As a rule, when I was young I had little patience with movies featuring or marketed to kids my own age, and was chiefly drawn to movies about what I assumed was the infinitely more interesting world of grown-ups. But every now and then I came upon an exception.
Movies have explored the lives of teenagers in a great many coming-of-age films, but few have captured that curiously cocooned, exuberant, outside-adulthood-looking-in, bittersweet limbo state known as adolescence as fancifully as George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient. A thoroughly enchanting and enduring comedy-drama about friendship, found families, and the efficacy of imagination in coping with the imperfect world of flawed adults and inadequate caretakers.
|Peter Sellers as Henry Orient|
|Paula Prentiss as Stella Dunnworthy|
|Angela Lansbury as Isabel Boyd|
|Elizabeth "Tippy" Walker as Valerie Campbell Boyd|
|Merrie Spaeth as Marian Gilbert|
|"Gil" and "Val" (as they call one another) dream about the ideal family life|
Valerie, a born fantasist, is musically gifted and branded a misfit at school due to her high IQ and family-rooted developmental problems (“I’m unmanageable,” she boast-confesses to being kicked out of two schools in one year). Traipsing about New York with disheveled hair and wearing an old, full-length mink (a hand-down from her mother, no doubt), she suffers the neglect of wealthy, globe-trotting parents (Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley). Marian, an impressionable pragmatist of humbler circumstances than her private school peers (“Don’t tell me you finally found a friend in that snob hatchery!”), comes from a loving but broken home where she’s looked after by her divorced mother (Phyllis Thaxter) and materteral family friend, “Boothy” (Bibi Osterwald).
|Bibi Osterwald as Erica "Boothy" Booth and Phyllis Thaxter as Mrs. Avis Gilbert|
taking in a Henry Orient concert: "If this is music, what's that stuff Cole Porter writes?"
When a string of fateful, frightful coincidences consistently throw Val and Marian into the path of the playboy pianist --literally, in one instance--the girls, convinced of destiny’s intervention, swear blood-oath lifelong devotion to their beloved. That Val & Marian’s ardent attentions come to inadvertently wreak havoc on Henry’s attempts to seduce a very-married patron of the arts (the wonderful Paula Prentiss, stealing every scene) is where The World of Henry Orient film finds its humor. That the eyes of a couple of quixotic 14-year-olds can transform a mediocre musician and world-class phony into the fulfilled embodiment of all that is artistically pure and romantic in life is where The World of Henry Orient finds its heart.
|"And then two small bladders came out of their mouths!"|
Henry Orient describing his first sighting of Val and Marian
The World of Henry Orient was released a month before The Beatles' first visit to the U.S.
|Henry Orient's offbeat piano concerto (featuring a factory whistle and a bass drum struck by a sack of potatoes) was composed by Ken Lauber, who appears in the film as the exasperated conductor|
First, there's the coming-of-age comedy, which follows the breezy adventures of two girls loose in a picture postcard vision of New York. Then there's the bedroom farce, which chronicles Henry's broadly-played attempts to seduce Stella. Finally, we have the adult satire which presents the imperfect adults of Henry Orient as the reality counterpoint to the fantasy world the girls have created for themselves. As the movie explores the differing ways in which children and adults deal with life's disappointments, The World of Henry Orient never once condescends to the girls, nor does it make all adults out to be fools or villains. Rather, the film treats all the characters with wry affection and a surprising amount of empathy.
|Paula Prentiss' elegant eccentricity brightens every scene. I can't--nor do I want to---watch anyone else.|
She and Sellers reteamed the following year in What's New, Pussycat?
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Special mention must also be made of Elmer Bernstein's splendid musical score which enlivens every scene, and the sensational New York locations. It makes Manhattan look like a kids' Playland.
|Character actor Al Lewis (aka "Grandpa" Munster) is a riot as a shopkeeper|
who fervently wants to be of assistance to Jayne Mansfield
Having made a splash in Lolita (1962), The Pink Panther (1963), and Dr. Stangelove (1964), The World of Henry Orient was Peter Sellers’ first American film. Renowned for his skill in playing multiple roles in several of his films, I am nevertheless relieved that Sellers only plays one part in The World of Henry Orient, for as much as I like him, a little of Sellers can go a very long way. His top-billed role here is more of a showy guest star turn, the innate theatricality of the self-enchanted Orient allowing Sellers to shine in a brilliantly exaggerated manner, while simultaneously preventing him from overstaying his welcome. His Henry Orient is one of my favorite Sellers performances precisely because it's one of the few to actually leave me wanting more.
The most lauded and commented-upon aspect of his characterization (deservedly so) is the way the Brooklyn born pianist’s accent keeps slipping from Bulgarian, French, Italian, and back to Brooklynese, depending on the situation. When on the make, his Henry Orient comes across like a guy who learned about seduction from watching reruns of Renso Cesana as The Continental.
Angela Lansbury's Tony Award-winning turn in Broadway's Mame was still two years off, but this party scene looks like an early dry-run for the "It's Today!" number. The only scene in the film to significantly feature actors of color, its objective is to illustrate her character's high-style sophistication
Forced to live within themselves and cling to any depiction of girlhood they could get (movie-wise, Hayley Mills and Annette Funicello were pretty much it), all of my sisters responded enthusiastically to The World of Henry Orient when it aired on TV. None more so than my next-to-oldest sister, the film buff and Beatles fan who dragged me to The Trouble with Angels more times than I can count, and for whom The World of Henry Orient was something of a mirror into her life. To say she liked this movie is a serious understatement. This film spoke to her.
A Catholic school girl well-acquainted with feeling like a misfit, my sister was Val to her best girlfriend’s Gil; together they would spend entire Saturdays roaming the city of Denver, Colorado (where we lived before moving to San Francisco) creating mischief and having adventures. When she watched The World of Henry Orient—which she did, rapturously, every time it aired—it was clear to me that the big smile on her face was a smile of recognition. Not physical recognition, for no one in the film looked like her at all (it would be many years before she ever saw an authentic depiction of herself onscreen), but emotional recognition: I could tell she was responding to seeing just a little bit of her inner self reflected back to her from the TV screen.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
|I wish I could remember something about getting this Tom Bosley autograph.|
In its stead, I suppose I should be grateful that I at least recorded the date.