Cult Movie: Racial stereotyping in Sellers comedy The Party doesn't wash

The Party has slapstick scenes that stay in the memory but the racial stereotyping doesn't wash
Ralph McLean

THE critical reputation of director Blake Edwards hinges on just a handful of films.

It's generally agreed, with good reason, that Breakfast At Tiffany's or The Pink Panther are his finest achievements. It's hard to argue with work of that kind of iconic or comic class after all.

There is a 1968 offering in his CV, however, that, while never threatening those films in terms of quality or impact, is still worthy of mention at least when piecing together the American movie maker's most interesting work.

The Party, issued for the first time on Blu-ray as part of the Eureka Classics range, is an odd film in many ways. It's certainly a mass of contradictions.

Essentially this is the broad comic tale of a well-meaning but ultimately clueless would-be actor Hrundi V Bakshi (Peter Sellers) who is accidentally invited to an A-list Hollywood party which he subsequently proceeds to thrash through a series of unfortunate accidents and his general social incompetence. If that whole 'innocent out of his depth' concept seems a little basic, there other issues that make this comic offering a little different from your standard 60s comedy.

For a start this is a mostly improvised homage to the silent comedy era of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The director simply cobbled together a very basic plot around which Sellers worked his freewheeling genius. Sometimes it's a policy that works, with some slapstick sequences staying long in the memory, while at other times the whole project comes across as so intrinsically flimsy and Swinging 60s that it feels like little more than an extended, and painfully dated, Rowan & Martin's Laugh In skit.

On the plus side, it's got a brilliant physical central performance from Sellers that showcases that comic's natural ability for beautifully timed sight gags and childish prat falls. On the minus, it's also got Sellers in brown face make-up and prattling away in a stereotypical 'Indian' accent that most people will find either fairly uncomfortable or downright unacceptable. It makes what was probably a simple gag fest for most audiences in 1968 a decidedly more divisive viewing experience in 2018.

Ignore the racial stereotyping if you can and the Bakshi character that Sellers sketches here is an Inspector Clouseau-type fool with immaculate comic timing. From the very moment he gets that dodgy invitation to a big groovy party being held by studio mogul General Fred R Clutterbuck (J Edward McKinley) Sellers puts in a quality performance.

As the party itself meanders along we get a little half-baked love interest from Claudine Longet and a gentle music score from the great Henry Mancini to balance out the old school set pieces. Best among the ensemble performances of movie industry clichés is the turn by Steve Franken who plays the permanently paralytic waiter.

Sellers and Edwards had famously fallen out after making The Pink Panther but reunited for this project as Edwards believed only Sellers could pull off the role. He was right – Sellers is brilliant throughout.

It's just a shame about that make-up.

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