“The Party” (1968)

The year 2020 has ended and it’s time to turn over a new leaf (and president…assuming our democracy remains intact).  Time to party!

Most of us will still be barricaded in our domiciles, either alone or surrounded by a few virus-free loved ones.  But that’s no reason not to celebrate, even if only vicariously.  And if you want a fun New Year’s movie, you can’t do better than The Party, directed by Blake Edwards and starring Peter Sellers.

Blake Edwards had flirted with the comedic possibilities of upscale dinner and cocktail parties in previous films, notably Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In The Party he pulls out all the stops. This is one of my favorite flicks and one of a very few that our whole family enjoys.  The story is refreshingly simple:

A clumsy but well-meaning Asian-Indian actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi (Sellers) is fired from a production of Gunga Din after he accidentally blows up the movie set.  Cigar-chomping studio mogul General Clutterbuck (J. Edward McKinley) receives the awful news while in his office.  To guarantee Bakshi “never works again in this town,” he brusquely scribbles his name on a sheet of paper before storming out the door.  But the paper is a list of people that the General’s wife had invited to a swanky party she’s planned.  Clutterbuck’s secretary arrives, sees Bakshi’s name on the paper, calls directory assistance for Bakshi’s address, and mistakenly sends him a party invitation.

Bakshi arrives early.  Nobody knows who he is, although the Gunga Din producer (Gavin McLeod) swears he “know(s) him from someplace.”  The rest of the movie follows Bakshi around the party.  He becomes a one-man wrecking ball while trying to fit in with self-important Hollywood bigshots, oily agents, bimbo starlets, egotistical actors, and one drunken waiter, played to perfection by Steve Franken.  The party (and movie) climax with a wild bubble bath in the home’s indoor swimming pool.  The producer finally remembers Bakshi, but Bakshi escapes just in time in his three-wheeler Morgan with the producer’s date, an aspiring chanteuse played by Claudine Longet.

That’s the story. The behind-the-scenes story is that Sellers and Edwards, who teamed so successfully in the Pink Panther movies, weren’t speaking to each other, and all communication between the two was delivered by proxy.  Also, many of Sellers’ lines and some scenes weren’t even scripted: he improvised outrageously.  The movie, with its free-form structure and numerous sight gags, has the feel of a silent film.  One of the onlookers during filming was young writer/director Paul Mazursky, who used Sellers later in the year in his acclaimed social satire I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.

This movie is Peter Sellers at his very best, with a typically spot-on soundtrack by Edwards mainstay Henry Mancini. I’ve seen it over a dozen times, and every viewing reveals some new detail I missed.  Here’s just one of many choice moments:

Bakshi approaches Clutterbuck, Clutterbuck’s stuffy congressman friend, and a couple Hollywood sycophants and overhears the words “took everything, even the gold watch my daddy left me.”  Trying to fit in, he starts laughing and says “It’s wonderful, wonderful!  Tonight is one big round of laughter!”  To which Clutterbuck gruffly responds “The congressman was telling us about the time he was robbed.”  Bakshi stops laughing and crawls away in embarrassment.  The congressman then sternly asks “Who’s the foreigner?” and Clutterbuck replies “I don’t know, someone my mixed-up wife invited.”

As with the Pink Panther movies, one of the highlights of The Party is Sellers’ ability to completely become the character he’s portraying.  There’s also the irony that while Bakshi is utterly polite, dignified, and ingratiating, he nonetheless inadvertently turns this snobbish party on its head.  He’s an innocent who is surrounded by pomposity and fakery, so it’s completely apropos that, after blowing up a movie set and turning a Hollywood mansion into a disaster area, he drives into the sunset (actually, sunrise) with a beautiful woman next to him.

POSTSCRIPT: while poking around the internet, I was surprised to see The Party being criticized by some for its use of “brownface” and for negatively portraying Asian Indians.  While I try to put myself in the shoes of the victimized group whenever these identity battles surface, I find this charge fairly ludicrous, for several reasons. But if any Asian Indians are reading this and wish to chime in, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Till then, let us ponder the words of Hrundi V. Bakshi: 

Wisdom is the province of the aged;

But the heart of a child is pure.