Party Down

Why didn’t I find THE PARTY funny as a kid? It’s weird, as I was a big Peter Sellers fan, a big PINK PANTHER movie fan. I laughed once — the flying shoe caught me by surprise.

Of course, I was watching the film on TV, pan-and-scanned. But I was used to that. In fact, an early occasion when I became aware of film style was when I noted the strange mechanical movements in RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER — faced with Edwards’ audacious use of the widescreen, the hapless clod charged with having the film “adapted to fit your screen” was forced to pan, with grinding slowness, from one side of the 1:2.35 frame to the other, creating the exact effect of HAL’s lip-reading in 2001. As a tiny tot, I didn’t know what was behind this, but I thought it an interesting directorial choice.

Since a lot of THE PARTY is about social embarrassment, maybe that just didn’t speak to me as a kid. In fact, a lot of it’s about feeling lost at a party, something I’ve experienced a lot more in the interim. God, it’s agonizing, and that’s where the funniness comes from, as usual with Edwards. Sellers’ character, Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi, is cinema’s great lonely man. I mean, he has it way worse than Travis Bickle, who at least was a native English speaker. Bakshi wanders the big crazy LA house, humiliating himself in every imaginable way, clumsy, unlucky, unable to read social cues, not knowing anyone… it’s just terrible. I laughed quite a lot, and I was always on his side.

And yes, it’s slightly racist. The idea of a white man impersonating an Indian for comic effect is uncomfortable today, but if we accept that this was not abnormal at the time, we can admire the sympathy and skill of Sellers’ performance. As David Wingrove pointed out in a recent conversation, he’s not Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S — who I found myself shamefacedly guffawing at when they screened the first reel on 35mm in Bologna last year. The sheer energy of the burlesque, you know. But BAT treats Mr. Yunioshi as a clown because of his race — he’s unworthy of being taken seriously. Whereas THE PARTY, I think, takes Bakshi VERY seriously. That strange, sad little coda…

The most troublesome bit is the opening. The plot requires Bakshi to make Hollywood enemies — the prologue explains how he came to be brought out to Tinseltown to appear in some kind of Raj epic. And the joke seems to more or less explicitly be, “If an Indian actor were brought to Hollywood, it would be a disaster because he would be an idiot.” Bakshi takes an outrageous amount of time to die (so he’s a bad actor), he wears a waterproof wristwatch in a Victorian period movie (actually it’s someone else’s job to prevent that) and he steps on a detonator and blows up a whole building before the cameras are rolling (could happen to any of us).

Each of these gags is moderately amusing, but they don’t add up to a coherent character sketch, and although the sequence is necessary to the plot, it still feels like the movie really starts as Bakshi arrives at the party, at which it becomes funnier and more sympathetic.

One day after admiring Peter Cook’s red socks in BEDAZZLED (a fashion choice also favoured by Michael Powell) I was charmed by Bakshi’s footwear. He wears white shoes, so that when he steps in mud it’s as bad as it could possibly be. And red socks, so that when he loses is a shoe, it’s as bad as THAT could possibly be.

Comedy, it seems, needs to be both cruel and kind.

8 Responses to “Party Down”

  1. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    I saw this picture when it came out. I was 17 and I hated it.

    The movie that is. I was also a big Peter Sellers fan, but found this

    vulgar and predictable. Today I think it’s a riot.

    Curious. You’d think it would be the other way round.

  2. Having recently written at length about a Sixties film I’m suddenly into the decade in a BIG way. Lots of hits and misfires. Just a quick trawl through the press of the era reveals many spectaculars I never ever heard of.

  3. I remember seeing it in a collegiate setting back in the 70s and it scored pretty well with the audience, including me. Years later I saw Tati’s “Mon Oncle” and suspected it was really an inflated version of the garden party at the modern home of Mr. Hulot’s relations.

    I felt the ending was too much forced Wackiness, what with the sudden arrival of prosperous-looking hippies with a baby elephant painted like Goldie Hawn on “Laugh-In”. That was a thing in the 60s: Comic set pieces that were more about scale and/or bizarreness than thought-out gags.

    Edwards didn’t have a monopoly by any means. Consider “Casino Royale”, “Mad Mad Mad Mad World”, “Monte Carlo and All That Jazz”, “Paint Your Wagon”, etc. “Blazing Saddles” was the rare case where the gags and the film’s logic supported the excess.

    Recollecting a smirky farce, “The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom”. A brassiere manufacturer designs a special self-inflating bra for the Underdeveloped Peoples of the World (that phrase is repeated several times). His wife’s lover, for plot reasons, sabotages the spectacular unveiling, featuring pretty but flat-chested girls representing various nations. The bras overinflate and, impossibly, lift numerous of the models several feet above the floor. Scene ends in chaos with suspended stuntwomen flailing on wires.

  4. I particularly identify with the scene in which Bakshi wrecks the bathroom since my life seems to be full of embarrassing toilet-and-bathroom-related incidents. Worst one was where I was at a party and it slowly dawned on me that the person to whom I was talking (or rather, who was talking at me) was a film director whose only film I had detested, with a passion. This realisation induced a panic attack so I had to rush to the toilet to be throw up, immediately after which I somehow broke the flushing mechanism AND managed to cut my hand quite badly in the process. So I crept away, leaving behind me a broken toilet covered in blood and full of unflushed sick and hoping no one would be able to finger me as the culprit.

  5. Wow. Other people’s bathrooms ARE a source of anxiety.

    The late sixties is a weird period where some of the old Hollywood ruses still work some of the time, but others prove disastrous. For all the millions Sound of Music made, did the attempts to duplicate its success (including one by Edwards) end up making it a bad thing for the industry overall?

    I suppose the idea of The Party was to include some contemporary satire, and it IS about Hollywood, so I can forgive the elephant etc… except that it’s the least funny part, as well as the most forced and trendy. Still, Bakshi disapproves of painting the elephant, so we can relate.

  6. That seemed mainly an excuse to give the elephant a messy bath in the name of more Wacky Chaos.

    Besides the outsized musical flops chasing SOM grosses and big, tone-deaf slapsticks, there were creepy attempts to sex up formula comedies. They might have aspired to Lubitsch and Wilder, but they came off as imitation Edwards. I never made it through “Irma La Douce”, which felt like Wilder himself was trying for an Edwards film. Didn’t help that many had old male stars aging gracelessly, either romancing younger leading ladies or being unhealthily obsessed with teenage daughters’ virtue. Beatniks, usually the main threat to such nice girls, were being recostumed and slightly rewritten as hippies. Doris Day, after years of playing virginal single girls, was allowed to play nubile widows so she could be non-virginal and still respectable.

    Sometimes censorship forced creativity, but just as often it encouraged inanity. And freedom was no guarantee of anything better (“The Best House in London”).

  7. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Oh I adore “The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom”! I recommended it to Andrew Sarris who loved it too and cited me in his collection “Confessions of a Cultist” Joe McGrath deserves concerted analysis in “Shadowplay”

    “The Party” is indeed Tati-esque.

    It is also of queasy “Hollywood Babylon” interest thanks to the participation of Claudine Longet (who I’m surprised hasn’t revived her career by appearing on Broadway in “Chicago”)

  8. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Oh and Marge Champion just turned 100.

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