Laemmle Theatres and the Anniversary Classics Series present one of the most delightful comedies of the 1960s, THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, produced by a top-flight group of filmmakers and actors. We will be joined by one of the film’s stars, Paula Prentiss, one of the most gifted comediennes to emerge during that era.
HENRY ORIENT is a rare example of a female-centric movie that takes on added relevance at a time when critics are clamoring for more movies that reflect women’s experiences. The film had its origins in a novel written by Nora Johnson and based partly on her own experiences at a posh girls’ school in Manhattan.
The main characters are two of the girls at the school, played by charming newcomers Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth in their film debuts. The two heroines develop a crush on a second-rate pianist, the flamboyant Lothario Henry Orient, played to the hilt by the brilliant Peter Sellers. Johnson admitted that the plot was based in part on her own teenage infatuation with real-life pianist and wit Oscar Levant.
Sellers broke through to full-fledged stardom in 1964. The acclaimed anti-war satire, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ opened early in the year, with Sellers cast in three different roles. In the spring of that year he introduced the character of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the comedy classic, ‘The Pink Panther,’ and that film was so successful that he brought back the character in ‘A Shot in the Dark later that year.’
THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT premiered as the Easter attraction at Radio City Music Hall, and it was the official American entry at the Cannes Film Festival in May. In addition to Sellers and Prentiss, the adult cast included Angela Lansbury as Walker’s imperious mother, Tom Bosley (a Broadway veteran who would go on to win new audiences in popular TV series like ‘Happy Days’ and Lansbury’s ‘Murder, She Wrote’), Phyllis Thaxter, and Bibi Osterwald.
The behind-the-scenes talent was equally impressive. Nora Johnson wrote the screenplay with her father, acclaimed writer-director Nunnally Johnson, whose credits include the Oscar-winning ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Roxie Hart,’ ‘The Three Faces of Eve,’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen.’ HENRY ORIENT was the first film produced by Jerome Hellman, who won an Academy Award five years later for producing ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ The picture was the third directed by George Roy Hill, who went on to make ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ‘The Sting’ (Oscar winner for Best Picture and Best Director), ‘A Little Romance,’ and ‘The World According to Garp.’
Cinematographers Boris Kaufman (an Oscar winner for ‘On the Waterfront’) and Arthur J. Ornitz (‘A Thousand Clowns,’ ‘Serpico’) brought lyricism to their depiction of Manhattan, and the great composer Elmer Bernstein (‘The Magnificent Seven,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ‘The Great Escape,’ ‘True Grit,’ ‘Airplane!,’ and ‘Far from Heaven’) contributed one of his most memorable scores.
All of this talent impressed the critics. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther hailed “one of the most joyous and comforting movies about teenagers that we’ve had in a long time…a juicily tart and sassy go-round.” Time magazine called it “bright, breezy, and brimming with fun.”
The picture was named one of the year’s ten best by the National Board of Review. It was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical of the Year, and it also received a nomination from the Writers Guild of America as Best Written American Comedy.
Over the years the movie has turned into a cult favorite. Writing in The New Yorker in 2012, almost 50 years after the film’s release, John Colapinto called HENRY ORIENT “one of the most enduringly funny and moving American movies ever made.” Leonard Maltin described it as a “marvelous comedy of two teenage girls who idolize eccentric pianist Sellers and follow him around N.Y.C.”
Prentiss plays one of the women pursued by Sellers, whose trysts are constantly interrupted by the two girls. Prentiss made her screen debut in the enormously successful spring break comedy, ‘Where the Boys Are,’ in 1960. She went on to star with Rock Hudson in Howard Hawks’ ‘Man’s Favorite Sport,’ and she appeared with Sellers again in ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ She also co-starred in such films as ‘In Harm’s Way,’ Mike Nichols’ ‘Catch 22,’ ‘The Parallax View,’ and the chilling feminist thriller ‘The Stepford Wives.’ In the late ’60s she starred with her husband, Richard Benjamin, in the acclaimed TV sitcom ‘He & She.’
Our 55th anniversary screening of THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT with co-star Paula Prentiss in-person, screens Tuesday, January 28, at 7pm at the Royal in West L.A. Click here for tickets.