World of Henry Orient, The (1964)

“Don’t all young girls begin to dream about romance at that age?”

Synopsis:
When a wealthy teen named Val (Merrie Spaeth) develops a mad crush on womanizing pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), she and her new friend Gil (Tippy Walker) pursue him all around New York, repeatedly disrupting his plans to seduce a nervous married woman (Paula Prentiss); their fun is over, however, when Val’s philandering mother (Angela Lansbury) returns to town, and Val and Gil catch her pursuing Orient herself.

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Review:
This unique coming-of-age tale — based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Nora Johnson — is a true delight from start to finish. Featuring sparkling performances by its two unknown leads (Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker) and a marvelously droll turn by Peter Sellers (whose character was apparently modeled after Oscar Levant), The World of Henry Orient perfectly captures the hyper compulsion of teenage female friendship. Val and Gil’s rapport together is inspired: each time they turn to give each other a meaningful gaze, one wants to erupt in laughter (particularly given Val’s awkwardly orthodontized mouth — it’s easy to see why Orient views this adolescent cyborg as monstrous!). And they’re so deliciously smart (Val in particular) that it’s a true joy to listen to them as they discuss their dreams and passions.

Other than its marvelous performances, the magic of Henry Orient lies in director George Roy Hill’s skill at merging humor with genuine compassion for teenage angst. Given how little control children have over the direction of their lives (Val, truly a “poor little rich girl”, is shipped from one place to the next, never experiencing a “real home”), it’s no wonder they develop the type of complex, baroque fantasies presented here — which, significantly, Val and Gil recognize as merely make-believe, but most of the adults around them imbue with cynical fear. Ironically, Val’s rich-bitch of a mother (Lansbury is perfectly cast) takes the girls’ crush on Orient and turns it into a devastatingly real situation — one which acts as the film’s final catalyst before its bittersweet ending.

P.S. The wonderful supporting performances in Henry Orient deserve mention, with Paula Prentiss earning special kudos for her comedic role as nervous Mrs. Dunnworthy, Tom Bosley providing indelible proof of why he was cast as “Mr. C.” in Happy Days, and Phyllis Thaxter emerging as one of cinema’s ultimate “cool” moms.

P.P.S. See this fun website — NotStarring.com — for a list of actors who were considered for the lead roles (including Hayley Mills, Patty Duke, Dick van Dyke, and Tony Randall).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Sellers as arrogant Henry Orient
    WHO Orient
  • Merrie Spaeth as Val
    WHO Val
  • Tippy Walker as Gil
    WHO Gil
  • Paula Prentiss as the perennially nervous Stella Dunnworthy
    WHO Prentiss
  • Angela Lansbury as Val’s bitchy, promiscuous mother
    WHO Lansbury
  • Tom Bosley as Val’s understanding dad
    WHO Bosley
  • Phyllis Thaxter as Gil’s kind mom
    WHO Mom
  • Jane Buchanan in a tiny but unforgettable role as the girl on the bus who knowingly informs Gil that Val is seeing a psychiatrist
    Who Bus
  • A wonderfully authentic portrait of teenage female friendship
    WHO Friends
  • Henry Orient performing an atonal piano concerto while audience members cringe
    WHO Piano
  • Good use of New York locales
    WHO New York
  • Creative direction by George Roy Hill
    WHO Running
  • Nora and Nunnally Johnson’s remarkably clever and informed screenplay
    WHO Fainting
  • Elmer Bernstein’s score

Must See?
Yes. This one is a true gem, and shouldn’t be missed by any film fanatic. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “World of Henry Orient, The (1964)”

  1. Very much a must! A film so delightful it’s among the ones I could watch just about anytime. It is perfectly realized – from the exuberant opening notes of Elmer Bernstein’s score straight on through!

    Surprisingly, Director Hill did not make all that many films: 14 features – overall, a quirky bunch. He made ‘bigger’ ones (‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, ‘The Sting’) but, for my money, ‘TWOHO’ is his best. A top-notch portrait of teen friendship, it also has much that’s wise to say about family dynamics.

    First and foremost, though, it is the terribly tender and riotously (I ain’t kiddin’) funny story of Val (Walker) and Gil (Spaeth) who, soon after meeting, have endless memorable exchanges like this early one:

    Walker: You’re new here too, aren’t you?
    Spaeth: Last month.
    Walker: You like it?
    Spaeth: They say it’s the finest girls’ school in the country.
    Walker: I don’t either.

    I love how these two feed each other’s romantic fantasies – whether they be about the perfect family life or the perfect ‘lover’. And note how intently they listen to each other – particularly Walker, when Spaeth is talking about her parents’ divorce. (Their friendship echoes to a more madcap degree two years later, when Hayley Mills and June Harding star in another must, ‘The Trouble With Angels’.)

    The entire cast (including New York City) is as perfect as Sellers’ American accent. Walker is very reminiscent of Barbara Hershey (who would do her own warped take on this kind of free spirit in ‘Last Summer’). Very surprising that neither Walker or Spaeth had much of an acting career; still, if you’re going to be remembered for just one movie, this is certainly one to be remembered for!

    Those playing the five main adult characters (Sellers, Prentiss, Lansbury, Bosley, Thaxter) could not be better suited for their roles. What else need one say about Sellers in peak form?; and this may be Prentiss’ best work. (The two of them together are comedy heaven; is there a more ‘tortured’ cinematic duo attempting an affair?) Lansbury seems to have taken her character from ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ by the hand and into a comedy, with effective results. And Thaxter and Bosley are the kinds of parents one would kill to have. (Also of note are a rather dreamy Peter Duchin and, as mentioned, Jane Buchanan as a character you really want to see more of.)

    If I had to choose a favorite scene, I would have to choose every single one. However, I’m particularly fond of the ‘avant-garde concert’: Sellers has missed rehearsals, so he’s having problems keeping on top of things in performance (great moment when the conductor actually turns to him, silently but overtly requesting a B-flat). One can’t help but wonder if the real issue is lack of rehearsal or the fact that the music is so trendy/just plain awful that any number of pianists would be hard-pressed in carrying it off. (As Bibi Osterwald turns to Thaxter and says, “If this is music, what’s that stuff Cole Porter writes?”)

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