Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Party (1968)

I had so much fun reading American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller, that I decided to briefly write about some of my favorite comedies.  So it was a double bit of serendipity to learn that the 1968 cult hit The Party recently made its way to Blu-Ray and DVD.  If you have not seen this film – and it’s unlikely that you have – get yourself a copy.  You will not be disappointed.

The Party is the only collaboration between Peter Sellers (1925-1980) and director Blake Edwards (1922-2010) that was not a Pink Panther film.  In fact, after shooting the second Panther film, the hilarious A Shot in the Dark (1964), both men vowed never to work with one-another again.

Edwards then conceived a film that would be a tribute to the great silent clowns of his boyhood.  According to Edwards, his childhood was largely an unhappy one, save for the moments of transcendence afforded by such clowns as Buster Keaton (1895-1966) and Harold Lloyd (1893-1971).  He often allowed this silent-screen era slapstick sensibility to creep into his work (look, for instance, at the epic pie fight in The Great Race), but a strictly silent film was a challenge he wanted to set for himself.

Always contemptuous of the Hollywood scene, Edwards conceived of a silent film about an incompetent and accident-prone actor, blackballed by Hollywood but inadvertently invited to a swanky soiree where he wreaks havoc.  The initial screenplay was little more than 60 pages long, and was mostly the set-up for gags that would be improvised on the set.

But who would star in it?

After much internal debate, Edwards decided to bring the project to Sellers, who instantly fell in love with it.  Edwards encouraged Sellers to create a character – a fish out of water who was basically decent, but inherently accident-prone.  Out of whole cloth, Sellers fashioned Hrundi V. Bakshi, the world’s worst actor.  The Party opens with Sellers as Bakshi starring in desert opus Son of Gunga Din, ruining take-after-take and unexpectedly demolishing the key standing set. 

However, his ends up on a party list rather than a kill-list, and from that simple premise, Edwards and his cast improvised the movie, shooting in sequence to ensure that the story flowed properly.

The Party is a remarkable film for its time, and for ours, as well.  The story is so lose and improvisatory, and the narrative arc, such as it is, so fluid that one could easily mistake it for a French comedy of the era.  That Edwards was able to get away with such a high-cost gamble is quite an achievement, and it seems unlikely that something similar would happen again today (unless it involved ray guns or superheroes). 

In addition, it is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film.  Though there is dialog, very little of it moves the story forward, and most of it would take up some three single-spaced pages of text.  It’s not surprising that so many people have been either confounded or disappointed in The Party; it’s the world’s only all-talking silent movie. 

The root of its genius is that both Edwards and Sellers understood on a deep and profound level physical comedy.  They were able to mine gold from simple set-ups.  Here is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film:  Bakshi desperately needs to relieve himself, and finally finding a lavatory, struggles with his environment:

The film resided in limbo for a while, never really finding its audience.  I was lucky enough to see it on late-night television in my boyhood before it seemed to vanish completely.  Since its release, it has acquired something of a cult following, with many ardents of both Sellers and Edwards championing it as their best film.  We wouldn’t go quite that far, but it is something very special, off-the-beaten-track, and splendidly funny.

Happily, Sellers is surrounded by a talented supporting cast.  Special kudos must go to Steve Franken (1932 – 2012) as the drunken waiter – who nearly steals the film with hardly a word spoken.  Franken was a familiar face in both movies and television, and this film will make you wonder why he was never a bigger star.  His comedic timing is flawless, and one wishes a follow-up movie would be built around his character.  Former screen Tarzan Denny Miller (1934 –2014) is especially fetching as cowboy-western star “Wyoming Bill” Kelso, and J. Edward McKinley (1917 – 2004) as the host deadpans superbly.

Fans of period cinema would find much to savor, as well.  Few films scream a 1960s sensibility more than The Party.  Its Henry Mancini (1924-1994) score will either charm or repel you; in addition, the romantic lead is Claudine Longet (born 1942), who is one of the great mysteries of the 1960s.  Quite popular as a singer and actress, she has evaporated into well-deserved obscurity.  Why was she so popular?

Though not to all tastes, The Party comes highly recommended.

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