(SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.
Edwards conceived of The Party as a silent movie – very much in the manner of Jacques Tati, to which it owes a considerable debt – but this fell away once Sellers was on board, and the actor realised he would have to speak in order to embrace the character. Edwards and Sellers had previously fallen out while making A Shot in the Dark (Edwards suggests Sellers’ desire to receive serious, Kubrickian acclaim, rather than just adoration for his Clouseau prat falls, was part of the issue; this also led to Alan Arkin playing the signature role in Inspector Clouseau, although ironically, both Sellers and Edwards were working together again on The Party by this point). The decision was made to improvise a 56-page outline, which sounds great in theory, but you only have to look at the deceptively precise comic vignettes of Tati – or even, and I’m not a fan, Mr Bean, who owes a debt to Bakshi – for the readily apparent difference in results.
Simply, The Party can’t sustain itself once Bakshi, instead of being condemned never to work in Hollywood again for messing up a Gunga Din style epic, is mistakenly invited to the self-same producer’s swanky party. And because it has an intentionally haphazard quality, you’re never under the illusion that something truly inspired is occurring, as with Monsieur Hulot. Of course, comedy is the most subjective of genres, but I think Pauline Kael was correct when she suggested “it’s too long for its one-note jokes, and often too obvious to be really funny”. And yet, she identified that it is, nevertheless, “agreeable in tone”.
The house set itself is absurdly impressive, but there’s much in the comic construction that rather goes on, in particular Steve Franken’s frantically mugging and increasingly-inebriated waiter. And, inevitably, Bakshi’s need to use the toilet (which he, also inevitably, destroys). On the other hand, his interactions with Denny Miller’s cowboy star Wyoming Bill Kelso are quite charming, and Longet manages to be both winsome and strike an oddball chemistry with Sellers (although, Longet’s impact on Vladimir Sabich almost a decade later was decidedly more pronounced).
The Party does feature very funny moments – an extended piece of slapstick involving Bakshi’s shoe that manages to swing neatly around to his being served it on a platter, "Birdy Num Nums", Bakshi losing his roast chicken in another guest’s hairpiece – and it’s gratifying that, apart from the producer (Gavin McLeod) and studio head (J Edward McKinley) who had it in for him anyway, Bakshi doesn’t manage to outrage or infuriate the rest of the guests, even if they mostly don’t know what to make of him. But the movie proceeds to climax in a massive foam bath after Clutterbuck’s daughter Molly (Kathe Green) arrives home with a bunch of friends (“I thought you were out protesting” says her reluctant mother Fay McKenzie). Fun as it is, and symbolic of 60s free abandon (a recurrent theme of the middle-aged Sellers’ work around this time) while accompanied by Henry Mancini’s title track The Party, it isn’t exactly ground-breaking (indeed, Norman Wisdom made much more effective use of foam frolics in The Early Bird a couple of years er, earlier).
The Party was a family favourite as a child, mostly for the aforementioned “Birdy Num Nums” scene where Bakshi decides to feed a macaw but manages to drop most of its food on the floor; later, he then happens upon the house intercom and broadcasts the phrase to the guests; it remains a highlight. Sellers is also on great form throughout, embracing the opportunity to go for it with a character (he apparently became addicted to the video assist developed for the picture, constantly returning to it to study his performance). Bakshi’s nationality seems less essential to Sellers than serving as a peg to hang the character on; it is referenced a number of times, but the key is that he’s an outsider. When Bakshi does reference his heritage in a serious manner, though, it concerns the elephant mentioned at the outset.
This baby elephant arrives with Molly and her entourage, daubed with slogans, and Bakshi takes issue with such disrespectful treatment of a symbol of his country; Molly and her friends quickly set to work washing the little fellow down (all of which leads to the foam-based fun). He is soon scrubbed of an assortment of statements, including “Socrates Eats Hemlock”, “Green Power”, “Go Naked”, “Chicken Little Was Right”, “Love Is A Sugar Cube”, “Freak Don’t Fight”, “Turn On Tune In Drop In”, “Boss” on its trunk, and “We’d Rather Banana”. And, most singularly, since it adorns the elephant’s forehead, “The World Is Flat”.
Noel Joshua Hadley suggests that, what with Sellers being something of a lapsed mason – he only really showed up to be inducted, shamelessly used his membership to get ahead, and then had a habit of dropping their secrets in unguarded fashion, all of which are considered big no-nos – the elephant’s most central statement might be something of a message on Sellers’ part, an announcement of one of the core freemasonic tenets. On the other hand, given the combination of non sequiturs and trad hippy slogans appearing elsewhere on the creature, it’s possible that it was intended as just another riff on counter-culture programming.
The Party may be forever damned for its egregious brown-face, but Bakshi represents one of Sellers’ most charming roles, imbued with an innocence he’d return to, to acclaim, in Being There. I really don’t buy the “one of the most radically experimental films in Hollywood history” tag you can find cited on Wiki; The Party is pleasingly done, but still typical of a certain carefree indulgence of many a comedy of that era.