FILM REVIEW: The Party (1968)

The Party (USA, 1968)
Directed by Blake Edwards
Starring Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet, Denny Miller, Steve Franken

During the filming of A Shot in the Dark, the friendship between Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers steadily deteriorated. In between The Pink Panther and its sequel, Sellers had been Oscar-nominated for his work in Dr. Strangelove, finding Stanley Kubrick a more rewarding director with whom to work. Within days of the shoot ending, Sellers left Hollywood and vowed never to work with Edwards again. It would take something very unusual to bring this now-legendary partnership back together.It is tempting to dismiss The Party as a Pink Panther film without the heist, since its central character and particular style of bawdy slapstick is very close to the antics of Inspector Clouseau. It hasn’t dated as well as Dr. Strangelove, nor is it as cohesive as A Shot in the Dark. But The Party still has a lot in its favour, resulting in a breezy and inventive comedy which is very light on its feet.

From a technical point of view, The Party is distinctive because of the manner in which it was created, and the resulting innovations which were necessary to make it fit together. Edwards’ original screenplay was some 63 pages long, less than half the length of a standard film. He did this to allow the cast to improvise to a greater extent than had been previously allowed, something which doubtlessly tempted Sellers back to the fold. They weren’t exactly making everything up as they went along, but characters who started off as walk-ons ending up as strong supporting roles.Because so much of the film is improvised, Edwards needed to shoot the film in order, from multiple angles, and review the footage almost instantaneously – otherwise there would be no continuity and great bits of improv would be lost. Under normal circumstances this would be impossible; celluloid has to be developed overnight to be shown in the rushes the following day.

To get around this, Edwards’ producers mounted a video camera onto the side of the film camera, so that a scene would be captured simultaneously on film and on tape. The tape could then be played back via monitors within five minutes of the word ‘cut!’. This innovation, which is now common practice, saved the production a fortune on reshoots and allowed the actors to improvise more freely, safe in the knowledge than not all their extra lines would end up on the cutting room floor.The film contains all that is good and bad about Blake Edwards. He is a director who knows how to do physical slapstick and make one joke lead into another, rather than simply serving up a series of set-pieces. The film has a real sense of flow, with one embarrassing moment moving seamlessly to another, and all the while the farcical atmosphere is escalating. The small setting of one house (purpose-built for the film) not only creates a natural tension, but means that there is very little need to resort to lengthy camera tricks for the more elaborate stunts. Sellers’ chicken may clearly be on a wire when it flies off his plate, but all the falls into the foam and pool are for real.As well as sustaining momentum, the film utilises a number of great running jokes, both visual and verbal, to keep us entertained. Visually we have Wyoming Bill’s crushing handshakes and the infamous drunken waiter; his tussles with the head waiter and constant swigging of anything alcoholic are very well-played, and he becomes one of the most endearing characters in the film. Most of the verbal running gags come from Sellers, as we would expect: his delivery of “howdy part-en-er!” and “birdy num-num” becomes an integral part of his character.

This latter part, however, also hints at the downside of Edwards’ particular style of writing and directing. Although the humour is sustained more or less throughout, the characterisation is pretty thin. We follow Sellers and Claudine Longet throughout, and they do seem genuinely likeable and three-dimensional. But with a couple of other exceptions, the other characters seem to float in and out as the film sees fit. We would like to spend more time with Wyoming Bill or the drunken women with the Martini glass, and find out what happens to them. But the scale and attention span of the film makes them much more incidental. While that may reflect the feeling of being at a party, it is not very rewarding beyond this experience.Both Blake Edwards and Mel Brooks were huge silent film fans whom at one point in their careers used their reputation to effectively make a modern silent film. Both The Party and Silent Movie mimic beautifully the style of comedy associated with Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati. You can watch the dinner scene in The Party with the sound off, and it is still every bit as funny. The difference, however, is that Brooks is able to create characters than seem to exist beyond the boundaries of his affectionate parody. In The Party, the jokes are funny, but you don’t identify as strongly with the characters in the brief gaps in-between.

There has been a great debate about white actors ‘blacking up’ to play non-white roles. This issue flared up as recently as 2007, when Canadian poet Orville Lloyd Douglas criticised the casting of white actress Angelina Jolie as the multi-racial Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. The debate surrounding blackface (and indeed its derivatives) is much more complex than it would first appear.If one makes the blanket assumption that all blacking up is racist, than we neglect the possibility of films using this device and its image to send up racism: think of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled or Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder. The temptation is to go the other way and see blackface as a product of its time, and therefore acceptable within the context of the film. Seems fine, but by that logic The Birth of a Nation is all well and good because it pre-dates the civil rights moment. Even with the racism taken out of it, D. W. Griffith’s film is still hagiographic to the point of being insulting.

A good compromise would be that, in a comedy like this, the device is okay so long as the comedy does not rely on it; in other words, the bulk of humour should not derive from belittling the Hindu character or making fun of his race. The Party is not a film about exposing the prejudices of the rich; they certainly have no problem with a Hindu being present at a party of otherwise white men and women, any more than they have a problem with hiring Russian dancers. For the most part the film avoids the trap of The Millionairess and does not solely rely on Sellers’ accent to provide the laughs.Because so much of Tati-esque comedy is about escalation, The Party does become ridiculous as it heads into the last ten minutes. The introduction of a baby elephant into the house, which then floods and fills with foam, is every bit as over-the-top as the ending of The Pink Panther Strikes Again, with the disappearing castle and Cato’s attack in the collapsing bedroom. Although the film was made in the year of the May rising in France, any suggestion that the film has a hippie undercurrent should be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Both this sequence and Longet’s dreary song are only superficially political, and are in the context of a film more interested in creating anarchy than bringing people together to solve it.
The Party is not the finest hour of either Sellers or Edwards, being neither as fluid as A Shot in the Dark nor having the acerbic bite of Dr. Strangelove or The Magic Christian. But it is more than just an incidental collaboration, containing bona fide examples of both parties’ technical skill and charismatic way of working. It’s a breezy ninety minute romp which never overstays its welcome and generally overcomes its flaws. Certainly when it comes to 1960s comedies, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: Breezy, flimsy fun


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