George Roy Hill is an underrated film director, which is astonishing when you consider some of the stone cold classics he’s made: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1972), and Slap Shot (1977). His lack of recognition is due in part to his journeyman career that saw him dabble in numerous genres, from literary adaptation to the sports movie to the western. Also, each film he made is different from the other in terms of style and themes explored. Among his eclectic body of work is my favorite The World of Henry Orient (1964), a coming of age film based on the book of the same name by Nora Johnson, daughter of celebrated screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath).
Set in early 1960’s New York City, the film follows the misadventures of two teenage schoolgirls and their obsession with a pretentious concert pianist. Hill’s adaptation is a carefree romp tinged with elements of sadness that is not watered down for the audience. The opening credits play over a fantastic montage of the city, which now stands as a historical snapshot of a metropolis that sadly no longer exists. A school bus picks up various kids and when it arrives at a girls’ school we meet Marian “Gil” Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth), a girl in the eighth grade. By sheer chance, she encounters fellow eighth grader Valarie “Val” Campbell Boyd (Tippy Walker) and they quickly bond over both being new to the school, their mutual loathing of certain teachers, and the braces on their respective teeth. They soon agree to go adventuring on Saturday and on that day we see them frolicking through a picturesque Central Park in autumn. The two girls imagine themselves as two “beautiful white nurses” and in doing so come across a couple making out in the park. The annoyed man is none other than celebrated concert pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers) who happens to be having a covert affair with a married woman by the name of Stella Dunnworthy (Paula Prentiss). Gil and Val are smitten with Orient at first sight and soon pledge to devote their lives to worshipping the musician.
In these early scenes, Hill captures the energy and unbridled joy of being young and having New York as your playground with scenes of the girls giddily jumping garbage cans in the street. The girls hang out at Gil’s house and we learn that they are both children of divorce with Val living with her father and Gil living with her mother. They commiserate over their respective broken households and yearn for a normal family life, like Val’s fantasy of her folks reuniting for Christmas. Val, in particular, has had a tough time of it as her busy, wealthy father Frank Boyd (Tom Bosley) travels the globe frequently often leaving his daughter to her own devices. She may live in the lap of luxury but has to contend with her cold step-mother Isabel Boyd (Angela Lansbury). In comparison, Gil lives in a more modest place with her mother (Phyllis Thaxter) and grandmother. Their apartment is full of inviting, earth-toned colors, which complement the warm parents and loving atmosphere.
This was the first film for both Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth and Hill gets wonderfully natural performances free of self-conscious affectations out of both of them. The chemistry between the two young actresses seems genuine and we believe that their characters become fast friends. There are scenes where Gil and Val talk about girly things, like shaving their legs for the first time that feels honest and true. The Johnsons’ screenplay does a fantastic job of conveying how young girls idolize a celebrity, creating a rich fantasy world devoted to them through things like a scrapbook filled with photographs, ticket stubs, magazine articles, and so on. Gil and Val are adorable but not sickeningly so nor do they fall into the trap of being wise beyond their years like something out of a J.D Salinger story. They are normal girls dealing with growing up in broken households with a single parent doing the best they can. Walker has the more challenging role as Val and her difficult home life. It is the scenes with Val and Isabel that temper the film’s happy-go-lucky vibe with a slightly darker tone. Hill doesn’t shy away from Isabel’s cruel nature and the pain it causes Val.
It’s almost an hour into the film until we’re privy to Val’s home life when her father and Isabel throw a swanky Christmas party like something out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Val is dressed up like a mini-adult and is treated as such by her step-mother. Angela Lansbury seems to be channeling her ice queen from State of the Union (1948), a woman who has no idea how to treat a child properly. Isabel eschews any kind of public display of affection for a handshake. She has forgotten what it’s like to be a teenage girl and is more concerned with appearances and her social status in the affluent circles she frequents. She is what Holden Caulfield would commonly refer to as a “phony” to use the parlance of the times.
Elmer Bernstein’s delightful score captures the carefree whimsy of the girls playing in the streets of New York while also replicating Orient’s indulgent avant garde piano playing. Hill uses Bernstein’s score sparingly, more like punctuation in a given scene, like providing a wistful vibe to the girls’ playtime or to enhance Orient’s humorous scenes.
The origins of the film date back to Nora Johnson who grew up in New York City after her parents divorced and she hoped that some day they would get back together. She wrote a book entitled The World of Henry Orient about her experiences with the character of Val being her surrogate and Henry Orient was based on famous pianist/actor Oscar Levant. Johnson’s novel was published in 1958 but her father Nunnally Johnson didn’t envision it as a film because he couldn’t imagine two young actresses doing justice to the characters in his daughter’s book. However, child stars Hayley Mills and Patty Duke had become popular in the early ‘60s and Johnson thought they could be cast in a possible film adaptation. He bought the film rights from his daughter, brought her on board to write the screenplay and even gave her final credit after he re-wrote it completely.
Unfortunately, Johnson couldn’t work out deals with either Mills or Duke and went with two unknowns instead with Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker. For the role of Henry Orient, Johnson wanted to cast a recognizable movie star and considered the likes of Robert Preston, Rex Harrison, Tony Randall, and Dick Van Dyke. Then, he offered the role to Peter Sellers and he accepted, enticed by the opportunity to shoot his first film in the United States. When George Roy Hill accepted the job he had only directed two films – adaptations of stage plays Period of Adjustment (1962) and Toys in the Attic (1963). The World of Henry Orient allowed him to showcase his cinematic chops, which he did with the opening scenes on the streets of New York. The film premiered at Radio City Musical Hall in New York City on March 19, 1964 and went on to become the official U.S. entry at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was a modest commercial and critical success. It even became a Broadway musical called Henry, Sweet Henry directed by Hill in 1967 to less than enthusiastic reviews and closed after only 80 performances. One can also see the film’s influence on later fare, like Ghost World (2001), arguably the cinematic heir apparent to Henry Orient (there is even a movie poster for Hill’s film in the background of a scene).