|Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet and Steve Franken party it up in a scene from Blake Edwards' 1968 Hollywood comedy.
June 25, 2008
Michael Aushenker , Staff Writer
Forget 'The Love Guru.' And when the 'Borat' version surfaces, rent it when it comes to DVD.
There's no way either of these derivatives can rival the genuine article, arguably the best party movie and the funniest Hollywood send-up ever to come out of Hollywood.
'If I was going to do anything with any kind of commerciality, it would be that kind of comedy,' filmmaker Blake Edwards told the Palisadian-Post regarding his 1968 feature, 'The Party,' starring Peter Sellers and Claudine Longet. 'The Party' screens July 16 at the Aero Theatre on Montana Avenue, as part of a month-long American Cinematheque retrospective of Edwards' films in July.
Now recall that playing opposite Sellers''the klutzy cultural outsider Hrundi V. Bakshi''was our current honorary mayor of Pacific Palisades. Yes, Gavin MacLeod portrayed Hrundi's foil, enervated movie producer Charlie S. Divot.
'He kept you on his toes,' MacLeod, 77, recalled of acting with the late, great British comic actor. 'You never knew what he was gonna do.'
Remember that confrontation in which Divot shouts at Sellers' party-crasher, 'You're meshuggah!' To which a defensive Hrundi responds in his innocent East Indian lilt: 'I'm not your sugar!'
'Improvised!' MacLeod revealed.
On the 40th anniversary of this Hollywood comedy, let's take a behind-the-scenes look at the movie that still has a small legion of devoted fans saying, 'Birdie num num!'
Gwen Deglise, Aero programmer for the Cinematheque, which screens 'The Party' often, believes that the film's 'strong slapstick comedy' keeps local film buffs coming back. 'It's a great draw. Being in Hollywood and being in Los Angeles, it's delicious. 'The Party' is something that needs to be seen on the big screen with an audience.'
'The Party' originally hit theaters in April 1968, sandwiched in-between installments of those more-famous Edwards/Sellers 'Pink Panther' collaborations. But this comedy almost did not reach movie screens.
Both its star and its director were considered movie-industry liabilities. Sellers' health problems, coupled with his unpredictable personality, had contributed to Hollywood's wariness to bankrolling his films. Meanwhile, as 'Party''s producer, Walter Mirisch, writes in his recently published memoir, 'I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History,' 'Blake had achieved a reputation as a very expensive director, particularly after 'The Great Race.''
The 'Panther' pair was also feuding'with each other. But when Edwards gleaned his idea for 'Party' from one of several characters that Sellers portrayed in 'The Millionairess,' he could not deny that Sellers was the only man to play Hrundi. Likewise, when Sellers read Edwards' 63-page script, he loved it.
'These two men, who had vowed not to work together again, now couldn't wait to get started,' Mirisch wrote.
'To make the project more palatable to United Artists,' Mirisch continued, 'I succeeded in getting Peter and Blake to agree that if the cost exceeds $3 million, they would pledge their salaries toward the completion of the picture.'
Shot in June and July of 1967''on an old Samuel Goldwyn soundstage in West Hollywood'''The Party' was, by all accounts, a party-of-a-shoot, with Rita Hayworth's teenage daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Kahn, among the movie's partying extras, and three celebrity romances blossoming during the shoot.
What made 'The Party' such a magical movie was not its story but the details. Thin on plot, the Tinseltown satire follows Hrundi, a star-struck movie extra from India, as he unwittingly crashes a Hollywood party and inadvertently wreaks havoc on said shindig at a state-of-the-art mansion, equipped with electronically controlled gimmicks such as retracting bar counters, overhead speakers, and floors opening up to reveal a swimming pool. Against all odds, our accidental party-crasher finds love in na've French songbird Michele Monet (Claudine Longet). However, the hapless aspiring recording artist is dating Divot on the promise of career advancement. Hrundi wins over fellow cultural outsider Michele, even after inadvertently taking down the place by tinkering with the mansion's control box, and accidentally destroying the toilet, which floods the place.
Rivaling Sellers with one of 'The Party''s stand-out performances: Steve Franken as the increasingly inebriated butler, slathering on a layer of slapstick to the proceedings with his incontinent antics. Franken's interaction with his vexed supervisor, his drunken stroll through the shallow indoor pool, his struggle to rescue the roast chicken perched precariously atop a bewigged socialite's bouffant hairdo''all comedy gold.
Also memorable: Denny Miller as the culturally insensitive John Wayne-esque cowboy actor with the bone-crushing handshake, Wyoming Bill Kelso, and J. Edward McKinley as gruff studio head Fred Clutterbuck, whose home becomes chaos central. Oh, yeah''there's also a scene-stealing parrot ('Birdie num num!'), a painted elephant, and mad Russian dancers.
'We opened the door and we come in''the crazy Russians''and I'm the one in the red turtleneck,' said Yuri Smaltzoff, who portrayed Danilo. 'We had a dance scene that we filmed on the green. About 5 ' 7 minutes of dancing. I did all kinds of turns, closer to what's now breakdancing.'
An accomplished dancer who, from 1964-2004, ran the Ballet and Dance Art school in West Hollywood, Smaltzoff, 69, now resides in Studio City. But he was living in Beverly Hills when he got the call in 1967 from a friend performing in San Francisco that producers of a new movie were looking for some Russian dancers.
'We had just come to the United States at the end of 1963,' Smaltzoff recalls. 'I was working at the Metropolitan Opera here and doing the Pacific Dance Theatre and so on. 'There was a whole bunch of people, mostly American dancers' at the West Hollywood audition, recalled Smaltzoff, who landed a three-week dancing contract. 'We did not formally rehearse for the movie. Everyone was a pro.'
Smaltzoff (who, incidentally, appeared in a 1971 episode of 'Mission Impossible', starring the Palisadian Peter Graves, also titled 'The Party') remembered being on stand-by, watching them shoot 'the food scenes, with Stephen Franken and Peter Sellers doing his improvisations, and the chicken flying onto the woman's wig.
'When Claudine was singing, Peter would come out from behind the bushes, during that scene when he had to go to the bathroom ' it was all improvised.' Every time Sellers came up with new shtick, 'he had a [script] lady with a telephone book sized book and she would put it in the script.'
'The Party' was the first time people knew Blake was dating Julie [Andrews, who wed Edwards in 1969],' MacLeod recalled.
'I've been on many films since then and before,' Smaltzoff said. 'He kept a familial atmosphere. Every day, Julie Andrews was there just to watch Blake work.'
Another on-set presence was Sellers' third wife, Britt Ekland.
'She worried about him,' Smaltzoff said of the Swedish actress. The scene in which Sellers climbs out of a bathroom window and onto a roof, after busting the toilet and flooding the place, made Ekland nervous. 'They had big arguments. They were very temperamental, but she loved him and she was there every single day.'
Longet's great love, Andy Williams, was also present every day, 'dressed to the teeth, shaved, wearing very expensive stuff, shirts made out of snakeskin,' according to Smaltzoff. 'He was doting on her.'
'As soon as I got on the set,' Smaltzoff continued, 'we dancers wanted to be fit. I would do my warm-up. I had the girls join in. Claudine and the girls [were excercising] with it me.'
Evidently, more than a few crew members noticed.
'Blake called me in. I thought I was in trouble. He said to me, 'You know, you solved my problem. From the moment you came on the set, the crew didn't go out for lunch. They wanted to see the girls exercising. Now they're on time and I don't have to argue with them to come back from lunch.''
During lunch breaks, the famous actresses''Andrews, Longet and Ekland''formed a clique.
'They called it the Num Num Club,' Smaltzoff said. 'The girls would put food on this big table, where at the end was the parrot in the cage [from the 'Birdie num num' scene). They'd bring in homemade food in brown bags. They would switch the bags. They'd compete making the meals, desserts. This Num Num Club was a big deal on the set, which shows you the comaraderie. Truly a family affair.'
Edwards even stuck his fiddle-playing doctor into the film as a violinist.
Smaltzoff was originally contracted as a dancer for three weeks, but he also wound up collecting hazard pay and acting wages (as well as SAG membership) for playing opposite Sellers in a scene cut from the film. He made enough money to send his mother to Europe with $1,000, and he still receives 'Party' residuals''as recently as last month.
For this film, the party actually started a year before with the release of the 1967 film that Edwards (by his own admission) pays homage to: French actor/director Jacques Tati's 'Play Time.' Considered the iconic Tati's masterpiece, 'Play Time' is playful yet an ominous and prescient glimpse into society's increasingly technology-dependent future. 'Play Time' featured the return of Tati's signature character from 'Mr. Hulot's Holiday' and 'My Uncle' (years later, the Hulot character would inspire an English version in Mr. Bean). Tati painstakingly built the film's elaborate Modernist sets from scratch, including the climax's nightclub. In fact, the long 'Play Time' shoot (1964-67) bankrupted Tati for a decade afterwards.
Unfortunately for its director, 'Play Time' hit theaters during the student riots of 1967 and tanked at the French box office. But Edwards, who had seen an early cut, was quick to embrace the genius in Tati's epic and champion the 70 mm cosmopolitan comedy, which utilizes language only as atmospheric flourishes. Edwards was so taken by 'Play Time''s style that he originally intended to shoot his 'Party' sans dialogue''which explains why passages hang exclusively on Sellers' and Franken's physical comedy.
'I loved it,' Edwards, 85, told the Post, of Tati's film. 'How I transferred that adoration to 'The Party,' I'm not sure. When I was a kid, I had absorbed Laurel and Hardy, along with so many of those great silent films. It's just a whole body of things that informed it.'
Edwards paused, looked over at Andrews, and added, perhaps half-joking, 'The two people I found most inspirational on the movie were my therapist and my wife.'
Prior to the 1970s, when his star soared with a pair of memorable long-running TV roles, MacLeod had a long association with 'The Party''s legendary director, going back to movies 'High Time' and 'Operation Petticoat,' and the 'Peter Gunn' TV pilot. Naturally, MacLeod knew Edwards' career-long composer, Henry Mancini, who scored 'Party.' Mancini composed 'Tipsy' for Bugsy McKenna, MacLeod's inebriated bad guy on 'Mr. Lucky.'
'He was a director who trusted when you brought ideas,' MacLeod said of Edwards. 'Nothing was as loose as 'The Party.' You could rehearse it and then do it. He was innovative.'
MacLeod was 36, married with four kids, and living in Granada Hills when Edwards phoned in 1967.
'He said, 'I want you to do this character,'' MacLeod recalled. 'He sent me three pages. It was basically just an outline.
'Of course, that was what Sellers worked from. Blake had a monitor on top of the camera, we'd rehearse it, but redo the whole thing.'
Smaltzoff recalled that Edwards was the first filmmaker he had ever seen 'with a huge console' videotaping the dailies instead of waiting for filmed scenes to be developed, a process Jerry Lewis invented while directing 'The Ladies' Man.'
'Party''s opening, the doomed film shoot (one of the great comedy set-ups not to be ruined here), was filmed in Lancaster.
'Outside of the mansion, when I drove the Bentley in,' MacLeod recalled, 'that was way up in the Trousdale Estates, but the mansion set itself was all built on the [Goldwyn] soundstage.'
Despite Sellers' dark-skinned impersonation of an East Indian, 'The Party' is too sweet-natured to be racially insensitive.
Lest anyone be annoyed with Sellers' sympathetic portrayal of Hrundi (owner of a three-wheeler Morgan and a monkey named Apu), they will probably hit the roof over the Hindi caricatures in the just-released 'Love Guru.' Edwards appears to be editorializing via Miller's boorish movie star with the bone-crushing handshake, who seems to encapsulate a certain brand of culturally tone-deaf Americanism that wreaks of condescension and ignorance, as he refers to Hrundi as an 'Injun,' 'cute little fella,' and 'critter.' If anything, 'Party' sides with its dark horse protagonist, who ultimately triumphs over the patronizing partiers and wins Michele's comely hand.
Jason Simos, American representative for the Peter Sellers Appreciation Society (www.petersellersappreciationsociety.com), works in publicity for Focus Features in New York. As he views it, 'Bakshi may be marginalized and (hilariously) disaster-prone, but, as he says late in the film in response to Divot's question/attack, 'Who do you think you are!' ' 'I do not think; I know who I am.''
The anarchic party motif appears to run throughout Edwards' oeuvre, from 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,' to 'Pink Panther' to 'What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?' Yet none could top 'Party''s over-the-top finale.
By the film's third act, those crazed Russians arrived to throw the mansion party into overdrive, and Clutterbuck's daughter returns with her college friends and a hippie-fied baby elephant painted over with peace slogans. When Hrundi explains that, where he comes from, elephant desecration is verboten, the teens giddily embark on washing the elephant, kicking up a soap storm of suds that overtakes the entire mansion. As the movie''and the bubbles''reach a crescendo, so does the chaos. Yes, this is one of those films where every character''including the elephant''falls into the swimming pool.
'It would take half a day or more to get the water out, and clean the pool [of elephant feces],' Smaltzoff said.
Miraculously, 'Party' came in just under $3 million.
April 4, 1968. 'The Party''s Westwood premiere was a muted affair, dampened by Martin Luther King's assassination that day. Talk about a 'Party'-killer!
At the time of its release, 'Party' garnered mixed reviews. Roger Ebert loved the film, save his reservations with the overstuffed ending. A Time magazine critic cited 'Party''s 'occasional humor,' commenting, 'most of the evening is just about as trite and tedious as a real-life party would have been with such a stereotyped guest list'the ad-lib approach'is not a swinging riot of originals but a parade of old reliables'This party, in short, is strictly for those who don't get around much.' The Village Voice's Elliott Stein wrote, "This overextended farce is an ingratiating tribute to silent slapstick comedy."
'I thought 'The Party' was going to be very successful financially, as well as critically,' Mirisch wrote, 'but it proved to be disappointing. It has, however, developed a good deal of cult status over the years.'
According to Simos, Stella McCartney, whose father, the Beatle Paul, was a friend of Sellers, recently hosted a celebrity-packed screening of 'The Party' at her Beverly Hills boutique.
'They could've done three films with the material they shot,' Smaltzoff observes. 'That's why they made those 'Pink Panther' films with the outtakes after Peter died.'
Today, talk of a 'Party' remake persists, with Sasha Baron Cohen ('Borat') attached. However, MacLeod, like many film buffs, is not eager to see Hollywood throw another 'Party.'
'There was an innocence about the movie,' MacLeod said, 'even with that toilet scene,' alluding to Sellers' Keaton-esque attempt to contain toilet paper roll that won't stop rolling. MacLeod feels that Edwards' idiosyncratic touches will get lost in the generational translation.
'I enjoyed working with Peter so much,' MacLeod said. 'It was just an honor to play with him. He was so gifted.'
By many accounts, including a recent HBO biopic, Sellers was difficult, and his professional relationship with Edwards was only one of convenience, furthered by the success of each 'Panther' movie. Smaltzoff does not remember witnessing tension between them.
'Peter had already had a heart attack just three months before and he was already a changed man,' Smaltzoff said. 'He would get nervous and cut people off. He would go talk on the phone'But when he came to work, Blake let him do whatever he wanted. Blake was an actor's director.'
Edwards offered the Post his slightly less diplomatic perspective.
'If I had one person that I would've liked killed, it would start with Peter Sellers and it would end with Peter Sellers.'
'The Party' screens on Wednesday, July 16, 9:30 p.m. at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. Call (310) 260-1528. Tickets: $10. The film follows a 7:30 p.m. screening of Edwards' S.O.B. (1981). For a complete listing of American Cinematheque's month-long July tribute to Edwards, visit www.AmericanCinematheque.com.
A special thanks to Yuri Smaltzoff for providing the rare visuals used for this article.
|Yuri Smaltzoff (left), who played the whirling dirvish mad Russian, was assigned by Longet (not seen here) to be next to her when she road the elephant, in case she tumbled.
|The over-the-top (and overly clean) climax of "The Party."