Of all the films released on DVD in 2002, from the after-school-special-level dramaturgy masked by expensive special effects of Spider-Man, to the 92-disc sets of The Lord of the Rings, the one I looked most forward to was MGM Home Entertainment's publication of The World of Henry Orient.
It's been one of my favorite movies since I saw in at the drive-in with my family in 1968 on a double bill with The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!, long after both films had originally come out. Since then, the film also always makes me cry.
Not that I seek out films that poke the tear ducts. But a film's ability to do so creates an emotional tie to a "cultural product," which is one of the ways in which films come to play such an important role in our emotional lives, a factor that receives little consideration from film scholars.
Officially, The World of Henry Orient, released in 1964, is considered a minor Peter Sellers comedy, made during a down, pre-Pink Panther American phase of his career, and according to Ed Sikov in his biography of Sellers, the star "provides only a subplot." That's because, as Sikov notes, the film, is really about the friendship between two girls who attend a private school in Manhattan. Sellers, as "modernist" pianist Henry Orient, is the accidentally discovered object of their affection whom they track through the canyons of New York in their off hours.
The World of Henry Orient tells the cleverly complicated story of rich girl Valerie Boyd (Tippy Walker) and her new upper-lower-class/lower-middle-class pal Marian Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth). Val is new in school; she has been kicked around from one institution to another by her mostly absent parents, Frank (Tom Bosley), a vague industrialist, and his snotty wife Isabel (Angela Lansbury, in her icy, pre-Mrs. Fletcher phase).
Rambling through Central Park one Saturday they stumble upon a man seducing a woman high amid the boulders of the park (the same rocks used recently as a brief setting in Maid in Manhattan). When Val and Marian go to a concert with Marian's mom (Phyllis Thaxter, the mother everyone wishes they had) and her live-in friend Boothy (Bibi Osterwald), the two girls discover that the pianist on stage is none other than the Casanova from the rocks, Henry Orient, a Brooklyn fraud with a fake accent and high class ways. The rest of the film charts the girls as they develop a girlish cult around Orient, while he thinks they are private detectives following the nervous married woman (Paula Prentiss) he is always frustrated in seducing. When the circles of Orient, the girls, and their families intersect, the film continues to be funny, while also growing poignant.
While I was writing this review, news came that the film's director, George Roy Hill, had died at the age of 80. Hill had a modest career aesthetically, but a wildly successful one publicly, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The World According to Garp, and The Little Drummer Girl. There is nothing much "cinematic" about Orient, except for one moment we will come to presently. Instead, the film is made in the fashion of light New York comedies of the time, half TV lit sets and half bright and sunny locations, with plain photography that is meant to show you what's happening without editorializing. What you see is that social levels and class distinctions are well observed in this film, written by Nora Johnson from her novel. Sellers is brilliant in his modest, humble half-bows on stage, and the subtle fluctuations of worry on his brow when he sees the girls in the audience during a performance (though it is Van Cliburn's hands we see in close up).
The core attraction of the film is that it portrays so accurately and with such delicacy friendship between girls. There are few such films; the only other one I can think of is Ghost World, which pays hommage to its predecessor by placing a poster for Orient in the background, and certain aspects of Peppermint Soda. Even Hill couldn't do it again. A later film touted as a sequel of sorts, A Little Romance, is ruined in the set-up by being about a girl and a boy.
The beauty of the friendship is that it's the same kind of alliance we see in such characters as Sherlock Holmes and Watson: Two people from different backgrounds lean on and learn from each other. It helps that they kids are cute and convincing (and disappeared: Tippy Walker appeared for a time on TV's Peyton Place before vanishing, and Spaeth "retired" from movies, to end up as an adult active in Republican politics). You can't underestimate the appeal of these kids. I spent many years unknowingly looking for a "Val," but the closest I got was an arts editrix I once worked who was the spitting image of Val in both sound and manner.
The clean appeal of the kids and their emotional connection wouldn't be the same without Elmer Bernstein's delightful score. There are four basic themes, one of them a bouncy and gently urban tune, another a sort of western sounding theme (probably because there is always something western about the composer of <I>The Magnificent Seven</I>). Music and visuals meet wonderfully in a sequence where the girls go running through the city, culminating in their leaping into the air, which Hill shoots in slow-Reifensthalian-motion; rarely has the shear exuberance of freedom been captured on film. The only thing that Bernstein couldn’t bring himself to do was write a truly horrible "modern" concerto for Orient to play.
MGM offers a typically no-frills release of the film on DVD. It’s a double-sided disc with a wide-screen (2.35:1) letter boxed version on one side and a pan-and-scan TV version on the other, with only the original trailer and English, French, and Spanish subtitles as supplements. The mono audio track does little wonder for Bernstein's memorable score. Though the box tells us that writer Johnson based on the character of Orient on, of all people, Oscar Levant (on whom she had a adolescent crush). It's weird but good information to have on a film that one treasures more with each passing year.
This essay originally appeared in Black Lamb in 2003.