You don’t have to go back that many years to compile a long list of Hollywood films in which white actors are cast as Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, Pacific islanders, Arabs, etc. In fact, this controversial practice continues into the 21st century with such conspicuous portrayals like Jake Gyllenhaal as an Afghan orphan in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) and Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013). If you were creating a top ten hall of shame, however, it’s a good bet that Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968) starring Peter Sellers in brownface makeup as Indian film star Hrundi V. Bakshi would be near the top of the list. Yet, the film is considered by many film critics and movie lovers as one of Edwards’ best comedies and has a cult following that has nothing to do with racial stereotypes. It is also considered a radical departure from other comedies of that time for its improvised, almost experimental approach to the genre.
Originally conceived as a silent film by Edwards, the director soon abandoned that for something slightly more conventional that hinged on a simple premise: A Hollywood movie studio has the bright idea of importing a stage actor from New Delhi to lend some authenticity to their production of Son of Gunga Din. Their chosen lead, Hrundi V. Bakshi (Peter Sellers), turns out to be a walking disaster, bungling his scenes and inadvertently destroying one of the most expensive sets in the film. Although he is promptly fired, Bakshi continues to create further mayhem at the home of the outraged studio head, Fred Clutterbuck (J. Edward McKinley), when he receives a party invitation by accident.
Essentially a string of jokes and sight gags inspired by Peter Sellers’ gift for mimicry, The Party (1968) was derived from a script that was barely sixty-five pages. This was about half the length of the normal Hollywood screenplay and at least a fourth of the movie had no dialogue, just sound effects and incidental music. Truly a concept film, The Party bears favorable comparison to the comedies of Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy in the way that Bakshi retains his innocence and naiveté in the face of recurring disaster.
There are also similarities to the films of French comedian Jacques Tati and his fascination with gadgets and inanimate objects. This is particularly true of the scenes at the movie executive’s home where Bakshi manages to turn a fountain into a geyser, a roast chicken into a woman’s headwear, and a public address system into an ear-splitting broadcast of muzak.
Curiously enough, Sellers was no stranger to playing docile Indian men. In The Millionairess (1960), opposite Sophia Loren, he played Dr. Ahmed el Kabir, a general practitioner with a slum-district office. He also turned up in a cameo appearance as yet another Indian doctor in The Road to Hong Kong (1962), the last of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope ‘road’ comedies. Maybe Sellers deserves a dubious achievement award as the most famous Caucasian actor to play Indians on screen?
Despite this, internationally acclaimed director Satyajit Ray of The Apu Trilogy was so impressed by Sellers’ impersonation in The Millionairess that he wrote a screenplay specifically for him entitled The Alien. In it, Sellers’ character was a self-promoting businessman who tries to exploit his association with a space visitor and claim credit for the latter’s miraculous deeds.
Either Sellers was put off by the unflattering portrayal or he was more interested in playing romantic comedy leads in films like The Bobo (1967) because he abandoned the project. Nevertheless, Ray came to visit Sellers on the set of The Party but felt that the actor’s impersonation of a New Delhi native was evolving into a course caricature.
The Party earned additional notoriety eight years later when Sellers’ co-star, the popular French singer Claudine Longet, was arrested in the shooting death of her boyfriend world champion skier Vladimir “Spider” Sabich on March 21, 1976. Longet, the ex-wife of singer Andy Williams, was eventually convicted of criminally negligent homicide but only served 30 days in jail. The scandal effectively ended her career and she disappeared from the public eye to live a lowkey life in Aspin, Colorado with her husband Ron Austin, one of her defense attorneys in the 1976 trial. When watching The Party, it is hard to reconcile these facts with the fresh-faced, guitar strumming ingenue you see in the role of Michele Monet, the other outsider at the soiree. (Saturday Night Live would later do a merciless parody of Longet in a skit called “The Claudine Longet Invitational” featuring Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin on the first season of the popular NBC series).
When The Party was released, it received mixed reviews from the critics. Among the less enthusiastic reviews was Variety which stated it had “all the charm of two-reel comedy, as well as the resulting tedium when the concept is distended to 10 reels.” Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, “it’s too long for its one-note jokes, and often too obvious to be really funny.” And Penelope Houston of The Spectator said, “The Party hardly gets beyond a rather watery smile. A pity, because the idea remains engaging.”
At the same time, the film had its champions such as Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris who wrote, “The Party” is in the tradition of Keystone’s transgressive vulgarity. It’s the tension between Sellers’s inane tact and the general tastelessness of his surroundings that gives the movie its zing.” Oddly enough, The Party has acquired a much better reputation since its 1968 release despite accusations of promoting racist stereotypes with Sellers’ brownface portrayal. Some have come to admire Edwards’ homage to the silent slapstick comedies, such as Film Comment writer Richard Combs who called The Party “both classic farce and trenchant satire, a self-sufficient fantasy about the fantasy of Hollywood life.”
Others have come to see the film as a gleeful attack on pretentiousness. Scott Tobias of The Dissolve, makes the observation, “It’s difficult to look past the queasy conceit of Sellers’ character, but in truth, the film’s true contempt is reserved not for Bakshi, but the stick-in-the-mud gatekeepers who are hosting the party and politely (or impolitely) pushing outsiders like him to the margins…The film has a spirit of cheerful rebellion in it, and aligns itself wholly with Bakshi and Monet, who remain standing as this formal, antiseptic, snooty affair unravels around them. Whether Edwards intended it or not…The Party seems keyed into the spirit of ’68, with the house representing the upending of old money and hidebound tradition. In that, poor put-upon Bakshi is the humblest of revolutionaires.”
The Party has been released numerous times on DVD over the years but it wasn’t until September 2014 that the movie became available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. The disc includes two featurettes on the film, the original trailer and other supplements.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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