Let’s Party with Peter and Blake

PARTY, THE (1968)

To view The Party click here.

One of the most surprising and gratifying movie screenings I experienced in recent years was The Pink Panther (1963) in full Technirama at the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival. I had seen the film many times on television, and I thought I knew all of the funniest bits, but watching it on a big screen was a revelation.

Blake Edwards’s expert direction amplified those subtle comedy bits that were dependent on offscreen action, screen direction, exquisite timing and precise compositions in long shot. The impact of these techniques is not nearly as effective on television, or, heaven forbid, computers. The best example occurs near the end of the film after several characters in gorilla suits leave a costume party then jump in tiny cars to chase each other. A local resident watches dead pan as a gorilla drives a car across the street in front of him and exits screen right just as another gorilla in another tiny car follows. Filmed primarily in long shots with minimal editing, the sequence is funny because we have time to take in the absurdity of a gorilla driving a car, just like the local who has been carefully positioned in center frame.

Though Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau is the character most closely associated with The Pink Panther, he is actually the costar. David Niven, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale were the main stars and gave the film its international intrigue and romance. Sellers provided the farce, a type of comedy that was Edwards’s forte. Peter Ustinov was originally signed to play Clouseau, but he dropped out just before shooting. Sellers was hired after most of the pre-production had been completed, and according to Edwards in an interview, he and the mercurial comic actor hashed out his version of the character in the car from the airport after the director picked him up. New scenes were devised, and Sellers was encouraged to improvise within Edwards’s controlled set pieces. Many of his scenes unfold in long shot as classic bits of farce in which one character exits out of frame and another stumbles in.

I recently caught A Shot in the Dark (1964), Edwards’s quick follow-up to The Pink Panther. Clouseau is now the primary character, and Sellers is the star. Consequently, many of his encounters are depicted in medium shots, and, as the star, he is afforded more close-ups. However, the farcical scenes are still presented in long shots. Edwards excelled at bedroom farce, sometimes called door farce, in which the point is sexual escapades. In a bedroom farce, a romantic encounter is set in a room or a building with several doors and windows leading to bedrooms. Much of the humor comes from one character entering through a door or window just as another character exits through the opposite door or window. Hence, the name “door farce.” Because of the perfectly timed visual interplay, long shots in long take are generally more effective than cutting to each character as they enter and exit.

Party_1968_EdwardsSellers

Edwards and Sellers would go on to make three more Pink Panther films. The Party (1968), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck, was the only collaboration between Sellers and Edwards that was not a Pink Panther film. In The Party, Sellers plays Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi who is imported to Hollywood to play a role in a Gunga Din-like action film. Through a mix-up, he is invited to a lavish party thrown by the head of the studio at his ultra-modern home. The premise is less of a plot and more of a set-up for Sellers’s strengths as a comic actor. As the hapless foreigner, he is not only vexed by the strange interior design of the house with its indoor ponds and remote-controlled fireplaces but also at odds with the Hollywood types who populate the party. We appropriate his outsider perspective as he wonders through the ridiculous house and mingles with the absurd party-goers. Part of the comedy is a spoof of Hollywood, c. 1968. Edwards would continue to bite the hand that fed him in other spoofs or exposés of show business, including S.O.B (1981) and Sunset (1988).

The Party, which flopped at the time of release, is one of those films that inspires either avid followers or diehard detractors. As a fan of Edwards’s work, even his unsuccessful efforts, I guess I am in the former camp. Edwards’s direction is at its most formal in The Party as he uses widescreen frames to track with Hrundi as he wanders from one group to another, disrupting conversations or creating havoc. Sellers was again encouraged to improvise, especially with props. Edwards captures Hrundi in long shot encountering broken toilets, pet birds and automated furniture. There is very little dialogue, and some of the comedy consists of perfectly timed trajectory gags in which one gag sets off a chain reaction leading to the next and to the next. Two influences on The Party are apparent—silent comedy and Jacques Tati, especially Mon Oncle (1958). Edwards’s style is the opposite of many of today’s comedies in which directors do not seem to understand the connection between humor and filmmaking techniques. Instead, contemporary comedies subject audiences to comic actors standing center frame in static medium shots running off at the mouth until all energy and humor are drained from the scene.

My favorite Hollywood type spoofed in The Party is a western movie star played by Denny Miller, a rhinestone cowboy in a Nudie Cohen-style suit with his name written in gemstones on his back. He towers over Hrundi, greeting him with “Howdy Partner,” mispronouncing his name and calling him “Injun” because Hrundi told him he was Indian. Though Hrundi creates havoc as a fish out of water, these waters are strange ones indeed. In the end, his character proves to be the most stable and sympathetic, signified by the fact that he wins the heart of the girl, played by Claudine Longet.

PARTY, THE (1968)

However, those type of jokes points out the elephant in the room—the fact that Sellers is portraying an Indian, or, playing brownface as some call it. Anyone intrigued enough to watch The Party should be aware of this unfortunate convention that, while accepted at the time, is not acceptable. Sellers’s stock in trade was his ability to inhabit his exaggerated but well-rounded characters using costuming, gesture and accent to complete the comic portrait, whether it is Hrundi V. Bakshi or Henry Orient or Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Hrundi was just another mask that Sellers slipped into for The Party, but it is a mask that carries a lot of cultural baggage.

Susan Doll

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3 Responses Let’s Party with Peter and Blake
Posted By Marty : August 7, 2017 9:32 am

My father and I saw The Party first run at the Guild 50th Street Theater around the corner from the entrance to Radio City Music Hall. I have to tell you that we were laughing so loudly, that an usher (yes uniformed in the days when they still had them) came down the aisle with his flashlight — shined it into our laughing faces — and said that if we didn’t turn the volume down, they were going to ask us to leave the theater! They are showing a master comedian in a master comic movie and we’re not allowed to laugh that loud???? It remains a family favorite, believe me!
And Steve Franken gave the absolute performance of his career as the drunken butler. The entire dinner service scene is Steve’s masterpiece. And every time the kitchen door swings open he is being choked by the chef.
Birdie Num-Num to all.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 7, 2017 11:04 am

Marty: “Birdie Num-Num” to you, too.

You are right about Steve Franken, and Blake’s use of the swinging door that opens to frame Franken’s physical bits of humor was ingenious.

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2017 4:37 pm

My parents saw The Party when it came out and flat out hated it at the time. Come to think of it, they didn’t care for Dr. Strangelove either. But they loved the Clouseau films and took me to see them when the series was revived in the ’70s. And of course the films they didn’t enjoy became firm favourites of mine too. Except for that ’60s Casino Royale, can’t blame them for that one.

FWIW, Sellers served in Burma during the Second World War, and had a great deal of respect for the South Asian soldiers who were his co-combatants against the Japanese. Yes, his portrayals here and in The Millionairess (with Sophia Loren, with whom he also had a hit single, sung in character) are considered brownface today, but they weren’t coming from a place of disrespect or mockery. (Try watching Carry On Up the Khyber for a real example of that.)

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