Peter Sellers is Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi who mistakenly gets invited to a fancy Hollywood party. The clumsy foreigner is completely out of his element and despite desperate attempts at fitting into the 1960’s lavish American affair he brings disaster everywhere he turns. It’s an escalating series of destructive mishaps, falls, farce, spills and turns into a huge catastrophic blowout for this party.
Sellers and writer/director Blake Edwards famously had a long tense relationship. They would work together on six films together through the course of their careers, most famously and successfully with the Pink Panther series. Inspector Jaques Clouseau was Sellers most popular character, the films were consistently hits and it would be a reliable series that both could go back to when in need of a hit.
While the onscreen results were triumphs and they both clicked with one another creating comedy, the caveat to their partnership was that Edwards and Sellers hated working with each other. In reality, they had one of the most famous love/hate working relationships in cinema. Well, it was more ‘hate’ than ‘love’.
However, despite the clashes they had and the multiple vows each made of “never working with the other again”, they would always find themselves drawn back together for another Panther adventure.
The Party was the only film Sellers and Edwards made together outside of the Pink Panther series. Plus, famed Panther composer Henry Mancini joined in to create a groovy score for the film.
It’s a fish out of water tale with a very simple premise that becomes a showcase for both of their unique talents. It allowed Sellers to disappear into a character, which he could do better than anyone, and engage in mostly silent sight gags, awkward moments and embarrassing predicaments put in place and captured in full effect by Edwards.
I had read the script for The Party was a slim sixty pages. It’s barely even a story, it’s just a premise. So, it was up to the actor and writer/director to take it, work together to create a series of humorous moments and have it be a showcase for Sellers’ inept character and get him into as much trouble as they could come up with. Sellers improvises and milks each escalating comedic predicament for all he can as we watch.
The film starts with a bang as we watch lowly background Indian actor Bakshi ruin the epic war film he’s a part of. Word gets back to the studio head of this catastrophe and he angrily vows to blackball Bakshi from ever working again. He inadvertently writes Bakshi’s name down on the guest list for his upcoming dinner party and within only a few minutes the stage is set for The Party. It’s unlikely that Sellers’ Indian character would happen today. You can be sure there would be those insulted by Sellers in brown makeup doing his heavy Indian accent. We’ve seen the criticism Hank Azaria’s Apu character on The Simpsons has gotten, so the odds are that Sellers wouldn’t be able to pull off the character of Bakshi today. It’s the same way how blackface and Chinese makeup on actors would result in instant fallout.
Despite the un-PC nature of his character, I have to say I always thought Sellers was quite good and made Bakshi quite an endearing likable character. Each time I’ve seen The Party I always forget about Sellers’ Indian act and just accept this bizarre, awkward character as being legit. Somehow Sellers pushes the blundering caricature just enough to get laughs, but not going too overboard with him, at least for the most part.
Bakshi arrives at the party and immediately the silent comedy ensues. Losing his shoe, being honored to meet western actor Denny Miller, creating calamity with a funky electrical panel, uncomfortable seating at the dinner table, trying to find a bathroom, and admiring the hosts’ pet parrot and saying the most famous line from the film, “Birdie Num Num.”
In between ruining this swanky party, Bakshi meets wholesome, aspiring actress Claudine Longet, who finds this sincere and kind guest quite a contrast to the Hollywood sharks circling around her.
The supporting actors mainly get to play it straight to Sellers and never try to steal the spotlight from him. A younger Gavin McCloud always stands out to me. Carol Wayne (who was the original Matinee Lady on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, before dying tragically) has a small part sitting next to Sellers during the awkward dinner scene.
Aside from Sellers, the one actor who goes for exaggerated laughs is Steve Franken who plays a server at the party. Through the course of the film he continues to drink and gets more and more drunk as the evening wears on.
His ‘Drunk Guy Act’ kind of wears me down and gets a bit too much at times. I prefer the more subtle comedy of Sellers trying to fit into a party conversation without having any idea how to behave accordingly.
Edwards adds some comedic touches such as swinging kitchen doors where we catch glimpses of the anger brewing between the staff. Or a very amusing repeated visual gag is Bakshi being responsible for another accident, everyone looking around to see who did it and seeing Bakshi all the way in the distance on the other side of the pool seemingly being an innocuous guest. It’s very reminiscent to the ongoing jokes in A Shot In The Dark with Clouseau being hauled away by yet another police car.
The last third of the film is where I always felt where the best of the comedy and the movie starts to run out of steam. The majority of the film is Sellers trying to fit in and being out of place with this snobbish, 1960’s extravagant society. The scenarios are smaller, more believable social faux pas’ that are made that each gradually build to little disaster vignettes.
It’s when Edwards decides to really blow the doors off at this party where overboard silliness ensue. The doors open and young, excited guests unexpectedly arrive. There’s dancers, there’s peace protestors, there’s an elephant. Instead of providing an uproarious melee to finish things off, things get too outlandish and the laughs dissipate for me.
I just find it funnier and more creative watching Sellers trying to deal with a leaking toilet and trying to divert disaster than it is with him and a pack of 60’s teens washing an elephant filling the house with suds is meant to be.
Once the movie goes there with suds and bubbles, guests falling into the pool accompanied by twangy 60’s music filling the screen you’ve reached the peak and any smaller, more choreographed social mistakes get completely washed away. The more intricate comedic building blocks scenes from the first half of the film are gone. You can’t just go back to Sellers losing his shoe or spilling bird food on the floor after a painted elephant is walking around.
Still, for a large majority The Party is fun and is a great stage for Sellers to display his unique talent of humor and Edwards to bask in a brand of comedy that could fit in with any of the great silent comedians. Plus, if you’re a fan of it the film definitely serves up plenty of its 1960s vibes.
It’s a shame Sellers and Edwards didn’t collaborate more outside of the Pink Panther series. Based on The Party I think audiences missed out on a lot more potential comedic tales they could have spun.