Today’s cinema adventure: The World of Henry Orient, a 1964 comedy directed by George Roy Hill, featuring Peter Sellers as the title character, a concert pianist whose libidinous exploits are complicated by the obsessive adulation of a pair of adolescent schoolgirls. Based on a novel by Nora Johnson, daughter of Hollywood writer/director Nunnally Johnson (with whom she also co-wrote the screenplay for the film), it places greater emphasis on the coming-of-age story of Orient’s juvenile stalkers than it does on the misadventures of the loutish lothario himself. It was successful with both audiences and critics, its popularity no doubt bolstered by the presence of its star, who was at the time entering the height of his career, and it was later turned into a Broadway musical, Henry, Sweet Henry, which enjoyed considerably less success.
Set in Manhattan, the film follows the experiences of Val and Marian, two students at an exclusive girls’ school who develop a close friendship; both are outsiders at school, and share an imaginative flair for fantasy and make-believe, which leads to their indulgence in precocious adventures together. On one such outing, they stumble upon a clandestine rendezvous in Central Park between Orient and his nervous, married, would-be mistress, interrupting their tentative tryst and foiling the pianist’s amorous intentions. Later, when the girls attend his concert with Marian’s family, they recognize him from their encounter at the park, and Val develops a crush; so the pair begin to follow him, watching his apartment and making a scrapbook about their obsession- as well as a fanciful diary documenting Val’s hypothetical romance with him. When Val’s jet-setting parents return for a holiday visit, her strict and austere mother finds the secret volume, a discovery which leads to uncomfortable complications not only for the girls, but for the unwilling object of their affections, as well.
Though The World of Henry Orient was a fairly successful film at the time of its release, it has faded somewhat from cultural memory. Part of the reason for this may be that much of its draw in early 1964 arose from the presence of three up-and-coming names in its credits- Peter Sellers, Angela Lansbury, and director George Roy Hill- each of whose subsequent work would soon eclipse the importance of this quaint little movie. Another factor, no doubt, was the changing social landscape of the years shortly to follow its debut, in which stories about the wholesome innocence of childhood, no matter how well-made they may have been, seemed somehow to be less relevant and important than those addressing the “larger” issues that were suddenly confronting young people as they came of age during the upheaval of the late sixties. Ironically, one of the key factors in the film’s initial popularity was likely the fact that, in its good-natured and sweet depiction of teen-agers, it represented something of a backlash against a decade of teen dramas in which modern American youth culture was depicted as a dangerous and depraved environment full of delinquents, drugs, and rock-and-roll; the two young ladies at the center of this film were a refreshing change of pace, and their problems were, in truth, more representative of those faced by the average teen in daily life. Sandwiched between two eras of rapid cultural evolution, The World of Henry Orient enjoyed its moment in the sun while the world took a moment to catch its breath.
Whatever the reasons for its success or for its relative disappearance, Hill’s sweet-but-sophisticated little movie definitely holds up to contemporary viewings. It’s worth noting that the title character’s name- a play on the name of renowned celebrity pianist Oscar Levant, whose surname means “Orient” in French and upon whom the character was loosely based- does result in some minor cultural discomfort surrounding Asian stereotypes; in deference to their idol’s unusual moniker, his two young stalkers adopt faux-Japanese code names and indulge in playful rituals which parody Eastern traditions, such as kowtowing to their collection of Henry-themed “relics” and sporting conical straw “coolie” hats as they stake out the pianist’s apartment building. Aside from this, however, which can be written off as nothing more than playful, non-malicious fancy, the film’s gentle depiction of the transition from childhood into adolescence has a timeless feel, despite its distinctive, now-nostalgic mid-century Manhattan setting; much of this is due to Johnson and Johnson’s screenplay, which manages, through its focus on the universal concerns of young girls (and adults, for that matter) rather than on time-and-place-specific hotbed issues, to avoid any topicality that might have made the story seem dated today. It also helps that the girls portrayed here are atypical teens, from a social standpoint; Marian comes from a “broken” home, living with her mother and another divorced woman (a situation with overtones which must have been provocative, even in 1964), while Val is the “problem” child of wealthy, distant parents who leave her in the care of hired guardians. Coupled with the fact that neither girl is among the “in” crowd at school, and are therefore not surrounded by a gang of Hollywood-style adolescents following the latest fads and speaking in the teen-speak jargon of the day, this means that The World of Henry Orient is mercifully free of the kind of mass-media clichés that would make its appeal more ironic than sincere; this is not a picture postcard of idealized nuclear families getting mixed up in occasional kooky hi-jinks, but a story of real, not-so-average people going through genuine life experiences. This is not to say there is a lack of goofy comedy; that is mainly provided by the over-the-top exploits of the title character, as portrayed by comic chameleon Sellers. His Henry Orient is a ridiculously shallow, pompous charlatan: affecting the pose of a continental sophisticate as he slips back and forth between a generic, vaguely European accent and a crass Brooklyn-ese; falling over himself in his efforts to lure vulnerable, attached women to worship at the shrine of his ego; indulging in pretentious theatrical antics as he shamelessly fakes his way through an avant-garde piano concerto; and generally revealing himself to be a self-serving buffoon whose real personality is a far cry from the romanticized vision held by his two juvenile followers. In addition to being funny, of course, this serves to illustrate the contrast between the girls’ rose-colored view of reality and the sometimes sordid truths of the adult world into which they are about to crash. It’s a revelation that unfolds as the story progresses; as the movie’s focus expands to include the troubled relationship of Val’s parents, we are given more and more evidence of the gap between image and authenticity, and the all-too-frequent failure of adults to live up to the expectations of their roles.
In addition to the aforementioned performance by Sellers- who is, as always, a wonder to watch as he melds psychology and physicality together to completely become his character- there is the work of Angela Lansbury, whose icy turn as Val’s deceitful and hypocritical mother provides another sharp example of the gap between ideal and reality in the adult world, as well as reminding us that, before her success in Broadway’s Mame and her long tenure as television’s Jessica Fletcher re-invented her as a warm and lovable matron, this fine actress was one of the screen’s foremost bitches. The hollowness of her worldly sophistication and her barely-concealed disinterest in her daughter’s life (until it affects her own image, of course) help to expose the character’s own desperate need for attention and validation, which, though it doesn’t exactly make her sympathetic, certainly paints a clear picture of who she really is, at the core. Contrasting her unpleasant phoniness are Phyllis Thaxter and Bibi Osterwald, who embody good-natured warmth and unconditional love as Marian’s mother and her live-in, fellow-divorcee companion, making the point that an unorthodox family unit can be far healthier than a traditional one; as well as Tom Bosley, as Val’s father, who foreshadows his later success on Happy Days with his stolid performance as a man finally ready to assume the responsibilities of parenthood, even if it is a little late in the game. Rounding out the adult cast is the always-delightful Paula Prentiss, as Orient’s skittish would-be lover, who manages to be likable and sympathetic despite the fact that her role is a caricature of upper-middle class shallowness and gullibility; she manages to hold her own opposite Sellers, matching his manic zaniness like a seasoned pro- no small accomplishment, to be sure. The key performances here, however, are the children’s; Merrie Spaeth (as Marian) and Tippy Walker (as Val) fully live up to the demands placed upon them by their central roles in the proceedings. Full of youthful giddiness, smart without being precocious, and capable of the honesty required to show us the full emotional journey of these two remarkable young women, they also provide a perfect complement to each other with their distinct and separate personalities- the more grounded Spaeth anchors the duo, while Walker gives us the edgier dynamic of Val. Neither actress went on to an adult career in cinema- Spaeth became a noted political and public relations consultant, Walker opened an art gallery- but their work in this single film ensured them a secure hold on movie immortality.
As for the director, George Roy Hill does a superb job of juggling the perspectives of the various worlds within The World of Henry Orient. He captures the irrepressible vivacity of youth with then-edgy techniques such as wildly tilted camera angles and montages utilizing both slow-motion and high-speed photography; he manages some grade-A comedic set pieces around his charismatic star, particularly the extended concert sequence in which the hammy Orient ad-libs his way through a performance at Carnegie Hall while frustrating his conductor and fellow musicians with his ego-maniacal shenanigans; and he uses the Manhattan scenery, lovingly photographed by Boris Kaufman and Arthur J. Ornitz, to full advantage, allowing the change of its character through the seasons to reflect the progression of his two heroines through their rite of passage. Adding to the bittersweet, nostalgic delight is his confident reliance on the score by Elmer Bernstein, which evokes the carefree ease of childhood, the sweeping majesty of the city, and the emotional longing at the core of the story.
The World of Henry Orient is a difficult movie to criticize; though the themes it tackles are hardly momentous, there is an authentic quality to it that is impossible to dislike, which no doubt arises from the fact that Johnson’s novel was autobiographical, based on her own experiences growing up at a New York girls’ school. Parenthetically speaking, the fact that she co-wrote the screenplay with her father is very telling, considering the turn of events which brings emotional closure to the story. The unpretentiousness of the movie has made it one of those certifiable classics that is usually forgotten in discussions of great cinematic art, but is beloved by almost anyone who has seen it in its frequent appearances on the late-night movie broadcasts of the seventies and eighties; there is a comfort in its gentle portrayal of youthful fantasy meeting seedy reality, considerable appeal in the fact that it manages to be sweet without ever becoming cloyingly so, and an additional bonus provided by farcical tour-de-force performance of its star, surely one of the screen’s great masters of comedic acting. When all is said and done, The World of Henry Orient is a film I can heartily recommend with more confidence than any number of “greater” cinematic achievements; it may not be a masterpiece, but it is one of the most likable little movies I can think of.