Despite getting her name above the title in the opening credits of George Roy Hill’s 1964 film The World of Henry Orient, Angela Lansbury doesn’t appear onscreen until almost an hour later — but once she does, her character makes her presence felt.
Up until that point, the friendship between Valerie “Val” Boyd (Tippy Walker) and Marian “Gil” Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth) seems unshakable, all-consuming, almost to the exclusion of the outside world — or the outside world as it really exists, at any rate. The two young adolescents, both new students at a prestigious New York City girls’ school, meet one morning when a gust of wind sends Val’s papers flying and Gil, who happens to be standing nearby, helps her collect them. As they start to talk afterwards, complaining about their teachers and comparing orthodontia, they quickly discover common ground. They have something else in common too: loneliness.
Besides the fact that neither girl has any other close friends, they both have family issues. Gil’s parents divorced when she was a baby, and although she says she doesn’t give it much thought, she admits that she does miss her father — who lives in Florida with his second wife and children — around dinnertime. Still, she’s well-adjusted on the whole, and her home, where she resides with her mother (Phyllis Thaxter) and another divorcee nicknamed Boothy (Bibi Osterwald), is stable and supportive. Val, meanwhile, lives with a married couple that the school found for her, because her father (Tom Bosley) works in “international trade or something,” and he and her mother (Angela Lansbury) are constantly traveling. Asked by Gil if she misses them much, she replies, “I used to, but I guess I’m like you now.” She isn’t as untroubled as this might suggest, however: She’s already been expelled from two schools for being “unmanageable,” and she leaves the current one early every day in order to see a psychiatrist — a practice the school tolerates because of her impressive IQ and her equally impressive wealth. The way she hugs Mrs. Gilbert and Boothy after dining with them and asks them to invite her over again suggests just how desperately she needs affection.
Naturally enough, the girls are soon inseparable. Their adventures together often involve a strong element of fantasy, whether they’re pretending to be pursued by bandits in Central Park, speculating that Gil’s father could return to declare his love for her mother, or imagining that Val has a terminal illness. (The ebullient Val usually seems to be the driving force behind these games, probably because she needs fantasy more than Gil does.) One night, while attending a concert, they hit upon a grand obsession: avant-garde pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers). They’ve already had a couple of accidental run-ins with him, disrupting his liaisons with a married woman (Paula Prentiss) on both occasions, and much to his horror, they begin following him around and generally tormenting him — albeit without malice. Val regards him as her true love, and she and Gil go so far as to swear a blood oath:
Val: I do solemnly swear that, um… What?
Gil: That whereas love is the most important thing in the whole world, especially true love, hereby be it resolved that Marian Gilbert and Valerie Boyd do solemnly swear that we will lead a secret life, forever and eternally dedicated to the one Henry Orient, the truly beloved of Miss Boyd, on pain of human sacrifice.
Val: I do.
Gil: And from this minute on we will devote our whole lives, both day and night — except during homework — to the study of the aforesaid Henry Orient.
Val: His life, both public and private.
Gil: Where he lives and what he thinks about.
Val: Who he sees, and what life means to him when he’s not practicing his art.
And then Val’s parents arrive in New York for the holidays.
Symbolically, Mrs. Boyd’s first act in the movie is literally pushing her delighted daughter away when Val embraces her. “Oh darling, please! You don’t want to break my neck, do you?” She may not be a bad mother on the order of Lansbury’s character in The Manchurian Candidate, but she’s not exactly warm and loving either, which makes Val’s excitement at seeing her all the sadder. Sadder still is the rather matter-of-fact manner in which Val talks to Gil about her parents, explaining how they’ll buy her expensive presents to make up for not wanting her around, and how they’ll stay until after New Year’s “if they don’t get fed up with me first” — and yet, in spite of this awareness, she’s still thrilled that they’ve come. She’s so determined to make things work that she even confronts a young man named Joe Daniels (Peter Duchin) whom she suspects may be her mother’s lover, lest her father get hurt.
Inevitably, her happiness — such as it is — proves short-lived. A crisis begins when her mother goes through her belongings and discovers her Henry Orient scrapbook, which includes made-up love letters supposedly written to her by the musician. “All we were doing was pretending,” Val insists, and Gil adds, “It was just make-believe.” Their words fall on deaf ears. Mrs. Boyd’s concern that her fourteen-year-old daughter might be involved with a grown man is commendable, certainly, but her total refusal to hear her out isn’t, and it prompts Val to run away on Christmas Day. What was once innocent and fun has been mistaken for something sordid, criminal; even her friendship with Gil is under threat because Mrs. Boyd sees her as a bad influence. Before the day is through, their naive, childish, secret dream world will be lost forever, thanks in no small part to Val’s mother. The lessons they learn will be painful, mainly for Val, but they’ll also bring the girls a step closer to adulthood, and all the good and bad that go with it.
The World of Henry Orient is scheduled to air on TCM on Saturday, August 19, at 12:00 p.m. EDT, as part of Angela Lansbury’s Summer Under the Stars day.
This post is part of the 2017 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by Journeys in Classic Film. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.