Label: Twilight Time
Released: July 14, 2015
Genre: Comedy / Drama
Synopsis: Two girls engage in a vivid fantasy game, following a pianist as devoted acolytes, yet persistently interrupting his efforts to enjoy an affair with a married woman.
Special Features: Audio Commentary with film historians Jeff Bond and Julie Kirgo and producer Nick Redman / Isolated Stereo Score Track / Original Theatrical Trailer / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.
George Roy Hill directed a mere 14 feature films between 1962-1988, but as film historian Julie Kirgo points out in the Blu-ray’s lively and personable commentary track, he’s largely unknown to average many fans, partly because his work doesn’t bear a specific visual imprimatur or share overtly recurring themes.
And yet he directed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Slaughterhouse Five (1972), and The Sting (1973), three works from which one can, in fact, extract examples of his craftsmanship as a solid picture-maker. His movies feature strong but never showy performances, memorable characters, a balance of drama and varying levels of comedy that under someone else’s hand may not have meshed so naturally, and a director who knew how to make a film flow, especially when scenes might go into unconventional directions.
The World of Henry Orient is a very peculiar film that begins as a tale of friendship between middle class pre-teen Gil (Merrie Spaeth) and her privileged counterpart Val (Tippy Walker) on one windy day as the girls make initially separate journeys to one of New York City’s established private schools, yet by the time the end credits pop up, the pair have traversed into their first year as teens – the inseparable buddies are no longer scampering around the city engaged in fantasy romances and adventures, and like Gil, Val’s family unit has shifted to single parent.
Hill’s work benefited from bullet-proof screenplays by skilled writers who knew the value of understatement, of subtext, and when to wink a little at audiences and let them know when things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and Orient is grounded by Nunnally Johnson’s co-adaptation of the eponymous novel written in the late fifties and co-adapted by author / daughter Nora Johnson.
The elder Johnson bought the film rights and apparently waited, ever so patiently, until the proper elements coalesced into a deal that would make a good movie, and decades later the film still surprises because it never goes for the predictable. The girls’ friendship always feel genuine, and their fantasy games in Central Park are believable, being no different than two boys running around town as super-spies trailing a sultry Mata Hari figure.
The plot involves Val and Gil’s heavy infatuation with a ‘naturally gifted’ pianist named Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), and their repeatedly deliberate / accidental encounters that increase Orient’s paranoia in being cornered by annoying pre-teens whenever he’s in mid-affair with married ditz Stella (Paula Prentiss, from Where the Boys Are).
The girls’ friendship introduces us to their respective families: Gil’s divorced mother Avis (Phyllis Thaxter) shares the home with longtime friend / companion Boothy (Bibi Osterwald), whereas Val’s mother Isabel is domineering and dismissive, even when her often absent father Frank (Tom Bosley) has briefly returned from one of his far off European business trips.
By the time Christmas approaches, some extra infidelity and betrayal shatters Val’s fantasy world and causes her to go missing for what seems like days, and yet how those events are played out, especially the daughter-parent confrontations, aren’t according to the standard screenwriting template: where one expects a big blow-up, there’s discrete behaviour, subtle insinuations, revelations and visual reactions, and brief exchanges that decide the winner; and when Val goes missing, it’s a rather beautiful, lonely walk in a wintry Central Park that’s especially affecting because it’s a child going on an adult wander to contemplate where she fits in her unstable family unit, and whether believing in too much fantasy may have been an indulgence that was ultimately victimizing.
Hill’s film is also an ode to NYC, showing many local hangouts that have changed, or as many bloggers continue to lamented, entirely disappeared. The NYC of 1964 is very much a series of packed neighbourhoods with local colour featuring chunks of history that have been redeveloped or razed in place of corporate banalities. It’s also a world – perhaps over-enhanced by Hill to some degree – where kids can run around and play unsupervised because their parents trust them.
Hill’s montages are beautiful and refreshing, with the girls’ jumping over hydrants and trashcans transformed into a ballet of trampoline leaps and mid-air suspensions. The scene captures their joy, but it’s also an extraordinarily edited sequence by Stuart Gilmore (Underwater!, The Sound and the Fury, Journey to the Center of the Earth) which features slow-motion cinematography, a short burst of camera under-cranking, and a stretched non-anamorphic shot that give the lengthy montage all kinds of quirky moments before the editing and Elmer Bernstein’s beautiful score wind down.
Newcomers Spaeth and Walker give natural performances of their over-excited / gawky characters, while Lansbury plays another chilly, scheming, monster-mother – a lesser version of the brutal matron in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), but still the complete opposite of Thaxter’s supportive, easygoing mom. Hill seems to have drawn his cast from many character actors normally working in TV, including Bosley (Happy Days) who’s excellent as Val’s quiet but ultimately decisive and supportive father, Osterwald as wise-cracking Boothy, and Al Lewis (The Munsters) in a small role as a tavern owner.
Twilight Time’s trio of commentators include Kirgo, whose recollections of a similar childhood in NYC adds to the film’s verisimilitude; film music historian Jeff Bond, who provides details on composer Bernstein; and producer Nick Redman, whose self-branded ‘heretical’ view of Peter Sellers may bristle some of the comedian’s staunchest fans.
Redman’s critical stance on Sellers being wrong for the part and having made mostly weak films for the remainder of his career is a provocative take on an iconic figure often bonded to the term ‘genius.’ I don’t agree with his harshest points (The Party has no plot, but Sellers’ Indian accent and bumbling lunacy are amusing to certain connoisseurs), but perhaps his views are unique to those who experienced Sellers’ rise in radio shows, TV appearances, small and modest parts in Ealing comedies (The Smallest Show On Earth, I’m Alright Jack), and his sudden ascension to international stardom after The Pink Panther (1963), which itself is an acquired taste for fans of Blake Edwardian farce.
Sellers was more interesting when he took risks, and while Henry Orient may not be a deep character, weaker moments are augured by the girls’ energetic scenes; one can also argue Sellers was somewhat trapped in playing a pallid reflection of the girls’ fantasy lover who couldn’t be anything more than a fraud, or child prodigy poseur.
For international / North American audiences, their reference point to Sellers’ peak years likely lacks the Ealing era (plus the Goon Show radio & TV material being completely unknown), and those who relished Edwards’ farcical and often meandering films naturally preferred the comedian stick with Edwardian-branded screen bumbling.
When Sellers took a rare risk – notably Hoffman (1970) – the picture bombed, mandating a return to generic comedies and a working environment where he could be treated as a star of popular comedies instead of a creative risk-taker. Sellers was ill-suited for fame, and the legendary nervous man became a nightmare for directors. Edwards brought him fame, but the Pink Panther films arguably ruined Sellers’ career by being the only safe bet in what should’ve been a more dynamic career.
However one feels about Sellers’ casting – I think he’s perfectly fine – the trio of commentators present a lively discussion of a very unique film that’s weathered the changes in family and teen comedies, and stands on its own as a subtle and affecting coming-of-age tale. Kirgo states quite beautifully that within the film’s narrative we see that small window in which kids are about to lose the innocence of playful fantasy games and rapidly transition towards the petty, combative teen years.
Nora Johnson never wrote another screenplay (although weirdly, she has a small role in David Cronenberg’s Shivers!), whereas veteran scribe Nunnally Johnson would co-write a few more classic films, including The Dirty Dozen (1967), before apparently retiring. One of Fox’s most prolific writers, Johnson penned The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Roxie Hart (1942), My Cousin Rachel (1952), and Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962).
Newcomer Merrie Spaeth appeared in singular episodes of The Nurses (1964) and The Legend of Jesse James (1965) before leaving acting and becoming a media specialist, whereas model-turned actress Tippy Walker starred in a season of Peyton Place (1968-1969) and two more feature films – The Jesus Trip (1971) and Jennifer on My Mind (1971) – before leaving acting.
© 2015 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review