There are Elephants in the room that are both literal and metaphorical in the Party, the latest release from Eureka. One appears in the final chaotic throes of the titular party and the other is represented by Peter Sellers in brownface adopting an Indian accent. Positioned somewhere between the horrifically racist Chinese man as depicted by Mickey Rooney and the long-form satirical pranks played by Sacha Baron Cohen, Sellers is impossible to ignore. Peter Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi, a clumsy Indian actor cut from the same cloth as Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and Mr Bean. Bakshi destroys the set of a new movie and in doing so he is told that he will never work in Hollywood again, but the comedy gods have more in store as by the greatest serendipity he is accidentally invited to a party hosted by the film’s financier and attended by all manner of movers and shakers.
Whether it is the Wayans Brothers in White Girls, the mess that was Cloud Atlas or Peter Sellers here in Blake Edwards film; dressing up and adopting the mannerisms of another race will always be offensive. Its why there are concerns about the upcoming league of gentlemen episodes and the inevitable return of their horrific ringmaster Papa Lazarou, times and acceptable norms move on with each passing year. However, where those other examples just get worse the longer they go on Edwards and Sellers have some notion of subtlety at play as the accent adopted is soft and the mannerisms understated so after a while it’s become easy to forget that underneath it is a white, English comedian. It is still racist but on the sliding scale of race depictions, it doesn’t hit the nadir of those heavy hitters.
Director Blake Edwards is interviewed in one of the accompanying extras talks of how comedy had a revitalizing effect on him during one of his lowest ebbs, in particular, he talks about the films of Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin – the Party is the resultant film. As Edwards tells it he asked the studio, The Mirisch Corporation, to make a silent comedy with Peter Sellers. The character of Bakshi does see Sellers in a thick accent and makeup, but his dialogue is minimal with most of it arriving when he finds a connection with Claudine Longet at the tail end of the film. As the earlier comparisons to Hulot and Bean suggest, he is a clumsy character but one looking to find some way of connecting with people in a place he doesn’t belong, making him more relatable than most post-silent clowns. Joining him in the silent inspired slapstick is an increasingly drunk waiter called Levinson (Steve Franken) who picks fights with his fellow waiting staff.
Even in the mid-1960s silent comedy and slapstick was incredibly dated with surrealist comedians ruling the roost with far more experimental comedies, just look at the precedent provided by Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967) & Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964). Vitally those two classics are still funny to this day whilst also being more daring and experimental than anything offered here. An important point to stress as the promotional material positions this as one of the most experimental studio films of its respective era. Furthermore, for some titles labelling it as a cult film feels like a defence rather than a reason to champion. Unfortunately for me, the Party is a cult film due in part to the proto-foam party instigated by the organisers’ returning protester kids and the Elephant they have in tow. Comedy is forever in the eye of the beholder so this opinion piece is founded on what I and I alone find funny. Just like cult status is no mark of quality; the same goes for experiments too – they aren’t all successful.