A cherished cinematic memory from my oft-discussed mostly unremarkable youth, 1964’s THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, strikes a nostalgic chord pour moi on many levels. It’s a favorite comedy, Peter Sellers flick, New York movie, and overall 1960s popcorn-friendly delight. It’s probably the only George Roy Hill pic that I actually love. I will try to back up all these claims via the following salty peppered words.
First and foremost, I’m a New Yorker, more so, a New YAWKER, so any movie about my town that hit me at an impressionable age gets mucho points. To say nothing of the fact that key narrative of THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is about being at an impressionable age. Succinctly, the picture is the ultimate take on adolescent bonding, but done on an adult (and snarkily hilarious) scale. How can one NOT adore it?
The picture opens rather gustily, with a raw example of East River wind; no, not a code word for Fun City (as it was called then) flatulence, but rather a cold blast of seasonal changing climate. This rude natural force causes a daydreaming teen’s homework to scatter along the fashionable river front, thus causing a collision of sorts betwixt “Val” Boyd and “Gil” Gilbert. Each one of these extraordinary young ladies is considered by the masses to be an outcast. Why? ‘Cause they’re creative, talented females (one an accredited high-IQ genius/musical prodigy); yet, they’re funny, kooky and, of course, inventive. These attributes are well-documented by their outrageous fantasies involving local intrigue, celebrities, super-woman aspirations and much more. Both go to a posh private school (don’t hold that against them, so did I), both are from well-to-do parents (with Boyd’s being Warren Buffet wealthy) and both are from broken homes, except Val’s doesn’t know it yet. Gil resides with her divorced mom and her divorced bestie (a possible “two moms” situation that is hinted at, but not particularly important to the scenario, save that it’s a beautiful home life relationship). Val is the byproduct of a mega-successful (though loving) never-there dad and his high-brow snobbish skank of a wife (who apparently has had more affairs than the State Department).
Val’s and Gil’s unassuming, non-superior demeanors underline the major attraction of HENRY ORIENT; otherwise, who the hell would care? And we DO care. When the pair, embarked on a Central Park espionage adventure, happen upon renowned avant-garde composer Henry Orient and his latest married conquest in mid-debauch, all crap breaks loose. Orient, a certifiable neurotic, and Stella Dunnworthy (an equally paranoid lover) come to believe that the girls might be employed by Dunnworthy’s jealous spouse, out to catch the adulterers. Orient’s recalling the bubblegum-blowing urchins with horror to his best friend/manager (John Fiedler) is one of the many great lines scattered throughout the picture (“And then, two small bladders came out of their mouth”).
Kismet rears its aged but melodious head when Gil’s moms take the girls to an Orient concert at Carnegie Hall. He sees them from the stage and practically freaks out, ignoring his fellow musicians and the audience’s unanimous response that he’s a lousy phony.
But the die has been cast, and Val and Gil are now obsessed with Henry Orient in that first-love pang precursor to restraining order puberty.
How all of this intertwines becomes the crux of this thoroughly charming movie that, if anything, has gained in stature since its original release 52 years ago.
The cast is superb, from Sellers on down. For the comedian, it was a continuing streak of amazing choices that began with Lolita and propelled him to international stardom with Dr. Strangelove, The Pink Panther and ORIENT, all within the space of two years – and all major critical/box-office smashes. Orient’s past, a kid from Brooklyn, is constantly masked by the artist’s attempt to cover up his Flatbush dialect with a fake continental accent of no particular locale (which, natch, the star exSellers at); the actor later revealed that he based his voice characterization on Stanley Kubrick. The supporting players are equally outstanding, from Phyllis Thaxter (my bid for one of the most underrated actresses of all time) as Gil’s biological mom, to Angela Lansbury (the shrewish upper-crust slutty mater), to Bibi Osterwald (as Gil’s other mom) and Tom Bosley (perhaps his finest performance) as Val’s caring but absent pop. Can’t not mention Paula Prentiss, too riotous as the fidgety would-be cheating femme equivalent of Henry (they never actually get to do it). Or the aforementioned Fiedler. Or Al Lewis as a (what else?) frenzied neighborhood smoke-shop proprietor, convinced (by the goils) that Jayne Mansfield has been kidnapped.
But the movie’d be flatter than a pancake without the real stars of the piece, namely the teen actresses. When folks hear tales of producer Jerome Hellman having gone through development purgatory with the cast, they’re naturally assuming he was referring to Sellers, who, as his star rose, so did his ego. No so; the brilliant comic actor wasn’t the problem at all. It was the negotiations for the teen protagonists, primarily Val. Hellman spent over a year in meetings with Disney trying in vain to score Hayley Mills for the part. But Walt was out to prove that Buena Vista wasn’t some easily manipulated Mickey Mouse outfit, and the lofty hook of Mills on the ORIENT express (a huge attraction back then) became an industry punchline to Never-Never Land. Other girls (for both roles) were tested and bandied about (if, for no other reason, than Hollywood’s inclination to bandy about girls), including Patty Duke, Sue Lyon, Laurel Goodwin and Portland Mason.
Finally, some mastermind decided to go for unknowns, and mercifully found Tippy Walker (it was that rhapsodic trippy Tippy/Tippi era) and Merrie Spaeth, both magnificent. I’d venture to say that because they were fresh faces constituted a big plus toward ORIENT‘s success; overpaid pimply thesps would have been inauthentic (to put it kindly).
The near-perfect script by Nora Johnson and her father Nunnally, based on the younger Johnson’s acclaimed novel, stemmed from truth. Johnson, at that tweeny-teeny age, became hopelessly obsessed with world-famed neurotic Oscar Levant (“Levant” is French for “orient”). The witty, urbane and frequently howl-out-loud screenplay is beautifully realized by Hill’s fine direction, again the only movie of his I unabashedly champion.
The (mostly) 100% Manhattan locations comprise a love letter to the city (insert “Yay!” here). To me, the movie is a treasured reminiscence of how I remember Central Park in the autumn and winter. The only other movie that comes close to that is 1955’s The Eddy Duchin Story, coincidentally also available from Twilight Time; ironically, Peter Duchin appears in ORIENT as one of Lansbury’s unscrupulous paramours.
The photography, in Panavision and DeLuxe Color, is lush, extravagant and picture-postcard sumptuous. These visuals were achieved by a no doubt uneasy alliance between the great Boris Kaufman (whose sleek, slick rectangular compositions are gallery-quality striking) and the not-so-great Arthur Ornitz, my nomination for the worst cinematographer in the American A-picture universe. When one looks at this Blu-Ray, one immediately can discern Kaufman’s contributions vs. Ornitz’s (fortunately, the former did the lion’s share of the shooting). Ornitz, as is his trademark, offers up soft, fuzzy, grainy, available-light images more in line with a colorized version of Who Killed Teddy Bear? (which still looks better than anything Ornitiz ever shot). That said, his “work” on ORIENT remains his best achievement.
On the Johnson’s/Hill/Kaufman side of the behind-the-camera ledger is the gorgeous score by Elmer Bernstein (a CD of which I’ve been playing repeatedly for almost twenty years). No surprise that his music spectacularly captures the gist of the locale, the characters and storyline. It’s one of my (here we go again) favorite Bernstein scores, and gained publicity at the time, being the composer’s official foray into comedy (well, if one doesn’t count Cat Women of the Moon. Or The Ten Commandments).(*) Many thought him an strange choice in 1964, but, when one considers the fantastic job he did on To Kill a Mockingbird, a masterpiece also about children at crucial crossroads in their lives, Bernstein seems not only qualified, but the only logical choice. Truth be told, if one removed the Sellers character altogether and simply made a movie about two friends growing up in 1960s New York, The World Sans Henry Orient would work just as well for me (yikes, here come the rude emails, and, no, I’m not saying Sellers isn’t necessary or terrific; he is).
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of HENRY ORIENT is quite nice (with the DeLuxe Color occasionally on the warm side), displaying many of the traits the format is revered for. Curiously, the mono soundtrack seems a bit on the low side, especially when compared to the included trailer, but this is a minor prob, easily solved by, you know, turning up the volume. Best of all, for those who haven’t access to the Bernstein/ORIENT CD, Twilight Time allows one to enjoy the glorious soundtrack as IST (that also features the wacky Henry Orient Concerto, composed and conducted by Ken Lauber). For those whose interest is further piqued by this depiction of the city and the era through rose-colored lasses, there’s nifty audio commentary by Jeff Bond, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redmond.
(*) – actually, Bernstein scored two 1950s intentional comedies: Never Wave at a WAC and Miss Robin Crusoe.
THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT #: TWILIGHT 160-BR. SRP: $29.95.