The only other collaboration between Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers beside the Pink Panther films, The Party is a mélange of silliness and sight gags, Sixties Hollywood excess and cultural stereotypes, a groovy, psychedelic statement with an elephant thrown in for good measure.
This is a film willing to spend ten minutes on a sequence detailing the protagonist’s retrieval of his lost shoe.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: There is no plot. The film follows Peter Seller’s comic Indian character, Hrundi M. Bakshi, as he bumbles his way around a Hollywood party in what seems like real time.
Many critics feel this film owes a debt to Jacques Tati’s body of work. I suppose it does, especially Tati’s Playtime, but I am then left wondering why I love The Party and Tati’s work leaves me cold. I certainly admire Tati’s work on an intellectual level, but it does not make me laugh. The Party makes me laugh out loud.
Some would suggest that Seller’s portrayal is racist. I am not Indian (Believe me, I tried) but I have always thought that this sensitive issue comes down to intention rather than portrayal. Peter Sellers is playing a character that is not his own race. This is true. However the characterization does not seem intended to mock or poke cruel fun at people from India. Seller’s Hrundi character is blameless— polite and caring. He is the most admirable character in the film; that is why he is the protagonist. Perhaps the racism question simply come down to skin color. Did crazy Nazi scientists get all bent out of shape when Sellers played a crazy Nazi scientist in Dr. Strangelove? He was never a Nazi or a scientist. (By all accounts, he WAS crazy.)
The performances are uneven, but at least they are all stylized in the same way. This is the well-worn Blake Edwards universe of over-acting rich white people that figures prominently in most of his later comedies. The fact that all of the supporting roles are cardboard, one-note stereotypes actually serves two functions: 1) it makes Sellers stereotypical Indian character a little easier to swallow because it seems of a piece with the rest of the film; and 2) it ironically humanizes that same character, who comes off as loveable and kind amid the backdrop of buffoonery and American excess.
Peter Sellers gives a great performance here and, more importantly, that performance is in a film that is worthy of it. The problem with Sellers was always his godawful choice of movie roles; his amazing mimicry could never rise above the mediocre material. It is hard to think of another beloved comic performer who made so few great films. With Sellers, over the course of an 82 film career, we have only six great films: The Ladykillers, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, The Pink Panther, A Shot In The Dark, and Being There. That is pretty much it. I would add The Party to that list. Some would not.
The production design is first rate. Like Jerry Lewis with The Ladies Man, Edwards here builds a huge house set and then simply allows his characters to walk around in it. It is a cliché to say that the house becomes a character in the film, but it does. The house is full of features that lend themselves to sight gags, the most obvious examples being a flowing pond that runs through the entry foyer and a then-novel indoor-outdoor pool.
This film portrays the Sixties not as it was (Believe me, I was there) but as we want it to be. It is a brightly colored Valentine to “letting it all hang out” and “being far-out.” I will always have a soft spot in my heart for any film that climaxes with washing hippie slogans off an elephant in an indoor pool followed by a slow-motion dance number performed in the subsequent torrent of soapsuds.
The film also contains a sweet love story. The Bakshi character meets and falls in love with a pretty model named Michelle, played by Claudine Longet. Here is a small sample of their dialogue.
Oh, here's your hat.
Oh, look... you keep it.
But you may need it.
No, I'd like you to keep it.
All right. If you think that you should want it or need it some time...
Well, if I need it... I could always come, perhaps, and pick it up.
That would be very nice.
When would you be available for me to pick up my hat?
…maybe next week.
I'll come and get it then.
For I'd love to have my hat back.
I do not find The Party racist. Like Jim in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hrundi M. Bakshi is the most honorable character in the work. The Party is not rigorously intellectual; it has no great social statement to make. It is just fun -- good, dumb fun. I do not find it stupid; I find it silly. This is a distinction that many people are unable to make. I find this kind of dumb fun harder and harder to find.
*Mack Sennett is being featured every Thursday night on TCM this month. NOTE: the individualized and faulty scheduling of these very short films makes them almost impossible to DVR. You are better off hitting “record” when it begins and just recording the whole four-hour block. If the selection of shorts presented last Thursday is any indication, we are in for a month-long treat!