Wednesday, April 5, 2017

George Roy Hill | The World of Henry Orient

adult farce in a world a youthful romance
by Douglas Messerli

Nora Johnson and Nunnally Johnson (screenplay), George Roy Hill (director) The World of Henry Orient / 1964
George Roy Hill grew up in the wealthy world of a newspaper family in Minneapolis, who owned the Minneapolis Tribune. He attended the best schools, including The Blake Institute and Yale University, studying music under Paul Hindemith, while developing a deep interest in airplanes and their history. Nothing necessarily wrong with any of this, of course, but, I fear, the diffident comedic aspects of his films (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, among many others) reveals his sense of social superiority and dissociation from true cultural involvement.

Yes, his films are often attentive to the outsiders in our culture, but the characters, themselves, seem to be totally immune the true battles within American political/cultural divides, representing stand-ins for those who simply cannot truly fit into the American system, but blithefully move through their fairly empty lives nonetheless. Even his most political of films (Slaughterhouse Five and The World According to Garp) represent ironic stances against American failure. 
      His early—and I must admit, quite charming film—The World of Henry Orient, reveals all his directorial abilities and failures. Here the major figures are two rather special and highly intelligent young girls, from rather wealthy families living in comfortable Manhattan surroundings, one of them, obviously, Marian (“Gill”) (Merrie Spaeth) living a seemingly  normal life—although one does have the right to question just what is the relationship between her loving mother, Phyllis Thaxter (as the long divorced Mrs. Avis Gilbert) and her live-in friend, Erica “Boothy” Booth (Bibi Osterwald). I think in 1964 that the fact that the witty Booth lived with Gilbert might have meant very little; but today, it reads like something close to a lesbian relationship. Why else even introduce this strange alliance, both of these woman having now lived long lives together and experiencing many mutual events? If nothing else it is a oddball friendship in the cast of Auntie Mame and Vera Charles.

      Valerie Campbell Boyd’s (Tippy Walter) family life, on the other hand, is far more contentious, as her father and mother—although not yet divorced—live lives basically apart from the love-starved daughter—the husband, Frank (Tom Bosley) working as a major international industrialist, and her mother, Isabel (Angela Lansbury) living out a life of selfish sexual and other hedonistic desires (in short, the kind of character Lansbury has played throughout her life). 
       These young outsiders quickly bond against their smug snobbish fellow classmates, and before long are chasing one another along Manhattan streets, leaping over garbage cans, fire hydrants, and even tricycling children in a stock expression of Hill’s notion of happiness (he used a similar motif in the blissful bicycling scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid accompanied to Burt Bacharach’s quitschy “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”).

       To their surprise they keep running into a second-rate pianist and would-be seducer, Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), a sort of more handsome and well-groomed Oscar Levant (hence the strange last name, based, writes the younger Johnson, on the famed pianist and raconteur). After encountering him in a concert—at which he performs a highly satirized version of a Hindemith composition—Valerie falls desperately in love, and the two—in shameless racist abandonment—don Chinese coolie hats, adopt Japanese-sounding names and begin to stalk the paranoid romancer while he desperately attempts to get Stella Dunnworthy (Paula Prentiss) into his bed.

       With little effort, the two young girls entirely bollix up his plans, and convince him that they are spies hired by Mrs. Dunnworthy’s jealous husband—although presumably the forever absent husband knows nothing of his wife’s secret tête-à-têtes. No doubt, the writers and director found Sellers’ bumbling sexual advances as hilariously funny as Sellers’ equally bumbling Belgian detective; but it is the young girls who steal nearly every scene, while the vainglorious Sellars and over-cautious Connecticut housewife appear as a couple out a second-rate farce.
      Now bonded by an oath of blood, the two girls almost brutally track him down, Valerie, in particular, acting a bit like the naughty French school-girl, Raymond Queneau’s havoc- wrecking Zazie—without the latter’s complete abandonment all good behavior; after all, Valerie is dressed in an expensive ankle-knee fur coat throughout.
      When, a bit like Raymond Shaw’s dreadfully dominating mother (a role also played by Lansbury), Isabel—her husband, Frank (the always likeable Tom Bosely) traipsing a bit behind—suddenly descend upon her daughter, all hell breaks loose. Discovering her daughter’s teenage scrapbook dedicated to Henry Orient, Isabel grows into a rage, separating the two girls, and determining to destroy what little career Orient has left, as well as any dream-life her young daughter has been able to establish. 
      The meeting of these two conniving beings is inevitable, and they fall immediately into one other’s arms; to give her credit, at least the mean-spirited Isabel never plays coy.
       When the girls slip out, after Valerie has gone hiding in Gill’s bed (another strangely sexual, but this time perfectly innocent, situation), they determine to actually say goodbye to Val’s former heart-throb, discovering a far more devastating truth as they watch Isabel exit from her late-night visit to Henry’s bed. 
       Father and daughter now know the truth without even having to express it to each other. Isabel is out of the picture, quite literally, as Henry slinks off to South America and Frank divorces her, determining to set up a real home for his daughter—in whatever major city (Rome, Paris, New York, London) she might desire.

      By the time she returns to Manhattan and the girls reconnoiter, they reveal their new interests in make-up and boys of their own age. The film almost suggests, in the shared caring and interests of the two girls single parents, that Frank and Mrs. Gilbert might be a kind of perfect pairing—but then what’s to happen to “Boothy?” Doesn’t matter really, Hill seems to suggest, since his film—just as so many of his later ones—is all a lark!
      Why, however, did I still have a feeling of a sour breath after watching what billed itself as a thing of charm? Maybe Hill’s daredevil heroes—Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Waldo Pepper,  Henry Gondorff,  Johnny Hooker, Garp and others—all destined to ignoble endings do not entirely present positive views of the human race. One has the feeling that, with this director, none of them really mattered enough to become real human beings. The two wild sweethearts of The World of Henry Orient, we are assured, will simply grow up to marry well and, maybe, sneak off into their own private afternoon affairs. The dirty fact is that Hill was having his own affair with the 16 year-old Walter during much of the film’s shooting and after—despite his own marriage and four children.
      Ultimately, all I can say is that I still enjoyed the afternoon watching the movie. All I lacked was a little popcorn.       

Los Angeles, April 5, 2017

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