Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Party (1968) — Birdie num-nums

As I mentioned in a previous post, my "mostly movies" blog activity here hit a slow spell lately for a number of reasons. Among them was a prolonged cold followed by a flu I caught on a business/pleasure trip to San Francisco. For weeks the combined effect drained my energy like a car with a bad battery — turn my ignition key and all you'd get was a feeble ruhrr-hrr-hrr sound followed by a pitiable sputter-sputter-cough, then the sort of final, falling WHEeeeeeeezzzze you'd find in the Looney Tunes sound effects library. What made it all doubly irksome is that ordinarily I have an immune system like a revved-up NASCAR engine. I didn't get a flu shot this year because (yes, I know, I know) I haven't been laid up with a cold or flu for years. So of course this year the gods laughed and smacked me down for my hubris.

But all that seems to have finally gone away and I'm back up to pace. During my enforced down-time, though, I did manage to catch up on quite a few movies, both old faves and some new ones (thank you, Apple TV).

Among the reliable old faves I pulled from the shelves were Dr. Strangelove and Being There, two great films that also happened to be among the career high points of an actor who has intrigued me for as long as I can remember: Peter Sellers. If you were to categorize me as "a Peter Sellers fan," you'd be correct as far as it goes. Sellers was one of our most gifted, interesting, and original comic-actor talents, and I love watching him work. Several years ago I was hired to write a piece on Sellers and found myself poring though various biographies and film commentary pieces with a true devotee's enthusiasm.

However, my bromance with Sellers is ... well, complex. His talent is unassailable, but oh brother did he make some questionable career choices. Still, his numerous lesser, forgettable films are more than counterbalanced by his top-tier titles — Dr. Strangelove and Being There, naturally, and I'd rate I'm All Right, Jack, Heavens Above!, The World of Henry Orient, A Shot in the Dark, and a handful of others as peaks on his filmography's uneven EKG line of quality or personal interest. Among his movies are several that I have to work to enjoy because he's in them and/or they embody a particular era's stylistic flavorings (I'm mostly thinking his late-'60s period here).

After his best Inspector Clouseau film, A Shot in the Dark, the unnecessarily dragged-out Pink Panther series has always left me lukewarm. He was at his best when you could feel he wasn't hemmed in, when he could just go with his own well-honed instincts. But too often Blake Edwards' tight-ass Pink Panther films have Sellers displaying all the witty improvisational zing of a Celine Dion concert. Technically he's terrific, but the too-easy laughs are hit or miss. In my head the Pink Panther films are mashed-up into a single Good Parts video — "But that's a priceless Steinway!" Clouseau: "Not anymore." ~ Clouseau and the "beumb" ~ the blind man's "mihnkey" ~ Clouseau asking Victor Spinetti for a "rheum" in a posh hotel ~ mishaps with swimming "pewls," and so on.

As compelling as I find Sellers even in subpar films, I'd be hard-pressed to add him to a fantasy dinner-party guest list. While knowing him personally would have been undoubtedly interesting, I'm not so sure it would have been what I'd call pleasant. The man was, I take it, a regular prick wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma. And that's even if you could get close to whoever the "real" Peter Sellers actually was, a notion the peculiar biopic, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, starring Geoffrey Rush as a surprisingly effective Sellers, takes as its thematic core.

All the same, during my convalescence I found myself in the mood to revisit several Peter Sellers films I haven't watched in a long while. So I'm going to blog about some of those, starting with The Party from 1968.

Here's one that's a personal soft-favorite of mine. Elizabeth introduced me to it when we were first dating. She'd seen it years earlier and remembered it as being fold-over-and-fall-down funny, and she was sure that I'd like it. She was right, I did — although it was clear that afterward, for her, The Party was more hilarious in her memory than it was catching it again years later. Such is the risk in rewatching films that spoke to us differently when we were younger.

The Party is a lightweight slapstick comedy best remembered for two notable elements:

The first is Sellers' nimble performance as a bumbling actor from India who is accidentally invited to a big Hollywood party, innocently wreaking havoc everywhere from the bathroom to the swimming pool to the forehead of his favorite cowboy star.

The second is the co-starring presence of French pop chanteuse Claudine Longet — waifish, cute as a button, and famous eight years later for shooting her lover, professional skier Vladimir "Spider" Sabich, to death with a Luger. (What, you think I'm kidding?) Her position in The Party is clearly that of a pretty young singer being groomed to become the next big thing as a pop movie actress, though her screen career stayed mostly on TV in addition to her moderate success as a songster and as Mrs. Andy Williams.

The Party was directed by Blake Edwards, making it the only Edwards-Sellers vehicle that wasn't an Inspector Clouseau movie. Back in '68 it rippled hardly at all at the box office. (Premiering on the day of Martin Luther King's assassination sure didn't help.) Since then, however, The Party has become one of those little "cult" movies that generates such bonhomie among its fans that online dating services ought to use it as a compatibility test.

Although during production the working relationship between Edwards and the neuroses-laden Sellers was strained to breaking, the movie manages to rise above all that with numerous pleasurable moments ("birdie num-nums" being a universal favorite).

If after a while you wonder if they're making it up as they go along, you're not far off the mark. Something of an experiment in directorial libertarian looseness, The Party's slapstick situations were largely improvised from a script only half normal length (63 pages according to this loving 40th-anniversary retrospective on the film). This permitted Sellers to be spontaneous and creative, with Blake gracing us with long takes that allow us to follow Sellers in full-on go mode.

On the other hand, some gags, such as Steve Franken's soused butler, remain just funny enough as they hang on beyond their natural lifespan, and by the time the movie adds the party-hardy teenagers, the balalaika-playing Russians, the painted elephant, and the houseful of suds, it feels like Edwards is throwing everything in the swimming pool wondering what will float to the top.

It's tempting to judge that The Party could have used a more authoritarian hand in the director's chair or the editing room; however, Edwards managed to make the relaxed elastic of its production comfortable and yielding rather than merely saggy or unbounded. It's a shame that the DVD holds no deleted scenes. I can only guess what sort of footage ended up on the cutting room floor. I can easily imagine that the final cut we see today represents the best edit possible of, oh, maybe twice as much usable film, with gags and entire sequences featuring Sellers — with Longet and others trying to keep up — forever pared out, leaving us to wonder about the improvisational bits we don't get even hints of now.

Ragged parts notwithstanding, this is a sweet-natured, enjoyable trifle. Peter Sellers reasserts himself as a comic actor of uncanny adroitness, discernment, and timing. As he pinballs through the material, he may remind aficionados of Jacques Tati. Any opportunity to see him work is a good thing, even if only a fraction of his talents are on display and his portrayal of Hrundi V. Bakshi isn't what we'd today call "culturally sensitive."

Look for a number of recognizable character actors, such as Gavin McLeod as a predatory producer. Henry Mancini provided the ersatz groovy music, including the sitar-based opening theme and Longet's breathy solo number.

Seeing it again after several years, I'm pleased to report that The Party still offers much to like, the sort of paisley fluff that's ideal for sick days on the couch. The film didn't do much to launch Longet's film career, though she remains one of my categorical definitions of adorable. Put that real-life Luger in her hand, not to mention the real-life boyfriend (er, ex-boyfriend) named "Spider," and it's easy to imagine her as a "Bond girl" more memorable than some from those years.

Of course, much depends, I imagine, on your tolerance for comedies that practically drip 1968 like candle wax down the side of a repurposed wine bottle in a hookah bar, though my affinity for films from this era is well-established here at Open the Pod Bay Doors, HAL. That said, that period candle wax all but burns the house down in the next Sellers films I'll be reminiscing about here: I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and The Magic Christian. Freshen up your bong water and put on your tie-dye, fellow babies!

Music: Marianne Faithfull, "Don't Forget Me"
Near at hand: Powell's Books coffee mug, could use a warmer