THE PARTY, thanks to Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards, added some laughs to 1968’s mostly dire slate of comedies. Scarred by the Vietnam War, assassinations, riots and and an overall sense that society’s glue was coming unstuck, it wasn’t a happy year. Of two dozen vying for vibes on the nation’s screens, only a handful stand the test of time: most didn’t weather the time it took to drive home from the theater.
Indian actor ‘Hrundi V. Bakshi’ (Sellers), fired from a Hollywood epic after wreaking costly havoc with his clumsiness, is mistakenly invited to a party at the swank home of the studio head. While attempting to mix with the celebs and bigwigs, the cheerful and clueless Bakshi’s gift for chaos succeeds in turning the evening into a ‘scene’ no one present will forget.
Most of ’68’s comedies (including Sellers I Love You, Alice B. Toklas) flailed trying to bottle the lightning bug of change coursing through the young generation. While this one, as it runs out of gas toward the end, brings out a psychedelically painted elephant for an extra dose of silliness, it sticks to old-fashioned slapstick to get giggles and snorts out of the what’s basically a one-joke plot set-up. The script was worked up by Edwards and brothers Frank & Tom Waldman to allow the star and cast to free-flow move through a lavish set backdrop as Sellers, with makeup and accent, bumbles amiably through a series of sight gags (often very funny) and language barrier bits (overdone). Star and director are back in Clouseau-Panther territory, with an improved redo of Sellers characterization from 1960s The Millionairess. Instead of co-star support from the likes of David Niven and Elke Sommer, as in the hits about the French detective, here the secondary players are a spread of “types” each allotted a few bits to react to the star’s actions. Where The Millionairess had Sophia Loren (the best thing abut that dull movie), for some reason Edwards selected the lifeless Claudine Longet for this caper. Other than flashing a pretty smile, she’s a talking mannequin who just happens to be French. We also have to suffer a segment where she sings (someone please explain her waif-appeal: a squirrel could sing better) though that’s mostly a setup for one of Seller’s physical gags.
The highlight in the supporting crew is Steve Franken (1932-2012). Familiar from the era’s TV sitcoms, memorably as spoiled playboy ‘Chatsworth Osborne Jr.’ on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, he gets many of the best laughs as a waiter who gets steadily sloshed as the party unravels.
The movie begins with an elaborate sendup of Gunga Din, where Seller’s hapless clod ruins takes and destroys an entire set. Henry Mancini’s score includes a nifty number behind the opening credits. Throughout, inspired moments of lunacy alternate with other jokes that fall flat, usually because they’re dragged out too long. That poor pachyderm…. *
With Denny Miller (playing it big), J. Edward McKinley (good as the studio head and party host), Gavin MacLeod (in unpleasant mode), Marge Champion, Buddy Lester, Carol Wayne, Fay McKenzie, James Lanphier, Frances Davis. Made for $2,900,000, a gross of $8,300,000 put it 47th place in the year’s throng.
.* Naturally, today, with the long-gone star cursed by “being racist” in playing someone of a different ethnicity, in a different era, fervent p.c. waggers MUST tarnish every mention of the film by bemoaning the “brownface” makeup and subcontinent accent Sellers employs. News flash: it wasn’t done to hurt anyone. One imagines culture ire could be better directed by aiming outrage at India’s corrupt government, at the country’s murderous pollution, at cruel policies that have led a half-million poor farmers to commit suicide and at the seemingly nonstop epidemic of horrifying gang rapes. No, let’s beat up on Peter Sellers….