Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Look on the wall of Thora Birch's bedroom in Terry Zwigoff's
Ghost World, and you'll see a poster for this wonderful 1964
comedy-drama that dares to take seriously the world of 13 and 14 year-old girls. It's also one of the first American
movies to present the effects of divorce and broken homes on families and children, in a credible context.
New York Pre-teens Val Boyd (Tippy Walker) and Gil Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth)
become fast friends, even though Gil comes from a modest
family of divorce, and Val is the daughter of very wealthy parents. For fun, they stalk and hassle
their favorite celebrity, mediocre concert pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), who thinks they are
some kind of plot to entrap him in his adulterous relationship with the nervous young Stella
Dunnworthy (Paula Prentiss). When Val's selfish, vain mother, Isabel (Angela Lansbury) tries to
break up the pair, more trouble ensues.
A good script, a creative director and a perfect cast come together in a story that centers on the emotional life
of adolescents. In 1964, pictures hadn't closed the gap between
The Parent Trap giggles and Juvenile Delinquent movies, and
were still reeling from The Bad Seed. Nora Johnson's perceptive script accurately pegs the post-Barbie, pre-boyfriend
teenage years, when reality is just catching up with lives still engaged in play-fantasy. This is a subject that
few movies peg correctly. Heavenly Creatures is a pathological look at two girls who don't outgrow this
stage. Ghost World
relates to The World of Henry Orient as almost an epitaph for American childhood, the sheltered world of
children that no longer exists. The adventures of Val and Gil,
roaming the streets of New York unsupervised but in relative safety while stalking their favorite celebrity and
pulling pranks on confused adults, would today bring down charges of child endangerment.
The commercial hook of The World of Henry Orient is Peter Sellers' comedy turn as the vain concert pianist whose
amorous efforts are repeatedly scuttled by his two youngest fans. He works extremely well with Paula Prentiss, who gives
her skittish adulteress character everything she's got. Prentiss isn't the bright and snappy female
of her MGM Jim Hutton vehicles, but instead plays her 'wacky' character almost straight. In the picture's funniest gag, her
attempt to rendezvous with Orient is foiled by 20 NYPD cops who think that she's Jayne Mansfield, and that they're
rescuing her from a kidnapping. Her only reaction is an incoherent , 'Ffmahh!' as she falls forward out of frame. One imagines what would
happen if all Ms. Prentiss' talents had been given free reign.
Sellers faux-European lothario is no stretch, but he's got the part down cold. At this stage in his career he
was on the threshold of a stardom that ruled out films that didn't revolve exclusively around him; perhaps he just
recognized a perfect part when he saw one. The only dated cinematic devices in the picture are the too-emphatic speed-ups
and musical outbursts used to underline Orient's panic, when he thinks some irate husband is going to catch up with him.
The World of Henry Orient won director George Roy Hill a lot of attention for his visual touches, with special
notice given to his direction of the two girls frolicking on the city streets. Owing something to Zero for Conduct and
The 400 Blows, there's a sequence of maybe twenty shots that uses slow and fast motion, and tilted cameras to
express the exhilaration and energy of being 13 and able to run for blocks while vaulting fireplugs and shouting out loud. Many
an essay on editing directs film students to study the sequence where the leaping girls rise
slowly in the frame, and across a careful series of cuts continue forever upward, seemingly defying gravity. Elsewhere, Hill's
blocking of scenes is masterful - in one parental dialogue exchange, the girls can be seen sneaking downstairs in
a mirror placed in the background of the shot. It doesn't seem at all forced or indulgent.
But the intimate scenes and the carefully written dialogues are where Hill's direction and the Johnsons' script really
The unforced acting of the girls can't have been easy for anyone, but it's all there, in unbroken master shots devoid of
lazy coverage angles. Merrie Spaeth had practically no career beyond this show, and Tippy Walker only a few more credits,
but here they are spot-on perfect, from the way they relate by mutual hatred of their teachers, to the credible
way they dress at slightly different developmental ages. 1
The rest of the cast is a smartly-judged ensemble. Angela Lansbury solidifies her villainess persona, as Val's spoiled
and selfish mother. She's treated rather fairly by the script, which sees her as a victim of her own weaknesses
and prejudices. At least she's given more human qualities than the harpy-wife she plays in the same year's Dear
Heart. Tom Bosley uses his very comforting voice to good effect as the father who realizes his girl still needs
After so many lighter movies where the 'cure' for divorce is for the couple to reunite,
The World of Henry Orient shows one set of parents breaking up, while the other separated long ago. Gil's mother is
played with sweet affection by Phyllis Thaxter, a favorite who started in the MGM factory (a particularly emotional
favorite is Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo). Twenty years later, her eyes still crinkle the same cute way.
Good work in smaller roles is provided by Bibi Osterwald as Thaxter's co-spinster friend,
and, surprisingly, famous pianist Peter Duchin. This is the actual Duchin depicted as a child in
The Eddy Duchin Story; interestingly, both that
picture and this one are great movies for admiring the location work in New York City. Musically, Elmer Bernstein's
score finds several pleasing moods, including one theme that's reminiscent of his Westerns.
The girls work up a maudlin fantasy near the end of the film about Merrie's long-departed father returning, as if in a
cheap novel. The pain and longing are in Merrie's face as she imagines daddy coming home, but there's also a resigned
look that tells us she's finally beyond getting too worked up over such thoughts. We can almost see her growing up
on-screen. The World of
Henry Orient has scenes about what it means to be a kid, that encompass what it takes entire books - Huckleberry
Finn, Dandelion Wine - to communicate.
MGM's DVD of The World of Henry Orient is a fine new 16:9 transfer from original elements that show some fading.
Thankfully, it's a lot less than many titles from this era, and you can barely tell on this very clean and clear DVD.
The disc has a pan scan transfer on one side, and the original Panavision screen shape on the other. Viewers who have only
seen this on flat network broadcasts will be pleased by its bigscreen proportions.
The soundtrack is a different story. It sounds like an overcompressed, distorted track that has been cleaned up as well
as possible. It's always intelligible, but slightly 'crunchy', one of those tracks that doesn't get louder
as you turn up the volume to hear it better. There's a Spanish dub included that's half again as loud; either MGM no
longer has adequate sound elements for this film, or something's not quite right with the encoding on the DVD. The flaw is
less noticeable on a small television's single speaker. It's the kind of thing that many viewers might not notice.
The only extra is a flat trailer that emphasizes the screwball antics of Sellers; the text 'fact from the vault' on the
package-back says that Nora Johnson patterned the Orient character on her own childhood crush for Oscar Levant, who
hopefully practiced his piano playing better than Henry.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The World of Henry Orient rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 7, 2002
1. Jim Long wrote to tell Savant of Spaeth and Walker's careers as adults. Their separate
entries in the IMDB
(Merrie Spaeth and
Tippy Walker) have very interesting biographical details.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson