(Post-screening celebrity wrap-up, below)
The movies may have discovered teenagers in the 1950s but the focus was usually on delinquency, hot rods and sex. 1964′s THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is a comedy that takes the time to examine the personal lives of a pair of New York girls at an awkward age — too old for dolls but not quite ready to negotiate the tougher aspects of teen-hood. Gil (Merrie Spaeth) and Val (Tippy Walker) instead indulge the adolescent fantasy of worshiping the concert pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers). Playing his records isn’t enough. The girls haunt Orient’s public appearances and dog his steps when he goes out on the town. Unfortunately, the oily Orient is pursuing an adulterous affair with the hapless Stella Dunnworthy (Paula Prentiss), and is convinced that the girls are purposely trying to ruin his love life. Whenever Orient maneuvers Stella into a submissive romantic scenario, they’re confronted by two smiling, gum-chewing faces, more often than not wearing Chinese hats in homage to their hero.
HENRY ORIENT features plenty of slapstick comedy from Peter Sellers but its portrait of these two energetic and irrepressibly imaginative pranksters is what has kept the movie high on favorites lists for the past half century. Film critics scrambled for words of praise to describe director George Roy Hill’s creative camerawork during Gil and Val’s adventures on the New York streets. Elmer Bernstein’s music score soars as they leap over obstacles in slow motion, pigtails flying. The most celebrated moment shows the girls in mid-jump, rising in the frame in slow motion. It looks as if they’re flying, as if they’re lighter than air, as if their youth and energy will keep them innocent and free forever.
Author Nora Johnson was inspired by her own teen crush on Oscar Levant a decade or two before… we can just imagine the sourpuss Levant being less than civil to a persistent girl with an autograph book. Ms. Johnson adapted her book with her own father, the screenwriting veteran Nunnally Johnson. The tone begins on the light side with the spectacle of the girls’ completely normal, amusing play behavior, which includes a great deal of fantasy role-playing. Distinguishing HENRY ORIENT almost as much is its sensitivity toward family relationships and problems. Gil’s mother Avis (Phyllis Thaxter) is divorced but well adjusted. She wisely gives Gil what we would now call personal space. Val is in a less stable situation, as her wealthy parents Isabel and Frank (Angela Lansbury & Tom Bosley) are rarely home. Isabel is vain and selfish, and keeps both her daughter and her husband at an emotional remove, while she pursues relationships outside her marriage. Left on her own, Val naturally gravitates to the warmth of Gil’s all-female home.
Poor Stella is driven batty by guilt and the fear that her awkward liaisons with Henry Orient will come out into the open… it doesn’t matter that all of Henry’s seductions are miserable washouts. The best lunatic comedy bit comes when the girls inadvertently bring in the F.B.I., who think that Jayne Mansfield has been kidnapped. Paula Prentiss’s comic reaction to a sudden mob of police is priceless. She brightens every film she’s in, and when a picture is as good as HENRY ORIENT she’s terrific.
Seeing THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT today, we find it difficult to believe that any parent would dare allow Gil and Val to roam freely through New York and Central Park — either the city is far more hostile now or security consciousness has gotten way out of control. This is also the rare film in which parents aren’t uniformly stupid. Frank recognizes that he needs to give Val the love and attention she isn’t getting from her mother, and does something about it.
THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT helped launch director George Roy Hill on ten productive years of high profile feature film work. Its enthusiastic fans often ask about the young first-time actresses Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker. TCM’s screening is slated to feature Ms. Spaeth in person, along with star Paula Prentiss. They’ll surely tell the whole story and I wouldn’t miss it for the WORLD.
(Post-screening celebrity wrap-up!)
Have just returned from the WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT screening, where starts Paula Prentiss and Merrie Spaeth were given the full Hollywood welcome by yet another packed hall. Host for the discussion was Cari Beauchamp, author of the fine book Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. Ms. Beauchamp immediately positioned the movie as a core female bonding picture. Merrie Spaeth talked about working through the New York Summer in an all-wool outfit including that heavy red coat; she remembers Peter Sellers entertaining both teen actresses between takes with goofy comedy, Inspector Clouseau riffs, etc. Ms. Prentiss’s husband Richard Benjamin took a bow in the audience (big response) before she explained that back in 1963 she was doing Shakespeare in the park when George Roy Hill offered her the movie. All three women paid homage to Angela Lansbury, who had the plum role and played it to the hilt… “she was an actress unafraid to play outright bitches.” Yes, one occasionally hears language like that at the TCMfest.
Spaeth still comes off as bright and personable. She soon decided that acting wasn’t her future and instead pursued a distinguished academic career at top schools. She’s a highly successful businesswoman based out of Texas.