Friday, November 11, 2022

An Oscar (Levant) for “The World of Henry Orient”

While watching some of the great MGM musicals of the 1950s, like An American in Paris and The Band Wagon, I’ve been mystified by the appearance of a sour-looking troglodyte named Oscar Levant in sidekick roles. Levant was not much of a singer or a dancer, but the plots of his movies usually found a way to seat him at a piano, for he was (among many other things) a concert pianist of some note. In An American in Paris, which pays tribute to the musical compositions of George Gershwin, there’s a dream sequence in which he appears—elegantly clad—in a concert hall, not only pounding out Gershwin’s Concerto in F on the keyboard but also playing all the other instruments in the orchestra, while functioning as its conductor as well. 

 Levant was also a famous wit, one who’d aired his stock of arcane knowledge on a popular radio show, Information Please. It was he who first quipped, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” But one target of his wit was always his own hypochondria, which was frequently written into his movie roles  I never saw this as particularly funny, though moviegoers of his era seemed to enjoy it. They also were amused by his wisecrack that “there's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line." 

 While marveling over Levant’s onetime popularity, I heard that he was the inspiration for the neurotic, womanizing pianist at the center of Nora Johnson’s novel, The World of Henry Orient, as well as its 1964 film adaptation. Having just seen that film, I’m not entirely convinced. But it makes sense that the name Levant (which in French suggests the east, the place of the rising sun) could by adapted by Johnson into “Orient.” The film version gets playful with Henry’s exotic surname, with his young-girl fans adopting Chinese coolie hats and performing vaguely Japanese kowtows in his honor.

 The World of Henry Orient involves two basic stories that ultimately come together. The first involves two lonely young teenage girls, both enrolled in a ritzy New York prep school, who join forces when they realize that their vivid imaginations and their willingness to pull pranks on strangers make them natural allies. The second concerns a talented but egotistical concert pianist who blithely skips rehearsals because he’d rather be rumpling the sheets with a safely married admirer. When the more musical of the two young girls hears Henry Orient tickle the ivories at the local concert hall, she’s in love. From that point onward, Val and Marian pursue Henry around Manhattan, adoringly spying on his every move, while he grows increasingly paranoid. 

 With Peter Sellers (in his first Hollywood film) as the pianist, Paula Prentiss as his main squeeze, and a host of filmdom’s best character actors in featured roles, this film is guaranteed to be spritely fun. It’s directed by George Roy Hill at a lively pace, several years before he captured moviegoers’ hearts with Butch Cassidy and The Sting. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was a scene-stealing Angela Lansbury, whose match-up with Sellers is a classic. She’s Val’s egotistical mother, who’d rather tour the world than attend to her daughter’s growing-up years. Accidentally discovering Val’s serious crush on Henry Orient, she marches off to do her motherly duty by confronting him. Then—whoops!—these two narcissists discover they’re made for one another. Which leads to a reshuffling of priorities in which Val’s easy-going father (Tom Bosley) finally takes a leading role. So hilarity and poignancy both contribute to an ending that’s satisfying while still fun. 




No comments:

Post a Comment