Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Peter Sellers' "The Party"

Last night, while dial-flipping (to use the archaic term for searching the program guide through my cable remote), I stumbled onto Blake Edwards' 1968 Peter Sellers film, "The Party."  I'd heard of it, but little expected to be repeatedly laughing out loud (literally, not figuratively) for more than an hour, this despite having missed the first 25 minutes.  Now it's the next day, and I'm still in danger of laughing inappropriately due to remembering some of the best scenes.

Sellers plays an actor, or rather film extra, from India who is accidentally invited to a big shot producer's lavish Hollywood party, when he is actually supposed to be fired.  It's almost like a silent film.  Though there's dialogue from time to time, it's usually unimportant, and music is usually playing (from a live band at the party).  The film is also visually interesting, almost 3-D-like from its widescreen and deep focus, featuring a series of tableaux in which Sellers is usually either way in the foreground or the background, but with other features (people, fireplaces, gadgets, etc.) demanding part of your attention.

The Sellers character has strong echoes of Clouseau, although it's more restrained, but even more strongly brings to mind Chauncey Gardiner (from Being There, more than 20 years later).  One also thinks of Buster Keaton, except that the Sellers character, rather than being stone-faced, keeps flashing an extremely disconcerting over-intense grin.  He is fanatically determined to retain his dignity and to look as if he is not just fitting in but having a great time, but of course he is awkward, uncomfortable, and out-of-place, and keeps triggering one disaster after another.

Some classic bits: (1) Since he wasn't supposed to be at the party, they don't have seating for him at the dinner table.  They finally bring him a stool that is much too low, so that his chin is only at the table level (and parallel to the bosom of the starlet who is seated next to him).  From this perch he tries to eat soup, and also keeps getting knocked over because he is too close to the door to the kitchen (where a drunk waiter is adding to the mayhem).

(2) He desperately needs to find a bathroom, but every time he pushes open a door there are people inside who are very unhappy to have been disturbed.  He starts wandering around increasingly frantically.  He's tempted by the cat's litterbox, and also by a seemingly convenient bush, but then he stumbles onto the switch to the sprinkler system, which starts drenching him.  Inevitably, but not right away, he falls into the swimming pool while fully dressed.

(3) Unable to find a usable bathroom downstairs, he heads upstairs into the private family space. Here he encounters a hostile nanny, a wild 8-year old with toy weapons, and an aggressive producer who is trying to force himself on an aspiring singer.  When the Sellers character finally finds a toilet, misfortunes with the flush mechanism and the toilet paper lead to escalating consequences that his bumbling efforts to resolve only make worse.

(4) Birdy-nam-nam.

OK, you probably get the idea by now.  Very highly recommended.

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