Marian Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth), known as Gil to her friends, not that she has many friends, gets off the school bus with her mind set on memorising important facts for her upcoming history lesson. She is distracted by a tugboat on the river and suddenly surrounded by sheets of paper carried by the wind. The paper belongs to Valarie Boyd (Tippy Walker), known as Val to her friends, not that she has many, and she desperately tries to gather her notes as they swirl around in the breeze. The two girls get to talking, and finding out they have a few things in common Val suggests they meet at the weekend for "adventuring". When they do meet, they happen to stumble across a couple canoodling in the bushes of the park, one of whom is acclaimed concert pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), a figure who will be looming large in the girls' lives, whether he wants to or not...
The World of Henry Orient is the sort of film they simply don't make any more, made at the time when these things were going out of fashion and as such made a strong impression on those who saw it when it came out, especially those who were teenage girls. Nowadays if a film was made about a passionate adolescent friendship they'd have to stick in a murder to show what a terrible state it is to be too wrapped up in a friend's company - see Heavenly Creatures which bears some echoes of this film. However, here the story is a little more innocent, based on Nora Johnson's book, inspired by her childhood crush on acerbic pianist Oscar Levant, and adapted by herself and her father Nunally Johnson.
1964 was a big year for Sellers, following his international stardom from The Pink Panther in 1963 and the same year as two classic performances (well, four classic perfomances) in Dr. Strangelove and A Shot in the Dark. Here he's sidelined by the girls who become obsessed with him in a way that girls would be obsessed with the Beatles by the time the film was released, and they make him their pet project, collecting material for a "bible" of his newspaper and magazine clippings. Sellers' chief contribution to this pretentious, womanising fellow is a comically wavering accent, which blithely crosses the Atlantic from New York to Eastern Europe at the drop of a hat. Paula Prentiss is also very amusing as his love interest, a married woman who is more concerned with what her husband would think than building on the shaky relationship.
Meanwhile, the girls use Orient to block out their unhappiness at the lack of a father figure in their lives. Val's parents are away on business for many months, leaving her essentially in the care of a nanny, and she misses them more than she cares to admit: in one telling detail it's revealed she regularly visits a psychiatrist and she does seem a bit unstable. In Gil's case, her parents are divorced, and she wishes they were back together again, something that will never happen. Luckily there's Orient, who they are most impressed with when they see him give a winningly awful concert of avant garde music complete with a steam whistle and Orient's lack of rehearsal eliciting some ill-judged improvisation - Elmer Bernstein's score is very fine indeed. Orient grows more and more paranoid about being followed by the girls, and their vivid imaginations do nothing but cause trouble for him, yet the charming humour is tempered by a bittersweet tone. A curious, well acted mix of comedy and broken home drama, seen at this remove the film now has a sad, distant quality the filmmakers never intended.
American director, more at home with character than story, with a wide range of subjects under his belt. He started in television and theatre, and his first films were stage adaptations, but with The World of Henry Orient he appeared to find his voice in film. Other nineteen-sixties work included the epic Hawaii and musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, but he enjoyed a monster hit with light hearted western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.