with a bag full of sweets comes to sit on his lap. A gingerbread man gets the panther’s attention, and his smiling visage is basically taunting him while the scent appears to be torturous. The camera cuts back and forth from the cookie and the panther’s eyes until he can’t take it anymore and bites the head off of the cookie. The kid screams and cries (geez, you can’t share your cookie with Santa?!) and her mother angrily approaches and takes a swing at the false Santa with her purse. The panther decides to bail and as he runs he peels off the costume, but the store manager chases after him.
I’m not really sure what the manager hopes to accomplish as he continues to chase after the panther even after seeing his discarded clothes. The panther tries to hide in a fur coat, but a woman scoops it up and takes it towards a mirror while the manager digs through what’s remaining. He turns and sees the woman trying the coat on and the panther’s tail is dangling out from underneath it. He grabs it and pulls, flinging the panther over his head. The panther takes refuge under a table, but a bowl of wax fruit on top of it proves too tempting. The panther reaches out from under the table to grab an apple, apparently not realizing it’s wax, and eats it while the manager stands beside it. He makes a noise demonstrating he found the “fruit” unappealing, but returns a spent apple core to the bowl anyway. The manager sees this and looks under the tablecloth and spots the panther who smiles at him sheepishly. He dives under the table, and the panther squirts free and takes the tablecloth with him.
As the manager scours the store for his runaway Santa, a children’s choir starts up. The panther ends up trying to hide amongst the children and as he moves under them the kids pop-up like a game of Whack-a-Mole. The panther eventually emerges from the choir with the manager still chasing after him. He slides down a massive banister and the manager follows, only he’s not very good at this and crashes into a gigantic Christmas tree in the store. It topples over and a bunch of patrons are covered in pine needles and merchandise, including the panther. The manager emerges from the rubble and sees his former Santa, and continues to chase after him. Seriously, what is this guy planning on doing when he actually gets him? He basically quit, and now the manager has destroyed his store by trying to capture him. He should probably just cut his losses at this point.
The panther runs into the toy section and attempts to pass himself off as a stuffed animal. The manager walks right on by him while a kid seems to think he’d be a great toy. He drags the panther by his tail over to his mom who apparently has no interest in buying the kid a stuffed animal the night before Christmas. He sadly drags the panther back to the toy department and just leaves him on the floor while his mother watches with a look of apparent regret on her face. A little girl takes notice of the panther and stands him up on his feet. Treating his tail like a crank, she turns it and he holds it in shape and goes along with it. He starts walking in a stiff manner like a toy and smiles when he sees a beautiful sight: the exit. Only the manager is standing in between him and the door. When he sees the manager he does an about-face and walks back towards the girl. The manager seems confused for a moment, and then starts walking after him. The panther begins to slowly drop the toy act as he walks faster and faster and the manager breaks into a sprint. He steps on a roller skate though and goes whizzing past the mother of the boy from earlier and tumbles down an escalator.
The woman and her kid then take the panther to the register. There he’s gift-wrapped as she apparently had a change of heart, and the gift is given to the boy. The panther soon shoots his feet out of the box and jumps out of the kid’s arms. He starts running off and the manager just stands and scowls. Either he doesn’t realize what is happening, or he’s finally given up, because he just watches as the panther runs out the door. I still don’t know what that guy was trying to achieve, but it ate up nearly 5 minutes of the special’s run time so I guess mission accomplished?
Now free of the department store, the panther is back to sulking as he walks around the city. Some kids are building a snowman and the panther is so hungry that the carrot the kids use for a nose proves too tempting to ignore. He casually walks past the snowman and once he clears it the nose vanishes. The kids notice immediately with one crying while the other starts chasing after the panther. Unfortunately, he runs into a police officer and the kid mimes what happened. The officer demands the panther show his hands, and he does, one at a time. The cop then gestures for him to show him both hands at the same time and he complies and still no carrot. That’s because he’s holding the carrot in his tail, which seems clever, until it’s revealed a horse-drawn trolley is behind him and the horse finds himself a snack. With the evidence destroyed, the panther is able to walk away free of consequences, but he stops to lift up his “fur” to reveal a belt which he tightens further to illustrate his severe hunger.
An old woman is shown feeding pigeons in the park, and now the panther is going to get really desperate. When she finishes dispersing what appears to be bread crumbs, the panther chases the birds away. He begins gathering up the crumbs, only for the old woman to return and pummel him with an umbrella. He runs off, and has apparently lost his scarf for good now, and comes to rest beside a bridge. Water drips on his head and he looks up to see he’s standing under a tree loaded with snow. He steps aside to avoid the dripping water, but he can’t avoid all of the snow that immediately falls off the tree limbs. This feline really can’t catch a break.
The panther emerges from the snow and actually smiles for he hears more singing. He walks over the bridge and peers under it to see people ice skating as the music grows louder. This leads to a short montage of children sledding, people skating, and a group of kids having a rather cold picnic around a roaring fire where they roast hot dogs, toast marshmallows, and drink hot chocolate. The panther imitates a more famous cartoon character by burrowing in the snow to travel undetected. He then channels his inner Yogi Bear as he attempts to swipe the picnic basket, only he accidentally grabs the tail of the bulldog snoring beside it. They get into a fight underneath the snow as the song fades out.
We pick up the panther some time later as he’s resumed walking sadly through the city neighborhoods. He walks past a set of stairs covered in snow and a woman emerges from her door with a shovel and some money. The panther is eager to perform some labor in exchange for a couple of bucks and takes her up on her offer. She goes back inside while he shovels only he’s just tossing the snow from this woman’s staircase to her neighbor’s. When he finishes, he gets ready to claim his payment only for the neighbor to emerge from their house angry to see their stairs covered in snow. Rather than accept payment and apologetically clear the guy’s stairs, the panther just runs off once again. He does a lot of running from people in this thing.
The panther goes running back into the city proper and now night has fallen. He comes across a soup kitchen and immediately jumps into the rather long line. As people get served, the panther moves closer and closer until it’s his turn only the pot of soup is down to its literal last drop. The server even tries to dump want’s left in the panther’s bowl, but a single drop of brown is all that’s there. The panther still licks his bowl and then jumps into the pot to lick that. He emerges with an angry look on his face and, spying another pot, dives into it. He happily laps up whatever the pot’s contents are until he pauses to belch. Bubbles pop out of his mouth when he does indicating this pot is for doing the dishes. That suspicion is confirmed when another member of the kitchen approaches with an armful of dirty dishes. The panther turns a sickly blue and slinks away.
He then emerges back in the city and returns to just staring forlornly into a restaurant he can scant afford. A wealthy looking man enjoying a meal alone sees the hungry panther shivering in the cold and motions for the waiter to come over. The waiter then invites the panther in to join the man for dinner. It would seem his luck has changed! As the panther orders a feast via thought balloons, we see a horse-drawn ambulance come racing down the street. It stops at the restaurant and the drivers run inside. It would seem our wealthy man is a doctor, for he grabs his kit and races out to go off and presumably attempt to save a life. This leaves the panther all alone at the table as the waiter brings a giant turkey over along with something else: the bill. Totaling a massive $7.50, the panther sheepishly gestures to the waiter that he has no money and is promptly thrown out. He lands on the welcome mat, which is then pulled out from under him.
The panther is forced to resume his mournful, night time, walk, until a pleasant smell stops him in his tracks. It’s coming from the city jail and the panther peers through some bars to see a police officer delivering a delicious looking Christmas meal to one of the inmates in solitary confinement. This gives the panther an idea as he sneaks in alongside a troupe of newly arrived prisoners. The guard shuts the cell door before he can get in though, and since no one recognizes the panther, they toss him out.
Outside, the panther seems intent on getting himself arrested, but rather than act like an actual panther and maul someone, he searches for a different method. Spying a “wanted” poster, he grabs it and places a picture of himself over the actual criminal. Why he seems to have a picture of himself handy is not something the show has any intention of revealing. He slaps the poster on a wall near a police officer, but the photo starts to fall off. He replaces it and quickly tries to get the cop’s attention, only a nearby individual sees the poster with the panther’s face and immediately grabs him. Likely hoping for a cash reward, he gets the cop’s attention and presents the panther while gesturing to the poster. Unfortunately for him, the panther’s picture has fallen off and the actual wanted man underneath it is him! He shrugs his shoulders as the cop chases him into the precinct. Meanwhile, the panther is left standing with his eyes closed and his arms out awaiting handcuffs that don’t come. He turns to see the two run into the building and then he looks up and we see the criminal in a cell with a steaming Christmas dinner in his arms. This may have been the panther’s greatest failure yet!
The panther resumes his walk and even passes by the same street corner from earlier in the special where the guy was selling trees only now no one is around. A cop is nearby eating a donut and drinking coffee as the panther walks past. He comes to a jewelry store where a shady looking character is standing outside the window with a brick. He soon smashes the window of the store and starts taking the jewelry while the donut cop drops what he’s doing and runs over. The panther sees the crook drop the booty and run and he seems to think he’s found a new way to get arrested. He picks up a watch and waits for the cop to arrive only to see him go running past him after the real crook. He looks momentarily defeated, until he sees the cop’s discarded donut go rolling by! He quickly replaces the sack of booty before giving chase.
The panther chases after the donut which comes to rest by a hungry looking stray dog. The dog licks his chops and prepares to chow down, only to get stiff-armed in the face by the panther. He picks up the donut and goes to eat, but takes a look back at the dog who is sulking away, tail between his legs. It’s a pitiful sight, and our main character can’t be this big of an asshole, so he hands the dog half of the donut which he happily eats. The pup licks the panther’s hand clean and he happily barks and starts following the panther, who sports a smile on his face. They walk through the city which suddenly is alive again as the children’s choir returns to sing about Christmas time. We get a brief montage of people celebrating the holiday and even a glimpse of some secular imagery.
Eventually, the panther and his new dog companion return to the park bench where the story began. He gestures for the pup to sit beside him. As the panther pats the dog on the head, some “magic dust” falls from the heavens to land on a small tree beside the bench. It soon morphs into a pretty, little, Christmas tree. Before the panther can begin to comprehend what just happened, more of this dust falls in front of him and a table appears! It’s covered with delicious looking food and the panther can scarcely believe his eyes! He then turns and looks to the sky and we see the culprit: Santa. The jolly old man waves to the Pink Panther, who returns the gesture, and flies through the sky. As the two prepare to feast, we get a shot of Santa and all eight reindeer fly in front of the moon. What we don’t get to see, is the panther finally enjoying a big old turkey leg. How dare you deprive us, MGM!
And that’s how the Pink Panther spent his Christmas. I’m a bit surprised by the absence of the Little Man, but not entirely surprised by the direction of the special. I did think it was going to go elsewhere for when the panther ended up with that lost gift I expected it to turn into a special where the panther had to make sure some kid got their present. Instead, that gift was just the springboard for one of the many misadventures the panther has during the night as he simply searches for a warm meal and a little kindness at Christmas. He’s a bit self-defeating, which makes aspects of this special tiresome to watch. It definitely spins its tires a bit too in the middle portion as it tries to find a way to pad this thing out. Seeing the panther try to get arrested in a bid to score some grub was pretty amusing though, and it definitely finds the right note to end on, but it definitely didn’t need to be a half hour. It was a bit of a surprise to see “The Cop and the Anthem” referenced in the opening credits, only for maybe 5 minutes of the special to actually be an adaptation of that story. At least the Panther doesn’t wind up in jail at the end though.
The animation quality is pretty bare. This is televised animation in the 70s which wasn’t an area where producers were spending big. Even for a special the studio might have thought it would be able to market year-in and year-out, this thing turned out pretty cheap. The backgrounds and character models are rather simple and many of the characters are mildly animated. It’s interesting to see where some scenes were short-changed and where some weren’t. It’s not all-together terrible or anything, but if you thought nearly 15 years post A Charlie Brown Christmas things would look better, they certainly do not. The music is fairly pleasant though and you’ll hear familiar Christmas stings alongside the catchy Pink Panther Theme. I don’t know that I needed the children’s choir, nor was I particularly fond of the original compositions, but they also weren’t annoying or overplayed. Instead, it just feels a little monotonous, much like the plot.
It’s not particularly hard to see why A Pink Christmas failed to catch on as a holiday classic. It’s a decent Christmas story, it’s just that the sight of a forlorn and hungry panther loses some impact when it’s just repeated over and over. There’s also a lack of clever gags when compared with a traditional Pink Panther short, and the poor feline is almost downright pathetic at times in his quest for food. Still, it’s far from terrible and if you want to watch it basically every Pink Panther cartoon is available for free on YouTube via the Official Pink Panther channel. And hey, maybe MeTV will spring for the broadcast rights to show it this year since they already show the other cartoons, plus it can’t be very expensive if they’re basically already giving it away for free.