Adolescent Adventure: The World of Henry Orient (1964)

WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, THE (1964)

To view The World of Henry Orient click here.

FilmStruck has been singled out as a great resource for film aficionados but it also includes exceptional family friendly entertainment that can provide younger viewers with an eye-opening introduction to classic and foreign cinema. From Charlie Chaplin’s silent antics as the lovable Tramp in The Kid (1921) to the colorful Japanese fantasy film Jellyfish Eyes (2013), subscribers will discover a wide range of films available for all-ages. One stand out example is The World of Henry Orient (1964), a charming and extremely funny coming-of-age drama directed by George Roy Hill that is currently streaming as part of the “Female Friendships” collection.

Today George Roy Hill is probably best remembered as the director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1971), two hugely successful and beloved buddy movies that teamed Robert Redford with Paul Newman. But before he glorified the bond between a pair of blond blue-eyed conmen, Hill extolled the budding friendship between a pair of teenage girls growing up in New York City.

In The World of Henry Orient we’re introduced to Val (Elizabeth “Tippy” Walker) and Gil (Merrie Spaeth), two 14-year-old classmates attending an exclusive girls’ school. The teens quickly develop a friendship after discovering they share similar quirks including a hunger for adventure and an affinity for drama. On a more somber note, they also both come from broken homes and desperately desire dependable father figures in their lives. While cavorting all over the Big Apple the girls encounter Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), a flamboyant Lothario and second-rate concert pianist who ignites their youthful imaginations. When their fascination develops into an obsession they begin following Orient everywhere, which hampers his love life. But it’s not all fun and games in this poignant tale and the girls’ adolescent escapades lead to a tearful discovery that upends Val’s volatile family. Through it all Val and Gil remain steadfast friends poised to tackle the approaching challenges of adulthood together.

The film is based on a 1956 novel written by Nora Johnson and was inspired by her own experiences while attending The Brearley School in New York. Nora was the daughter of Nunnally Johnson (Black Widow [1954], The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit [1956], The Three Faces of Eve [1957]), an acclaimed scriptwriter, producer and director who helped adapt her novel into a screenplay. Although much of the original flavor of story stayed intact, Nora’s father insisted on expanding the role of Henry Orient and inserting more comedy into the script. These changes and additions allowed Peter Sellers to have a much more visible role in the film.

WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, THE (1964)

The World of Henry Orient was Sellers first American picture following the release of The Pink Panther (1963) and he is wonderful as the ham-handed musician. The role was based on the pianist and actor Oscar Levant so Sellers cleverly masks his British accent with a touch of Brooklynese that occasionally cracks through his phony Latin Lover facade. Thanks to his eccentric personality and flashy wardrobe, Sellers makes a lasting impression and it’s understandable why women are drawn to him despite the shady nature of his character. This was pre-Beatles America after all and the youth culture that would come to dominate the decade hadn’t found its voice yet. Henry Orient is representative of the romantic male figures at the time the book was written such as Mario Lanza who was the symbol of teenage longing in Heavenly Creatures (1994).

WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, THE (1964)

Along with Peter Sellers, funny lady Paula Prentiss makes a lasting impression as his reluctant romantic conquest. Other cast members include Angela Lansbury who is appropriately chilling as Val’s domineering mother while Tom Bosley gives a heart-rending performance as her kowtowed husband who eventually finds his voice. Bosley’s understated depiction of Val’s father recalls Richard Egan’s role in A Summer Place (1959), a more somber coming-of-age film concerning the consequences of teenage lust.

WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, THE (1964)

Despite an exceptional cast, the real stars of The World of Henry Orient are young Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth. Their unaffected performances are the lifeblood that runs through the film and contributes to its enduring appeal. The girls’ friendship appears to blossom organically and as they sprint, jump and skip through New York City, which has rarely looked as lovely and inviting, their communal bliss is contagious. They genuinely seem to be coming-of-age right before our eyes and we mourn the end of their innocence when the gloomier and more difficult aspects of adulthood interfere with their fun.

This was Merrie Spaeth’s first and last film. After graduating with honors from Smith College in 1970, Spaeth entered politics and worked with President (and fellow actor) Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. In retrospect, it’s not too surprising that the studious and dependable Gil would end up working for the government in some capacity.

WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, THE (1964)

Tippy Walker, who played the unruly and vivacious Val, had a more robust career in Hollywood and appeared in a handful of films (Seven in Darkness [1969], The Jesus Trip [1971], Jennifer on My Mind [1971]) and TV shows (Dr. Kildare [1965], Peyton Place [1968-1969]) before she retired from acting to focus on other creative pursuits. During the making of the movie Walker reportedly developed a romantic relationship with director George Roy Hill that was purely platonic. Despite the details, their relationship is bound to raise some eyebrows since she was just 16-years-old at the time and Hill was 42, married and the father of four children. Walker and Hill’s May-December romance mirrors Val’s fixation with the much older Henry Orient proving that fact is often stranger than fiction.

The film benefits from a lively score composed by Elmer Bernstein (Sweet Smell of Success [1957], The Magnificent Seven [1960], To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]) that encapsulates the jovial and occasionally conflicting moods of the movie. From the sweeping and sentimental title theme that leads us through the streets of New York City to the dissonant sounds heard during Orient’s concert performance and the somber strings that accompany Val’s walk through a snow covered Central Park, Bernstein’s music is so rich and rewarding that it almost feels like another character.

WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, THE (1964)

The only discordant notes in the film can be found in the badly dated jokes about Asians that reflect the racist postwar attitudes of many unwitting Americans. Unfortunately, they’re typical of the period. Despite these flaws, I recommend it without reservation but be prepared to have a conversation about the biased language used in the film if you are watching it with children. Classic movies can be enjoyed by families for numerous reasons, including the opportunities they present to discuss uncomfortable aspects of our shared history. However, The World of Henry Orient has a lot to recommend it and I hope its flaws will encourage people to watch and appreciate its shortcomings as well as its many merits.

Kimberly Lindbergs

8 Responses Adolescent Adventure: The World of Henry Orient (1964)
Posted By kingrat : March 23, 2017 5:47 pm

Kimberly, I would add that the cinematography, costumes, and set design are breathtaking. At last year’s TCM festival this movie happened to be playing while I was standing at the hotel bar chatting with friends. No sound, nothing but picture. We were stunned by the color effects of virtually every shot, with coordination of clothes and sets. Often there would be one main color, with lighter and darker hues of the same color in the individual shots. Today’s overfiltered junk looks incredibly crude by comparison.

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : March 23, 2017 5:54 pm

I would say that this is one of the rare occasions where I genuinely preferred the movie to the book. The movie’s end was believably upbeat — but the book left me feeling dejected and thinking “well, Val will probably be one of the early casualties of the 60s…”

Angela Lansbury’s scary-mom performance was on the level with her role in “The Manchurian Candidate.”

And this is one of the few movies about New York City that made me actually want to live there.

Posted By Erik James : March 23, 2017 7:04 pm

I believe this film also served as an inspiration for the movie (and graphic novel) ‘Ghost World’.

Posted By George : March 23, 2017 8:05 pm

The movie and GHOST WORLD would make a great double feature.

Posted By Doug : March 24, 2017 4:53 am

I’m guilty of having judged a movie by its title-I always assumed that this was simply one more Peter Sellers vehicle. I like him a little bit, but but more than a little bit of Sellers is a bit too much.

Posted By Lamar : March 24, 2017 7:56 am

I saw this when I was about the same age as the girls and just loved it. Made me want to live in New York City too. Time to watch it again, it’s been years. thanks.

Posted By Walt : March 24, 2017 12:21 pm

Kingrat, the use of red is very intersting in this movie.

(maybe a bit of spoilers follow)

Before she and Val go to the park for the first time, Gil dons a fire-engine red overcoat, which she wears until nearly the end of the film. This happens to be the same shade of red that dominates Orient’s apartment. Also if you pay attention you can see a similarly colored bright red 1963 Plymouth parked in various spots that Val and Gil frequent. At the end of their adventures, we see a shot of the two of them putting on makeup and talking about boys, one is wearing blue and the other yellow – no red in sight.

Also note that the dress that Val wears at the party is exactly the same as the one that Stella (Paula Prentiss) wears in the restaurant with Orient.

Posted By kingrat : March 25, 2017 1:15 am

Walt, thanks for the keen observations. All of these details were obviously clearly worked out.

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