(1988, Rated PG) Anthony Edwards (Theophilus North), Robert Mitchum (James McHenry Bosworth), Harry Dean Stanton (Henry Simmons), Anjelica Huston (Persis Bosworth Tennyson), Mary Stuart Masterson (Elspeth Skeel), Virginia Madson (Sally (Sarah) Boffin), Tammy Grimes (Sarah Bailey Lewis), David Warner (Dr. Angus McPherson), Hunter Carson (Galloper Skeel), Lauren Bacall (Amelia Cranston), Cleveland Amory (Mr. Danforth). Music: David McHugh. Screenplay: Janet Roach, John Huston, and James Costigan (based on the novel Theophilus North by Thornton Wilder). Director: Danny Huston. 92 minutes.
Tags: Farce, Comedy, Period Piece, Slice-of-Life
Notable: Anthony Edwards gives up the Nerd franchise for a great starring lead; all-star cast happily lured in by Huston family involvement.
Newport, Rhode Island — 1926. To this quiet, exclusive resort town, a young Yale graduate arrives, hoping to earn his way as a tutor. His unusual ability to generate electrical shocks is taken by some school children to be magical. When rumors abound that he’s actually a faith healer in disguise, the otherwise sensible residents of Newport find themselves in a madhouse farce of “shocking” proportions.
This film is such a complete delight that it almost needs no comment… but hey, it’s me.
I first saw this delicious slice-of-life on HBO, a few years after its near-silent release only to select theaters in the summer of 1988. At the time, I’d heard of Anthony Edwards only from the Revenge of the Nerds franchise; I was, in truth, more interested in the cast of names that I knew from so many classic films. It was love at first viewing, proving to be a near-perfect act of filmmaking — plot, character, dialog, music, visuals, all combining into an exquisite experience for the appreciative audience. A quick look at each.
The plot is farcical, in the sense of absurdity, and also in the sense that each player in the story has some hidden or mistaken point that needs to be revealed for their benefit. In this way, the characters are the plot; there are those whose schemes must be taken down, and those who have been in some way victimized and who must be made whole again. There are also characters who have secrets that are, in truth, innocuous and sometimes even beneficial. They demonstrate the central point of the society found in this part of the world: Everything is appearance. Through it all, Theophilus North is a simple, direct, unpretentious sort who is whole and is exactly what he seems, which makes him the unintended instrument of the town’s amusing undoing. At the happy ending (no real spoilers here), he epitomizes the Zen ideal of attaining everything by seeking nothing.
The dialog is sharp, clever, and often filled with warmth for those who deserve it and rebuke for those who deserve that. As one character observes, “It’s like that here; dress things up a bit, and that crowd don’t mind the cost… Nobody could sell ‘snails’, but call it ‘escargot’, and you’ve got the hottest treat in town.” In another scene, Mr. North is treated to a china cup of weak peppermint tea… but as she who serves notes, “Be careful; it’s not weak,” and another says, “And it’s not peppermint.” The look on North’s face shows that it’s clearly something powerfully alcoholic, and he says, “It certainly isn’t tea!”
The music and visual aspects of the film blend perfectly, whether during quiet moments of reflection and caring, or during a delightful chase scene as Mr. North is dogged by a hundred people, all seeking his “miraculous touch” to cure them. It is perhaps this aspect that is the best of the film. As I noted in a review written in 1992 for a Mensa newsletter, “There are no murders, no drugs, no dismemberments, no sex scenes or nudity, not even violence. (Although a bouncer tries to keep North away from Mr. Bosworth’s estate, where he is expected, the bouncer is neatly dispatched by defensive jiu jitsu moves.) All of the things that are so often used to sell movies in the U.S. are missing… and you won’t notice their absence until the end, at which point what you’ll notice is that you had a rollicking good time in Newport, Rhode Island.”
I recommend this film particularly if you are in a poor mood, because that mood won’t last. Following Theophilus’ simple and worthy struggle, aided and abetted by the “real people” of the town as they take down the pompous schemers, is nothing short of a sweet triumph. This “feel good” movie is made of genuine emotions and solid successes that remind you that you really can’t keep a good person down for long. Enjoy it often.