Peter Sellers in Lolita. Photo: Courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
Peter Sellers will have his “Summer Under the Stars” day on Saturday, Aug. 29.
First of all, I must admit that I'm not that familiar with Sellers' film career. Among the few of his films I've seen are a couple of the Pink Panther flicks – neither of which was very good – in addition to his two Oscar-nominated performances in Dr. Strangelove and Being There. So, this Peter Sellers Day on TCM will be a good opportunity for myself – and others – to become better acquainted with this versatile actor's work.
Of the ones listed below that I've watched, my favorite is the all-star whodunit comedy Murder by Death (1976), one of the three features directed by multiple-Tony nominee Robert Moore from a screenplay by Neil Simon. (The other two were The Cheap Detective and Chapter Two.) Some think Murder by Death falls flat and/or that it's offensively politically incorrect; I found it hilarious, especially Nancy Walker's mute maid and Alec Guinness' blind butler. (And even more especially the crucial scene when the two have to communicate.)
The plot revolves around a meeting of the world's greatest detectives – including Sellers as a Charlie Chan variation – at a creepy mansion where they're supposed to solve a really mind-boggling mystery. Also in the cast: Maggie Smith, David Niven, Eileen Brennan, Peter Falk, Elsa Lanchester, Estelle Winwood, James Coco, and a very freakish-looking Truman Capote. (According to reports I've found online, Fay Wray's screams from King Kong are used for the mansion's doorbell ring.)
In the political comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959), Sellers plays several different roles, most notably that of the Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, the leader of a minuscule and poor European country that wages war against the US so as to be defeated and receive foreign aid. The problem is that due to a mishap, they come out victorious. Despite its promising setup (from a novel by Leonard Wibberley), this Jack Arnold film is uneven – part of the problem is that its political points become somewhat muddled – so that a potential masterpiece ends up being only moderately entertaining.
The same can be said of Blake Edwards' The Party (1968, right, with Claudine Longet), in which a film extra – Sellers, once again politically incorrect, in dark make-up so as to look Indian – is accidentally invited to a groovy Hollywood party. Although The Party does feature several hilarious bits, it's just too bad that Edwards and fellow screenwriters Tom and Frank Waldman weren't able to keep the comic momentum throughout the whole film.
However bowdlerized, Lolita (1962) represents the sort of subversive artwork that's always welcome. Written by Vladimir Nabokov (from his own novel) and directed by Stanley Kubrick, Lolita stars James Mason as middle-aged college professor Humbert Humbert, who becomes madly infatuated with a young teenager. Compounding matters, the object of his erotic affection – would you believe it? – knows what sex is, knows she's sexy, and knows how to use her sensuality.
Fourteen-year-old Sue Lyon is okay in the title role (in the book the character was 12), but the best performances in the film are those of supporting players Sellers (who performs a funny dance number) and Shelley Winters as Lolita's clueless mom.
“Because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time,” Kubrick later told author Joseph Gelmis, “I believe I didn't sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humbert's relationship with Lolita. If I could do the film over again, I would have stressed the erotic component of their relationship with the same weight Nabokov did.”
Ironically, Kubrick's vision for Lolita probably wouldn't stand a chance in today's Hollywood, especially considering our ever-more-perverse puritanically correct times.
3:00 AM Your Past Is Showing (1957)
Bumbling blackmail subjects join forces to do in their tormentor. Cast: Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Peggy Mount. Dir.: Mario Zampi. Black and white. 93 min.
4:30 AM Mouse That Roared, The (1959)
An impoverished nation declares war on the U.S. hoping to lose and score foreign aid. Cast: Peter Sellers, Jean Seberg, William Hartnell. Dir.: Jack Arnold. Color. 83 min.
6:00 AM I'm All Right Jack (1960)
A veteran starting out in business gets caught between management and labor. Cast: Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers. Dir.: John Boulting. Black and white. 105 min.
8:00 AM Millionairess, The (1961)
When the world's richest woman falls for an ascetic Indian doctor, they plan a test to decide whose dreams will come true. Cast: Sophia Loren, Peter Sellers, Alastair Sim. Dir.: Anthony Asquith. Color. 86 min.
9:30 AM Only Two Can Play (1962)
A Welsh librarian fed up with his meager, married existence meets a beautiful woman with whom he tries to consummate an affair. Cast: Peter Sellers, Mai Zetterling, Virginia Maskell. Dir.: Sidney Gilliat. Black and white. 106 min.
3:15 PM Murder by Death (1976)
A criminal madman invites the world's greatest detectives for a night of dinner and murder. Cast: Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers. Dir.: Robert Moore. Color. 95 min.
5:00 PM Lolita (1962)
Vladimir Nabokov's racy classic focuses on an aging intellectual in love with a teenager. Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers. Dir.: Stanley Kubrick. Black and white. 153 min.
8:00 PM Waltz of the Toreadors (1962)
A retired general's marriage is rocked by the return of his mistress. Cast: Peter Sellers, Dany Robin, Margaret Leighton. Dir.: John Guillermin. Color. 105 min.
10:00 PM Two-Way Stretch (1960)
A convict plots to commit the perfect crime while still behind bars. Cast: Peter Sellers, David Lodge, Bernard Cribbins. Dir.: Robert Day. Black and white. 87 min.
11:30 PM There's a Girl in My Soup (1970)
A womanizing TV star meets his match in an independent teenager. Cast: Peter Sellers, Goldie Hawn, Nicky Henson. Dir.: Roy Boulting. Color. 96 min.
1:15 AM Party, The (1968)
An Indian actor turns a swank Hollywood party into a disaster. Cast: Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet, Marge Champion. Dir.: Blake Edwards. Color. 99 min.