Growing up, TV Guide was my weekly encyclopedia to films that were going to be on television. The hand sized guide told what time and channel the movie would be showing with a short synopsis of the plot. It was that description that imprinted on me whether the movie sounded interesting enough to watch or not. I partly blame TV Guide for turning me into a film snob for the first half of my film watching life. If the plot wasn't captivating enough, I didn't want to watch the film. Ever.
One such film that I remember always popping up in TV Guide was George Roy Hill's THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT (1964) starring the irrepressible Peter Sellers. Now, I love Peter Sellers. I grew up idolizing Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the PINK PANTHER films as well as his performance as three different characters in Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (also 1964). But TV Guide's synopsis for THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT about a world famous pianist stalked by two teenage girls never caught my fancy.
But adhering to my opening blog mission statement, CrazyFilmGuy is not going to keep avoiding THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT. I'm curious to see how funny Sellers will be in a non-Clouseau role. Also, it's only the third film by director George Roy Hill who would later give us BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), THE STING (1974), and SLAP SHOT (1977). HENRY ORIENT was written by the father and daughter team of Nunnally Johnson and Nora Johnson based on Nora Johnson's novel. Nunnally Johnson wrote screenplays for classics like THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953). The wistful score is by Elmer Bernstein.
Surprisingly, THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is more about the coming of age of two teenage girls then kooky Casanova pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers). 14 year old Marian "Gil"Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth) meets fellow student Valarie "Val" Boyd (Tippy Walker) at Norton, one of the finest All Girls private schools in New York City. Gil lives with her divorced mother Avis Gilbert (Phyllis Thaxter) and her mother's best friend Erica "Boothy" Booth (Bibi Osterwald). Val is the daughter of Isabel and Frank Boyd (Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley), an affluent but unhappily married couple who live all over the world but have sent Val to school in New York. The free-spirited girls hit it off immediately, goofing around in Manhattan. While hanging out in Central Park, the two girls stumble across avant garde Van Cliburn like pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers) kissing the married Stella Dunnworthy (Paula Prentiss) during an afternoon liaison.
Gil and Val have another accidental encounter on a New York sidewalk with Orient. Later, when they attend a concert together at Carnegie Hall with Gil's mother and Boothy, they discover Henry Orient is the guest performer (in a weirdly funny sequence by Sellers). Orient sees the teenage girls in the audience, sitting directly behind Mrs. Dunnworthy. He begins to suspect the girls are on to his affair. Gil and Val embark on a fantasy infatuation with Orient, even making a blood pact to love and adore only Henry Orient. Val makes a scrapbook all about Orient. They don bamboo rice hats and dress in oriental style. The girls discover where he lives and begin to stake out his apartment.
But Gil and Val's world will turn upside down when Val's parents Frank and Isabel Boyd come to stay in New York City for the holidays. Mrs. Boyd doesn't approve of her daughter's friend Gil, causing a rift between the two girls. Val moves in with her parents and resumes her fancier style of living. Mrs. Boyd discovers the girls scrapbook and forbids Val from chasing Orient causing Val to run away from home.
Mrs. Boyd arranges to meet with Orient to confront him over her daughter's crush. Instead, Orient seduces Mrs. Boyd. Val hides out at Gil's house from her parents. Mr. Boyd, with the assistance of a Missing Bureau detective, figure out that Val is staying with Gil, unbeknownst to Mrs. Gilbert. The girls sneak out when Mr. Boyd comes a calling. Val and Gil go to Orient's apartment where they catch Mrs. Boyd coming out of his apartment, shattering their illusionary love affair with the musician. Later, Mr. Boyd catches Mrs. Boyd in a lie about her whereabouts. But Mrs. Boyd's affair with Orient and subsequent divorce to Mr. Boyd leads to a reconciliation between Val and her father. When Val and Mr. Boyd return from living in Rome, Italy, they visit Gil. Both girls are more grown up, interested in real boys and not the self-absorbed Henry Orient who fled New York, fearful of an imagined jealous Mr. Boyd.
If you think THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is a star vehicle for Peter Sellers, you will be sadly mistaken. The real focal point of the story is on the two teenage girls Gil and Val. Sellers' Henry Orient is really a supporting role, a comic character for the actor to have a few funny scenes with his uncontrollable hair, New York accent, and phallic looking phone. But besides being amusing, Henry Orient serves as an imaginary father figure to the two teenage girls. Gil rarely sees her divorced father and Val's father Mr. Boyd travels so much she never sees him. So they create an imaginary love interest/father figure in the Lothario Henry Orient. It may sound creepy but Orient never pursues the girls. The girls are the stalkers. He thinks they're spying on his infidelities, possibly connected to the husband of one of his lovers.
THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is in the same vein as some of those Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies in the late 50's and early 60's like PILLOW TALK (1959) or LOVER COME BACK (1961). But it's also a mature look at two teenage girls and their flight from reality following Orient as they deal with loneliness, divorce, and broken families as well as discovering their own awakening sexuality. But mixed in between all that is Sellers hilarious antics. To be honest, Sellers doesn't belong in this movie yet I don't think anyone would watch it if he wasn't in it. HENRY ORIENT is two different movies. It's a coming of age story about two urban teenagers. And it's a comedy about an eccentric, conceited, paranoid pianist whose trysts keep getting interrupted by Val and Gil. Occasionally, Sellers mannerisms hearken to Clouseau but Henry Orient is another original comedic performance.
ORIENT was only director George Roy Hill's third film. Early in the film, he seems influenced by the French New Wave filmmakers like Truffault and Godard. The montage of Gil and Val exploring New York City includes shots in slow motion, speeded up, jump cuts, and turning the camera on its side and even upside down. This was not a style used much in American films in 1964. When I think of George Roy Hill, I think of red-blooded male movies with Paul Newman and Robert Redford who both worked with him in films together like THE STING but on solo films as like Redford in THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER (1975) or Newman in SLAP SHOT.
But Hill seemed to have a soft spot for films about young people. Besides THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT with its two teenage protagonists, Hill would direct 1979's A LITTLE ROMANCE about a French boy and an American girl (a very young Diane Lane) who have a courtship in Paris. Laurence Olivier also stars. Hill would also direct another film that starts with THE WORLD in its title only this time it was THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (1982) starring Robin Williams based on John Irving's novel.
Angela Lansbury would play several types of mothers in her career including a mother with an unhealthy love for her son in John Frankenheimer's ALL FALL DOWN (1962) and a controlling mother in Frankenheimer's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962). In THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, Lansbury's mother Isabel Boyd is an unfaithful wife, pursuing musicians like Joe Daniels (Peter Duchin) at a holiday party and later Henry Orient, barely hiding the fact in front of her husband Frank. It's a different role for Lansbury who I remember from the pleasant Disney fantasy BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971) and most TV fans remember her from MURDER SHE WROTE (1984-96).
Neither teenage actresses would go on to much of a film/TV career after THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT. Tippy Walker who plays the brown haired Val would appear in the TV series PEYTON PLACE (1968-69) but stopped acting after 1971. Walker's Val is a typical teenager, trying to find her place in the world. She also plays the piano which connects her with Orient. Merrie Spaeth who plays the blonde haired Gil appeared in only two TV shows after ORIENT and stopped acting after 1965. Spaeth now runs a consulting firm. But both teenage actresses are believable in this honest and realistic look at teenagers in 1964.
Three familiar supporting actors, two who would star in beloved TV shows appear in THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT. Tom Bosley, best known as Richie Cunningham's father Howard Cunningham in HAPPY DAYS (1974-84) displays his fatherly charm and compassion ten years earlier as Val's absent father and cuckolded husband Frank Boyd. Bosley appeared in hundreds of television shows but made a few features including THE SECRET WAR OF HARRY FRIGG (1968) and YOURS, MINE, AND OURS (also 1968). Al Lewis, best known as Granpa Munster in the TV show THE MUNSTERS (1964-66) has a brief role as a Store Owner the girls play a prank on. And character actor John Fiedler with the high pitched voice and accountant like appearance plays Orient's manager Sidney. Fielder appeared in every TV show imaginable including STAR TREK and a reoccurring role on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW but did you know he was also the voice of Piglet in many WINNIE THE POOH features and television shows?
I wouldn't have understood THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT when I was younger. The film has more depth than its TV Guide synopsis would let on. It's a unique comedy that tries to balance the real angst of two teenage girls wishing for happier family lives with their fantasy pursuit of ladies man Henry Orient. I'm not sure I can recommend THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT unless you want to see another hilarious character from Peter Sellers or an early directorial effort from George Roy Hill.