Thursday, July 16, 2009

The World of Henry Orient

(1964, 106 min.)

Starring Peter Sellers, Tippy Walker, Merrie Spaeth, Angela Lansbury, Tom Bosley, Phyllis Thaxter, Bibi Osterwald, John Fiedler, Al Lewis, Peter Duchin.

Screenplay by Nora Johnson and Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by Nora.

Directed by George Roy Hill.

Spaeth and Walker play Marion and Val, two private school girls in ‘60s New York who meet and form an instant bond over a shared vibrancy of imagination. Through three instances of coincidence, their adventures cause them to cross paths with Henry Orient (Sellers), a concert pianist and consummate bullshit artist. They tend to happen upon him when he’s with his married girlfriend Stella (Prentiss) as he engages in his ongoing attempts to get her to cast wide the doors, an unsuccessful venture owing to her irrational fear of being caught by her husband, who’s all the way in Connecticut.

Henry doesn’t know what to make of the two odd girls who keep popping up – how, after all, could they possibly have anything to do with his affair – but the two of them are quite taken with him. In fact, Val decides she’s in love with him, so they start a scrapbook about him. Oh, and they stalk him too. I should probably have put that one first.

All is fun and borderline felony, including an episode involving the girls telling a whopper of a story to a shopkeeper (Lewis) across the street from Henry’s building, until Val’s parents, who have been in Europe, return home. Father Frank (Bosley) is a decent sort, if rarely around, but mother Isabel (Lansbury, not in New England crimesolver mode so much as let’s-brainwash-my-son-into-assassinating-someone mode) is a real piece of work: stuck-up, nasty and not nearly as clever as she thinks she is, the latter illustrated best in a telling little exchange between Frank and Isabel about Val’s parentage. As soon as Isabel sticks her upturned nose into the proceedings, things…well, it’s not as if they were headed towards a fairytale ending anyway, even on the strength of the girls’ considerable will, but they do take a turn for the unfortunate.

Despite the title, the movie isn’t really about Henry at all. We’ve pretty much got his number early on – the smarm, the fake accent that slips away in moments of stress. He may even be a fake as an artist as well, but the movie’s viewpoint in that regard isn’t as easy to guess. At a concert that the girls attend, Henry plays a decidedly modernist piece – composed by Ken Lauber who also conducted the rest of the music written for the film by Elmer Bernstein – and we see a number of the audience members demonstrating visible displeasure (likely the same ilk we later see demanding their money back), but I found the piece to be quite intriguing and well-played, and given the looks on their faces, I’d say the girls agree with me. So there.

But as I said, it’s not about him; it’s about the girls and their families. Marian’s upper middle class existence isn’t idyllic but it’s pretty nice. Her father is out of the picture, having left and remarried, but she doesn’t seem terribly broken up about it, enjoying the life she leads with her mother (Thaxter) in the townhouse they share with one of the mother’s oldest friends, Boothy (Osterwald). Her greatest detriment seems to be the lack of companionship that Val fills. Val, on the other hand, is your classic girl of privilege and classic victim of same. She’s in therapy when such a thing still wasn’t talked about openly, not surprising given the expectations placed upon her, such as excelling in her music studies and raising herself, and the entire Henry Orient fixation can be viewed as a genuinely unique way of acting out, although in this case her mania ends up having a very interesting effect. Marian and Val’s Henry adventure, much of it shot beautifully on location, including a couple of passes by Alice and the gang, ends up affecting their elders’ lives – especially Isabel’s – in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen at the beginning, an insightful mirror image of the way that frivolous behavior of parents like Isabel can sometimes have unforeseen consequences on the lives of their children.

But the subtext, no matter how insightful, pales in comparison to the fun. It's curious to ponder that there was a time when a movie could so competently deal with adult topics while simultaneously capturing the essence of the best entertainment for kids. The girls’ eccentric precocity may be a bit much depending on your reaction to such a thing (i.e., Val’s habit of wearing a fur coat almost everywhere she goes) but Spaeth and Walker are quite enjoyable in what was the only major film appearance for both, guided by director Hill who would later film other duos who seem to be in it for the fun as much as anything else (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting). And while the assorted parents are all quite good for the dramatic stuff, the best comedic bits come from Prentiss and, of course, Sellers, whose ricochet back and forth between faux suavity and fearful bewilderment injects every scene he’s in with a giddiness to rival the schoolgirls. It’s unfortunate that this isn’t better known among the films in his canon.


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