We could use some solid comedy this season

I have watched many hours of movie shooting, but nothing I've seen has equaled the Pink Panther session I observed a few years ago in England. Bedecked in his Inspector Clouseau mustache, the late Peter Sellers would step before the camera and begin his dialogue, speaking in a voice so unctuous you could almost see the syllables congealing on his tongue. He would rarely get past the third or fourth line before his shoulders began to shake, his face contorted with mirth, and several yards of celluloid zipped uselessly through the camera while he roared with merriment at the absurdity of his own portrayal.

Far from being dismayed by this, filmmaker Blake Edwards would be equally doubled up in his director's chair, where he howled with glee while the technical crewmen stood around and smiled and fidgeted. Indeed, Edwards has admitted adding several days to the shooting schedule of each Pink Panther movie , just to allow time for helpless giggling. It's a crazy way to make a picture, yet the Pink Panther series contains some of the most successful comedies of all time, financially as well as critically. And a lion's share of the credit belongs to Sellers, whose anarchic wit was at the center of each film.

When he wasn't mugging his way through a Pink Panther epic, Sellers frequently chose films that required him to take on multiple roles. In "Lolita" he was the evil clare Quilty, a man of many disguises. In "Dr. Strangelove" he played everyone from the nightmarish title character to the President of the United States.

Near the end of his Career, Sellers won an Academy Award nomination for his darkly sardonic portrayal of Chance, a profoundly ignorant man who becomes a presidential adviser, and then leaped back to the cheerfully schizoid moviemaking that apparently appealed to him most. In "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu," due for national release shortly, Sellers plays the notorious Fu at the age of 168, and also plays Fu's arch-enemy, Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard. For Sellers, there was nothing odd about playing both the good guy and the villain. they both made him giggle.

Certainly this season could use more of Sellers's suave wit, and the kind of depth that made us respect Clouseau at even his most idiotic moments. The biggest comedy hit of the summer is "Airplane!" from the writer-director team of Jerry Zuker, David Zuker, and Jim Abrahams. The rating is PG, although the picture contains more sex jokes and double entendres than, say, the R-rated "Blues Brothers." Still, the thrust of the farce is more filmic than physical -- that is, it spends most of its energy making fun of other movies, as varied as "Saturday Night Fever" and "From Here to Eternity."

Airplane! has been making enough money to fill a hangar, which reflects current tastes for lightheaded entertainment. (The summer's other box-office champ, "The Empire Strikes Back," is no feast for the intellect, either.) "Airplane!" contains a share of uproarious gags along with its periodic lapses of taste.

But can't a comedy be more than just silly? After all, Sellers's best pictures always were. You laugh a lot during "airplane!" and then you leave the theater and the whole jumbo movie flies right out of your head, never to return.

There's more to recommend in another current comedy, The amiable Rough Cut, starring Burt Reynolds, Lesley-Anne Down, and David Niven. Again, there are lapses in taste, including a brief seminude love scene that definitely pushes the limits of the PG tag.And the ending (where crime does pay) is weak, partly because the film had a rough cut of its own -- with the original finale reportedly discarded just before release, and a new one tacked on. Still, most of the movie is a joy to behold.The plot borrows from the Alfred Hitchcock classic "To Catch a Thief" -- indeed, Reynolds actually does a Cary Grant imitation in an early scene. The "hero" is a big-time jewel thief whose new girlfriend puts him on the trail of a gigantic diamond heist. What he doesn't know is that her information is coming straight from a Scotland Yard lawman who has set his trap for both of them. The story is a three-way game of cat-and- mouse, with a shipment of gems as the ultimate cheese.

Flyweight material, to be sure. But the performers have a ball running circles around one another, and we have a ball watching them. Reynolds again reveals the gently self-mocking side of his character that shined so brightly in "Starting Over," and Lesley-Anne Down matches him perfectly as the ambiguous girlfriend. Many of the funniest lines in "rough Cut" sound like nothing when you repeat them to your friends. But in the context of the movie -- and in the mouths of these splendid stars -- they make you roar with laughter. "rough cut" is a flawed gem, and its box-office performance has been disappointing. But it shines more brightly than most of the summer's other fare and it shows a surprising new side to filmmaker Donald Siegel, hitherto known as a hard-boiled action man with a penchant for pictures like "Dirty Harry" and the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." I don't know where he learned the Hitchcockian touch, but he carries it off like a master.

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