Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Films: THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT (1964) starring Peter Sellers, Tippy Walker, Merrie Spaeth, Angela Lansbury, Phyllis Thaxter, Paula Prentiss and Tom Bosley.

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Films is the weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to check in and see what other overlooked films other bloggers are talking about today.

THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, directed by George Roy Hill, screenplay by Nora Johnson and Nunnally Johnson based on a book by Nora Johnson, is a light-hearted, screwball comedy with slightly bitter edges. This is one of my favorite Peter Sellers performances, even if he plays an over-preening, egocentric pianist with no heart of gold.

THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is unique in that it is one of few 'coming of age films' to feature girls instead of boys facing the end of adolescence. Most importantly, we are made to believe in the two young girls' initial innocence and feel free to enjoy the fantasy world they invent.

Tippy Walker as Valerie

Merrie Spaeth plays Marian

The two girls, Marian 'Gil' Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth) and Valerie 'Val' Campbell Boyd (Tippy Walker) are perfection as two gawky 14 year olds running loose in NYC, chasing the object of their affection, the avant garde pianist, Henry Orient. (Peter Sellers). The fact that the film in set in the glorious NYC of the early 60's doesn't hurt the fantasy element any.

The girls attend a private school during the day - where they've recently met and become friends. Valerie comes from money, her father Frank Boyd (Tom Bosley) is some sort of business mucky-muck, the mother, Isabel Boyd (Angela Lansbury) is the coldly indifferent sophisticate mother with an eye for younger men. They live in a deluxe and impersonal penthouse, not much more than a place for throwing parties and having business meetings.

Valerie's friend Marian is more middle class, she and her widowed mother, Avis Gilbert (the wonderful Phyllis Thaxter), and her mother's friend (or sister-in-law, can't remember), Erica 'Boothy' Booth, (Bibi Osterwald) live in a cozy NY brownstone which in the film showcases the sense of permanence and warmth missing in Valerie's life.

When Valerie develops a crush on pianist, Henry Orient - Peter Sellers with an American accent - they arrange to follow Orient, keeping him (unknown to the girls) from consummating an affair with a klutzy (and constantly frustrated) married woman, Stella Dunworthy (Paula Prentiss).  Orient is forever on the look-out for vengeful husbands.

The idea of 'stalkers' being endearingly funny is a strange one, but it works in this film. The girls mean no real harm, they're just indulging their capacity for mischief.

They write fables about Orient in their diaries and use his last name, 'Orient' as a point of invention - the girls wear coolie hats as they run about the city, somehow managing to upstage Peter Sellers at every turn.

In the late fifties/early sixties, it was still generally possible for kids to use the city as a playground unsupervised, without coming to any real harm.

I grew up then, and a bunch of us who lived on the same block did this sort of messing about, running here and there, roller skating up to the entrance of the Hudson Tunnel and back, looking for mischief, inventing adventure. It was the best time to be a kid in New York.

When Valerie's mother Isabel, (the icy Angela Lansbury) spies her daughter's diary, she assumes that something untoward has occurred between the older pianist and teenage Valerie. But when she confronts Orient, she falls (rather ridiculously) for his tinny, superficial charm.

Sellers' Henry Orient is a sleaze over-burdened with a huge ego/libido combo. No one could do this sort of smarmy role better than Peter Sellers.

On one of their trips to Orient's apartment building to spy on him, the two girls hide in the stairwell and inadvertently hear Valerie's mother and Orient parting after an obvious afternoon tryst. Valerie is crushed and humiliated. She runs off. Marian doesn't know what to do to help her friend.

When Valerie's father, Frank - played warmly, yet with a steely substance - by Tom Bosley, finds out about this latest affair - it is one affair too many. There's A Scene and an eventual divorce. Valerie and her father sail for Europe and it isn't until months later that Marian sees her friend again.

The Boyds, father and daughter, return to the city to set up their home together, no more penthouses. They visit Valerie and her mother and there is some warmth implied between Marian's mother Avis and Frank, but nothing definite. Anyway, Valerie and Marian pick up where they left off. They dash up to Marian's room and begin dishing boys and make-up and fashions. Now the real mischief begins: BOYS!


  1. I think Tippy Walker was fabulous in this much under-appreciated movie -- both funny and touching at the same time. A personal favorite.

  2. M.M. I agree. I also adored Merrie Spaeth. This is one of my personal all time favorites as well. :)

    Peter Sellers has rarely been sleazier or funnier in a warped sort of way.

  3. I totally forgot about this movie but this brings back such great memories! I loved it when I saw it when I was about the same age as the girls. You make me want to see this again! Thanks for this post, it really is a great movie and both girls were wonderful in it!

  4. I adored this movie. Thanks for reminding me how much with these fabulous photos.

  5. The setting and the characters make "The World of Henry Orient" a movie to savour. It's a special treat for fans of "Murder, She Wrote" to see Angela and Tom in those roles. Has Paula Prentiss ever gotten her due?

    Thanks for reminding me of a perfect movie anytime, but especially at this time of year. Autumn is always bittersweet.

  6. Hey, where did this one come from? I hadn't heard of this film before now. I gave Peter Sellers credit for only two films - the PINK PANTHER series and THE PARTY. You could walk out midway through the latter. Sellers is funny in an awkward sort of way. But I'm glad you wrote about THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT. I would surely like to see this film. Among the other actors only Angela Lansbury rings a bell...

    Guess who could step into Sellers' shoes? Rupert Everett!

  7. Julie: Yes, I'd forgotten it too. Until something or other reminded me. It was a fun post to put together.

  8. Patti: You're welcome. I was lucky to find the pix online. Sometimes I can't find anything at all. You never know.

    This is such a special movie.

  9. Caftan Woman: Thanks for mentioning MURDER, SHE WROTE. Now I know why Lansbury rang a bell.

  10. She always reminds me of Geena Davis. Or maybe it's the other way around.

    In this film, Paula is such a goofy klutz. Go figure. She should have had as big a career as
    Lucille Ball.

  11. Prashant: Oh, this is a wonderful film. If you ever get a chance to see it, please do so. :)

    Though the two young girls steal the film from under his nose.

    Another couple of good Peter Sellers films: BEING THERE and, of course, Dr. STRANGELOVE.

  12. Yvette:

    Total agreement. This is a perfect example of a film that shouldn't be forgotten. I thought the portrayal of the two girls was dead-on accurate for its time. And I also agree about Phyllis Thaxter, a much-underrated actress.

    I love your reviews, both of movies and books (and art too), even when I don't agree with them. I enjoy your enthusiasm. You always seem to give just the right amount of information to be intriguing without giving too much away.

    BTW, my favorite forgotten Peter Sellers performance is in I'm All Right Jack.

  13. I love Peter Sellers, but I have not seen this one! I think I always thought it would not be my cup of tea, but reading your description makes me re-think it. I think he was a comic genius. The Pink Panther movies, Dr. Strangelove, Being There -- the man was crazy, and just comic perfection. Thanks for the heads-up about another of his movies I should give a chance!

  14. Sellers was a fantastic Actor. He could play anyone. That's talent..


  15. Thanks so much, Steve. Your kind words are much appreciated. But you know, when you DON'T agree you should step right in and tell us why. :)

    It can't all be goody-goody around here. Ha!

    I vaguely remember I'M ALL RIGHT JACK. But not so much. I'll have to take a look.

    Phyllis Thaxter was superb in a part with little if any dialogue, the mother (Mrs. Kent) in the first SUPERMAN movie with Christopher Reeve.

    There is a beautiful and very moving close-up of her through the mesh on a screen door, that I've never forgotten.

  16. Becky: You MUST see this movie. You simply must. That's all I have to say about it.

    Except: You will love it!!

  17. Yvonne: Sellers was one of those rare actors who could definitely play ANY part. He was a chameleon.

    ...and he left us too soon.

  18. heard of this film but never have seen (at least not in its entirety). I have never been a huge Sellers fan but that is through my own doing. I have never sought out his work per se. my dad liked him but i guess that never transferred to me, at least not yet!

  19. Then maybe if you watch a copy of THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, you might change your mind.

    I was a big Sellers fan. Loved him in A SHOT IN THE DARK, DR. STRANGELOVE , AFTER THE FOX and BEING THERE.

  20. This is such a fun movie - the girls' characters seem so real that they really draw you into the story and the fun.

  21. Yes, I agree, Lisa. They were very natural too, no self-consciousness before the camera. Talking about this film makes me think it's time to get the DVD. :)


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