Tuesday, November 27, 2018


When the world never seems to be living up to your dreams – "The Facts of Life" theme

A recent New York Times study found that most people’s music tastes peak somewhere around the ages of 13 to 16, concluding that as we age, we tend to gravitate to the music we listened to during our adolescence. I'm certain I would have balked at such a reductive claim back in my youth—given that throughout the '80s and '90s I listened to little else but what was played in heavy rotation on MTV. But today, having just turned 60, I skip right over the '80s and '90s and listen almost exclusively to early Motown, '70s disco, and ‘60s psychedelic pop...the music of my adolescence. 

I'm sure that had a comparable study been conducted about movies, the findings would be similar. That's definitely the case with me. I've long known that the films I fell in love with during my teenage years have played a significant role in the determining and shaping of my taste in motion pictures. Chiefly because they provided me with my earliest glimpses of adult life.
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
Henry Orient (Peter Sellers) is a vainglorious, not overly-gifted avant-garde concert pianist whose life (which consists of surprisingly little piano playing and considerable skirt-chasing) is turned upside down by the worshipful attentions of a pair of dreamy teenage girls who have decided to make him the object of their romantic fantasies. The girls in question are eighth-graders Valerie Boyd (Tippy Walker) and Marian Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth). Both are new enrollees at the tony Norton’s School for Girls in Manhattan's Upper East Side who establish a rapport over shared orthodontic burdens (i.e., braces: Marian has “rubber bands,” Val sports “railroad tracks”). Plus, a mutual appreciation of their temple of learning:
Val: “Do you like it?”
Marian: “They say it’s the finest girls' school in the country.”
Val: “I don’t either.”

But chiefly they share an inarticulate loneliness and the 14-year-old’s gift for filling the void of unsatisfactory home lives with an immersion in vivid flights of fancy.
"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 about 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 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 

Set in a romanticized New York that never existed (something the film’s young stars were dismayed to discover when in real-life they reenacted the scene where a concerned mob rushes to the aid of one of the girls as she feigns illness on a busy city street [in real-life, apathetic pedestrians merely stepped over them]), The World of Henry Orient celebrates the emotional resiliency of the young, suggesting that a fertile imagination is ofttimes the only line of defense afforded those vulnerable souls whose fate it is to make the best of the messes adults make of their lives.

That both comedy and dramatic conflict arise out of the struggle to maintain a hopeful dreaminess in the face of disillusionment and the inevitable eye-opening of maturity is what makes The World of Henry Orient an uncommonly insightful film about teenagers that also contains a few lessons for adults.
The Family You Create Can Be More Important Than The One You're Born Into
A particularly well-played and sensitively written scene has Mrs. Gilbert and Boothy, in an empathetic effort to make Val feel less self-conscious about her daily visits to a psychiatrist, both confess (to the surprise of Marian) to having "hit the couch" at one time or another in their past.

The timeline of its release and its favorable reception places The World of Henry Orient right at the start of the "youth wave" in motion pictures. Released one year after the first Beach Party moviea genre noted for its overage teens and absentee parentsThe World of Henry Orient is distinguished by being a film about adolescents whose stars are actually adolescents (Walker and Spaeth were 16 and 15, respectively). 
Like Disney’s The Parent Trap (released two years earlier), The World of Henry Orient, too, is about teens from broken homes, but its approach isn't as sanitized. The World of Henry Orient came out two years before another Hayley Mills film-The Trouble with Angels, and shares with it the rarefied status of being a major motion picture featuring female protagonists...their relationships and points of view...as the central focus of the narrative.

Based on Nora Johnson's debut novel first published in 1958, The World of Henry Orient was inspired by her New York childhood and the adolescent crush she harbored for pianist Oscar Levant (Levant is the French word for Orient, explaining the title character’s unusual last name). It was adapted for the screen by her father, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, How to Marry a Millionaire, Black Widow), whose extensively reworked screenplay is purported to have been completed without his daughter’s participation, but (perhaps in an effort to make up for being such a non-presence in her early life...the Johnsons divorced when Nora was five) he nevertheless granted her a co-writing credit and billing above his own.
Old-School Fangirls
The World of Henry Orient was released a month before The Beatles' first visit to the U.S. 

As autobiographical first novels go, Nora Johnson’s paean to the power of imagination to compensate for the absence of parental attention was the teenage antithesis to Fran├žoise Sagan’s 1954 mordant memoir Bonjour Tristesse (written when Sagan was 18, Johnson’s when she was 25). While both books benefited from unsentimental perspectives, the essentially optimistic teens of Henry Orient were far more recognizable to American audiences than Sagan's cynical sophisticate. Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay lightened the tone of his daughter’s novel, fashioning it into a delightful, genuinely witty comedy with humor derived from character as much as calamity.
Noteworthy for the appealingly natural performances of its two leads, the film improves upon the book by eliminating Val’s therapist and fleshing out the girls' relationships with the adult characters via a three-pronged structure that matches the plot's shifting narrative perspective with corresponding variations in tone.
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 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's 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?

As a kid who spent a great deal of his adolescence in a paradoxical effort to both escape into and find myself within the flickering images of a movie screen; what I most relate to in The World of Henry Orient is the way it so entertainingly dramatizes the way young people, nonautonomous and dependent upon parents, can find temporary happiness in substituting dreams for reality when that reality is found wanting.
The film makes its points in emotionally perceptive ways. In particular, I like the scene where Val and Marian share a secret smile when the clock strikes six, the time of the day Marian confesses to most missing her absent and remarried father.
The film's only sour notes come when the girls, taking their cue from their idol's last name, lapse into the kind of non-malicious, yet nonetheless cringe-inducing, stereotypical Asian behavior (broken English, bowing) that we now recognize as casual racism. While nothing on the scale of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the scenes are still plenty embarrassing and ultimately disappointing. 

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.

There are exceptions, but as a rule, I’m inclined to find most child actors annoying. They’re like some kind of dreamscape hybrid creature--juvenile bodies possessed of a lifetime’s worth of artifice and affectation. Paradoxically, I’m not much fonder of the practice of pawning off getting-on-in-years actors like Ann-Margret (Bye Bye Birdie) and John Travolta (Grease) as high-schoolers either, but of the two, I find adults posing as kids to be less grating. Therefore, the biggest miracle and greatest source of delight in The World of Henry Orient are the relaxed, genuinely likable performances given by its two age-appropriate, unknown, inexperienced leads making their film debuts. 
With her deliciously icy turn as Val’s disinterested mother, the ever-faultless Angela Lansbury was more than ready to bring a close to nearly two decades’ worth of playing unsympathetic character roles. She ultimately traded in her withering gaze and wry delivery for twinkly smiles and Broadway musical-comedy legend status. TV-familiar Tom Bosley (Happy Days) is very good as the distracted dad, but at 35 to Lansbury’s 37, Bosley felt he was “A little too young to be Angela’s husband.”

I don’t know how George Roy Hill did it, but Walker and Spaeth give such spirited, engagingly unselfconscious performances that it's hard to believe this is their first film. (One unsavory contributing factor perhaps influencing Walker's performance is that during filming, the married-with-children, 44-year-old director embarked on a creepy, purportedly platonic “relationship” with the 16-year-old former model which lasted several years). The quality of the young women's work (particularly Walker, who’s so heartbreaking in the film’s third act) is made all the more remarkable when contrasted with the patent amateurishness of the two equally inexperienced teenage girls cast by William Castle (per his usual copycat fashion) in  I Saw What You Did (1965). Trade periodicals from the time reveal that The World of Henry Orient was originally envisioned as a vehicle for Hayley Mills and Patty Duke, but I can’t imagine either of those seasoned vets improving upon the performances of these charismatic novices.
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
"I will give someone 1,000 dinars who can find one gray hair on my head!"
My partner harbors such a deep-rooted antipathy towards Peter Sellers that I actually resorted to trickery to get him to watch The World of Henry Orient. I began the film after the opening credits had rolled, and my partner fell in love with the film before he even recognized it was Peter Sellers (he thought it was Gene Kelly in "The Pirate" mode).

There’s no arguing that representation matters, but in the movies and TV shows of the ‘60s, adolescent girls almost exclusively saw themselves represented in ways subordinate to and reflective of a negative adolescent male perspective (“Dumb ol’ Margaret” in Dennis the Menace, or “creepy” Judy in Leave it to Beaver). The lone exceptions and only TV programs I recall in which the lives and relationships of adolescent girls were central and presented as genuine were The Patty Duke Show and Gidget.
There have always been motion pictures with teenage girls as central characters within the framework of larger, family-centric stories: i.e., A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), The Actress (1953), and Pollyanna (1960). And some—like Margie (1946), A Date with Judy (1948), and the “Tammy” and “Gidget” franchises—even placed teenage girls front-and-center of their own stories. Unfortunately, the storylines of these films were so often devoted to the heroine’s romantic misadventures that all other female characters were depicted as either rivals or bullies. Female friendships were a rarity.

“One thing about unwanted children, they soon learn how to take care of themselves”
Val and Marian’s liberating flights of fantasy are repeatedly intruded upon by adults (the concerned crowd, the overly-helpful shopkeeper, the parent with no respect for privacy), all events that underscore themes relating to the vulnerability of adolescence and the sometimes-dispiriting lack of control the young have over their circumstances.

I grew up in a house with four sisters drawn to (and catching me up in their orbit) entertainments centered around female characters. Unfortunately, for these four beautiful, vibrant Black girls with imagination and confidence to spare, images of themselves in movies and TV during the '60s were virtually non-existent, except as totems of white tolerance in special “social problem” episodes of their favorite TV shows. Even during the ‘70s, when I could find glimpses of my own existence in the teenage Black males at the center of The Learning Tree (1969), Sounder (1972), and Cooley High (1975); I can think of only one film from the entire decade that was about a black teenage girl: Ossie Davis’1972 film Black Girl.
Local Color
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.
Black Girl Excellence
An unforeseen reaction to my seeing Annie (2014): a multimillion-dollar musical built around a 10-year-old Black girl (Quvenzhane Wallis): and Black Panther (2018): a global blockbuster featuring a 16-year-old Black girl who is a science genius and warrior (Letitia Wright); was how often I found myself brought to tears watching these beautiful young women, thinking about what such images would have meant to my sisters growing up.

If part of our contemporary pop culture (fashion, the music industry) appears to be in a race to have girls acquire the tools to sexualize and objectify themselves as early as possible, another part (books, films, TV, behind-the-scenes production) feels as though it is listening to the creative and artistic voices of women and girls of all types. With more women—gay, straight, trans, Black, Asian, Latina—telling their own stories and becoming involved in the fields of writing, directing, and producing; I look forward to the day when there are more movies about the lives and friendships of girls. When a movie like The World of Henry Orient is more the cinematic norm than the rapturous rarity it remains.

In 1967 The World of Henry Orient was turned into a flop Broadway musical. Both the film's director and screenwriter collaborated on the stage production which ran a scant three months, garnered two Tony Award nominations, and featured Golden Age 20th-Century Fox musical star Don Ameche in the Peter Sellers role. The show, if remembered at all, is cited for the participation of a young Pia Zadora, the dances by choreographer Michael Bennett, and the appearance of several original members of A Chorus Line.

Twenty years after playing the unhappily-married Boyds in The World of Henry Orient, Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley reunited on considerably more amicable terms as author Jessica Fletcher and Sheriff Amos Tupper on the long-running TV series Murder, She Wrote

I wish I could remember something about the circumstances surrounding getting this Tom Bosley autograph. In its stead, I suppose I should be grateful that I at least recorded the date.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2016