Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Unsung!: The Party

The Party is a special film. The Party is a unique film. What makes it special and unique, I fear, are the things some people might really hate about it.

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.
In Gerald Mast’s The Comic Mind, the best book ever written about movie comedy, the author contends that if what you are watching is both a) trying to make you laugh and B) a narrative, it will fit comfortably into one of only eight standard comic plots. The Party is an example of a comic plot that was abundant in the days of silent film, but is now almost non-existent: riffing and goofing. Silent comedy pioneer Mack Sennett* is usually credited with inventing or perfecting this plot; he certainly named it. Sennett defined “riffing and goofing” as a comedy that strings together all the funny gags that could occur in a specific place. The Party shows us all the funny incidents that could occur at a big Hollywood party if it were infiltrated by a well-intentioned bumbler.

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?


[laughs shyly]

…maybe next week.

I'll come and get it then.


For I'd love to have my hat back.
Correct me if I am wrong, but one of my favorite bits in Wet Hot American Summer (the exchange of Coop’s flannel) seems to have been inspired by the scene above.

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!


  1. As a huge fan of "The Pink Panther" series, particularly the 70's movies ("The Return" and "Strikes Again" are my particular favorites of the series; they're like Joe Dante movies with Blake Edwards' self-restraint keeping the cartoony mayhem elegant and constatly topping the topper), "The Party" holds a special place in my heart. It's like a dry run for the amped-up pace of the post-60's "Panther" movies. No surprise that Tom and Frank Waldman, who co-wrote "The Party" with Edwards, went on to co-write the screenplays for the the next four "Panther" movies (including the messy-but-fascinating self-immolation that is "The Trail of the Pink Panther," i.e. the cliff notes/recycled footage/post-Sellers "Panther" movie).

    Only Henry Mancini's soundtrack for "The Party" disappoints in that it's only good instead of memorable (and it fits the 'groovy' time/setting of the place). And you're right, JB, "The Party" isn't trying to recreate an actual Hollywood party as much as everyone's media-concocted perspective of what a swinging Hollywood party was in the 60's. Steve Franken (R.I.P.) almost steals the movie from Sellers as the waiter that gets more and more fed up with the party and its guests until he finally drinks up and loses it. Also loved seeing Carol Wayne (the matinee lady on Johnny Carson's "Art Fern's Tea Time Movie" sketches) and Denny Miller's riff-of-a-performance as a John Wayne-type movie star. The supporting cast (a stereotype-filled array of Hollywood 'types' for Edwards to satirize) and their reactions to Sellers are priceless, though none are as good as Herbert Lom's Dreyfuss in the "Panther" saga.

    I disagree about Tati not being as good or funny at the slapstick genre though. I started loving Blake Edwards' brand of slaptick for decades until I watched all of Tati's work in recent years. Tati's gentle slaptick (I'll set the restaurant scenes in "Playtime" against anything Edwards ever did for a slapstick-off) is more of a back-up to the heart and soul moments that Mr. Hulot experiences (his inability to deal with the change around him) as he tries to go about his life. In all the Hulot movies he tries to make a connection with a woman (the tourist girl in "Holiday," the teen girl in "Mon Oncle," the gal on the bus in "Playtime") and either comes close or technology/people/society intrudes at the last moment to keep them apart. These brief emotional scenes give the hilarious slapstick in Tati's Hulot movies a pathos that Sellers and Blake never went anywhere near with the Clouseau character by choice. See Bud York's "Inspector Clouseau" ('68) to watch Alan Arkin do the only scene in the entire "Panther" series where Clouseau attempts to come to grips with his 'condition' as a walking disaster affecting his ability to have a normal life that he craves. It's eye-opening pathos in the middle of an otherwise shitty movie.

    As long as people don't hold expectation too high for "The Party" (it's very possible people could not like it since comedy is such a subjective beast) I second JB's recommendation. Sellers playing an Indian character doesn't bother me. John Saxon playing a Hispanic in "Joe Kidd"? Now that pisses me off big time. ;-)

  2. This film sort of runs out of steam in the final act, but the first half is a masterpiece of silent comedy. Sellers' facial expressions are priceless, and the look he gives when he finally solves a physical dilemma he has midway thru the film (everyone who has seen it knows what I'm referring to) is a major highlight.