I’m an absolute sucker for a good stalker comedy. Whether it be Amelie, Punch Drunk Love or Hana and Alice, there is just something so wonderfully off about them that it makes me happy. Just knowing that the stalkers are harmless and generally good-natured takes entirely all of the creepiness out of what, in reality, is a pretty despicable act. And The World of Henry Orient may actually be the best of the genre.
It stars Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth as Val and Gil, a pair of mischievous high school loners who meet, hit it off and along the way accidentally ruin Henry Orient’s (Peter Sellers) liaison with a married woman while playacting in Central Park. And then again. But when they ruin a second liaison between Henry and the woman, something happens to Val: she falls madly in love with him, buys all of his records and, with Gil, creates the Henry Orient Bible, a handmade diary full of press clippings and photographs and a fake love letter that Val keeps meaning to reply to.
The object of Val’s love, Henry Orient, is a middling-to-bad pianist and ladies man, the top billing who has to escape the concert hall through a posse of refund seekers, so bad are his avant garde stylings. He doesn’t practice enough, says Val, who, before meeting Gil, was all alone and practiced too much.
We never see films like this anymore, films that prize sweetness and mischievousness over cynicism and edginess. Cynicism and edginess absolutely have their great points, but have been so done over and over again that a film like Henry Orient is a breath of fresh air, a cup of cold water in the face and a joy to watch. If you don’t have a grin stuck on your face for almost the entire film, then I don’t know what is wrong with you.
So what is it about The World of Henry Orient? Is it sunshine and roses, a tale of rich girl Eloise-types running around Manhattan in a bulletproof bubble or privilege?
Hmm, yes and no. There is an air of privilege, and neither girl is about to starve to death. But their stories told in bullet point wouldn’t be terribly different from a youth film that would be made today. Both girls come from broken or breaking homes, chase an older man, screw with authority, and eventually, dabble in the early stages of sex. Yet it remains light and fun.
Val’s father (Tom Bosley) spends all his time traveling for work, and her mother (Angela Lansbury) spends all her time going behind his back with piano players. She is left alone in an apartment with a maid/babysitter and essentially left to own devices. Her shrink sees more of her than her parents.
Gil, too, has family issues. Her parents divorced when she was a baby, and she now lives on the Upper West Side with her mother (Phyllis Thaxter) and her mother’s “friend”, Boothy (Bibi Osterwald). Even though she is happy living with her mother and Boothy, and loves them both, she longs for a normal family life, where father comes home at 6:30 and greets her and her mother.
Things get somewhat serious, though, when Val’s mother snoops through her room and finds the Henry Orient Bible. She demands to know what it is all about, but her mind is already decided what it is about and she has no interest in listening to the answer Val and Gil try to give her.
Towards the end of the film, there is a line by Val that really perfectly sums the film up. It is “awfully happy in a sad sorta way”. The act of coming of age is a sorta sad one, after all. Gone are the days of braces and pig tails and hair ribbons (or pet frogs and racing bikes, if you will), replaced with makeup and boys and the desperate race to grow up too fast. You only miss the younger days later though, and then you feel terribly nostalgic for them, because they didn’t last nearly as long as they should have, and the prize for winning the race to grow up isn’t as nice and shiny as it looked from the starting line. And so The World of Henry Orient stands as a great document of fun, of mischievousness, and a time when film was allowed to reflect the underlying spirit of the world instead of the ugly, bloody image of the world.