The extensive resume of writer/producer/director may not always glitter but there are sufficient jewels set among it to make his less successful offerings forgivable, from setting Cary Grant afloat in Operation Petticoat to offering Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany’s, from casting Bo Derek as a perfect 10 to doubling Julie Andrews as Victor/Victoria, but for many he is best remembered for his long collaboration with Peter Sellers in the role of Inspector Jacques Clouseau.
Yet the relationship between Edwards and Sellers was not an easy one; while it was chasing the jewel thief known as the Pink Panther which secured his position as an international film star the fractious Sellers resented the success which sprung from a role which he considered inferior to his involvement in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, and during production of A Shot in the Dark the two had fallen out and had not planned to work together again.
Yet in April 1968, less than four years later, their third collaboration was released in theatres, The Party, a radically different film which nevertheless owes a huge debt to the comedy style Sellers had developed in his time as a part of The Goon Show on BBC radio and then brought to the screen as Inspector Clouseau as he became the helpless agent of unbridled chaos Hrundi V Bakshi.
A bit part player in a major Hollywood production, his inability to take direction or maintain character within the period setting is a frustration, but when his lack of care and attention causes a major pyrotechnic effect to detonate prematurely it costs money and Hrundi is immediately fired in disgrace.
Reporting the incident to studio head General Fred R Clutterbuck (J Edward McKinley), the director suggest Hrundi be blacklisted but Clutterbuck unintentionally writes the name not on a scrap of paper but on the bottom of the guest list for a prestigious gathering to be held at his home, and inevitably Hrundi arrives at the party of businessmen and society dames with his customary chaos in trail.
Now released on Blu-ray by Eureka, to say that the premise dates the film is an understatement, Sellers in brownface with a comedy Indian accent bumbling his way through a series of culture clash bungles and opening the eyes of the other guest to the virtues of his untarnished worldview, yet it must be understood that the film is an artefact of quite another age, a time capsule immaculately preserved in glorious full colour Panavision.
While easily interpreted as inappropriate and clumsy, certainly Sellers’ portrayal as Hrundi V Bakshi was never intended to offend and would not have been so judged by a contemporary audience accustomed to such, and Hrundi is by far the most likeable character in the film, kind, humble, honest, eager to please and honourable even when it sets him at odds with the people on whom he is trying to make a good impression.
What is more damning is the presence of genuine minority roles in the film, limited to the maid who opens the door to the guests at the Clutterbuck residence and the bass player in the band, both non-speaking roles, with even the majority of the many women present given roles best described as undemanding beyond their decorative qualities, silently nodding in their evening gowns and elaborate towering hairpieces.
Filmed almost entirely on a single expansive multi-level set complete with swimming pool, the set and costume design of Fernando Carrere and Jack Bear are to die for, and with a soundtrack by Henry Mancini, composer of the famous Pink Panther theme, Edwards was surrounded by familiar collaborators on all sides.
A comedy of manners in which Sellers is obviously and exuberantly enjoying himself, for the most part the joke is on those genuinely invited to the party rather than the interloper in their midst, at best pompous, self-involved and superficial and, in the case of producer C S Divot (Gavin MacLeod), a short tempered predator who corners and forcefully propositions hopeful starlet Michèle Monet (Claudine Longet).
Consciously without structure and with occasional moments of pure absurdism, much of the action was improvised by the performers and Edwards and the obsessive perfectionist Sellers were aided greatly by the use of an early video assist system allowing instant review of takes, developed by Jim Songer and discussed by him in the accompanying feature The Party Revolution.
Also featuring brief interviews with Edwards, executive producer Walter Mirisch and associate producer Ken Wales, The Party itself may appear to have come shockingly adrift in time but it is not without charm nor influence down the years, echoed in the warring domestic staff of Fawlty Towers where the facade of civility must be presented to the guests at all costs and in the similarly themed graduation day celebrations of Can’t Hardly Wait.