Rex Harrison as a randy, egotistical, avant-garde concert pianist, Hayley Mills as one of two imaginative private school student gal pals who romantically idolize him, and in the director’s chair Garson Kanin, the playwright/moviemaker who could capably wrap his arms around a colorful comic story that celebrated an idealized New York and a certain kind of privileged milieu. These ingredients were what Hollywood veteran Nunnally Johnson had in mind for the screenplay he and his daughter Nora Johnson adapted from her charming 1958 novel inspired by her rocky upbringing as a Big Apple child of divorce, a friendship with another tale-spinning adolescent and an infatuation with the musician/raconteur Oscar Levant. The ultimately satisfactory movie version of The World of Henry Orient (1964) would turn out differently when it opened 54 years ago today at Radio City Music Hall; fourteen months earlier, however, here’s how the elder Johnson saw things when he enclosed the script in a pitch letter to Kanin: “Dear Gar: I send this with a prayer that you will not only like it but will direct it. I am so fond of this thing, but I’m not permitted to. As you will see, it’s got to be done in the US, much of it in New York, and the Guvmunt is against work in the US for nonresidents….My business is script-mongering, because writing must be done sitting down in a warm room, which is what I am doing now….Unfortunately I haven’t one single piece of talent as a producer. [This startling statement from a man of more than 40 producer/associate producer credits!] About doing business or getting actors, I mean. I’m like the guy who couldn’t make a dame in a whorehouse. My general approach to a star is, ‘You wouldn’t like this, would you?’ And of course he wouldn’t. But how can a writer praise his own stuff? If I were Sam Spiegel, I’d be sitting on Harrison’s doorstep until he said yes. I’d push that little girl Hayley [Mills] in a corner and twist her arm, to say nothing of the arms of her father and mother, until she gave in. But when Mills wrote me that Hayley now wants to play older parts, hug-the-boy parts, I could hardly wait to get him on the phone and tell him that I didn’t blame the kid for one instant and that she would be insane even to consider my script. I can’t tell you what a handicap this kind of contr-will-power is to putting a production together. Oh, well! If the script interests you I will be on the next boat (I’m dying for an excuse like this) to see if there is anything further I can do to fix up anything that you don’t like or are not sure of….”
Turns out that Johnson’s wishes all came victim to bad timing: Harrison had the film of My Fair Lady (1964) finally offered to him; Mills would be kept in England and Europe working on The Chalk Garden (1964, with her dad) and The Moon-Spinners (1964); Patty Duke, fresh off her The Miracle Worker Oscar® win and a candidate to play Mills’s buddy, was about to start her three-season TV series; and Kanin would be caught up, tumultuously, in the pre-Broadway gestation of a musical that would confer stardom on another extraordinary young woman of talent, Funny Girl (1964). Thankfully, what Music Hall patrons saw on opening day (in fact, a week shy of Barbra Streisand’s blazing Funny Girl opening night a couple of blocks west at the Winter Garden Theatre, proof that stage productions can take as long as movies do to get right), was splendidly handled by its eventual director George Roy Hill, with white-hot Peter Sellers in his first American film as the loony lothario Orient, newcomers Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker as BFFs Marian and Val, and a sparkling supporting ensemble of would-be romantic conquests and/or family members consisting of Paula Prentiss, Angela Lansbury, Tom Bosley, Phyllis Thaxter and Bibi Osterwald. Indeed, as The New York Times’ critic Bosley Crowther deemed: “It’s one of the most joyous and comforting movies about teenagers that we’ve had in a long time. And it introduces two delightful youngsters, Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth, who are the nicest proofs since Hayley Mills that little girls are made of sugar and spice. Don’t let that make you think it’s icky. It is anything but. It is a juicily tart and sassy go-round with believably robust youngsters. It also has Peter Sellers playing a cheerfully rakish role – that of a predaceous concert pianist. So don’t worry, it won’t stick in your teeth.”
It does stick in the minds and hearts of film fans, although Johnson would later have certain caveats because it was not a great box-office success at the time. According to Dorris Johnson and Ellen Leventhal, who selected and edited the contents of 1981’s The Letters of Nunnally Johnson, “Johnson felt the title was partly to blame, but found that the casting of Peter Sellers [with whom Johnson was initially pleased] was a more serious mistake: ‘…there was no controlling Sellers….He’s always funny, but I don’t think he was funny in the right places.’” Fans of The World of Henry Orient, now available on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray with an Isolated Music Track of its marvelous Elmer Bernstein score and a thoroughgoing Audio Commentary by historians Jeff Bond, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, have debated their favorite aspects of the movie for decades. When the prolific Nora Johnson died last October, the 1958 book and 1964 film were rightly front-loaded in her obituaries as signature achievements. Spaeth, who now runs her own Dallas-based communications consulting firm, paid tribute to the woman she played a version of on her company blog here – https://spaethcom.com/article/the-world-of-nora-johnson – and Nora shares the accompanying picture with her paternal co-screenwriter.