Occasionally, movie making is a family affair. Think Kirk and Michael Douglas, the Coppolas, the Fondas, the Mankiewicz and Richardson-Redgrave clans, the Goldwyns. All Hollywood royalty. Then there are the Hustons — Walter, John, Anjelica, Tony and Danny. Three generations of Oscar winners. Just as the great actor Walter Huston made “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to kick-start son John’s directorial career, John made his last three movies for the benefit of his children: “Prizzi’s Honor” for daughter Anjelica, “The Dead” for elder son Tony, and “Mr. North” for younger son Danny.
I had the great good fortune to work with John on the scripts for “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Mr. North.” The latter, John’s last picture, will be shown at 7 p.m., Tuesday, June 9, in the Gill Patterson Community Room at the Library. It was released in 1988 by the Samuel Goldwyn Company.
The movie, based on Thornton Wilder’s last novel, is set in Newport, Rhode Island, in the Roaring Twenties. Theophilus North (Anthony Edwards), a newly graduated Yalie, bicycles into town in search of work and ultimately convinces the wealthy Bellevue Avenue crowd that he’s a man of many talents — tutoring the bratty offspring of the well-heeled; playing matchmaker for an Irish parlor maid; acting as a faith-healer to a troubled debutante and negotiating tough terms for reading the Bible to an elderly mansion-bound robber baron (Robert Mitchum), whose greedy daughter (Tammy Grimes) wants to hurry the old gent’s demise in order to gain her own inheritance.
Perhaps Mr. North’s most startling talent is his ability to generate electricity — and pass it along by shocking those he touches. The world he enters is rigidly caste-ridden, but he himself is comfortable with both the blue bloods and their servants. Indeed, he succeeds for a time in capturing the approval of both upstairs and down. One critic wrote of Mr. North that he “is notably compassionate and wonderfully likeable.”
The film, part fable and part comedy of manners, was directed by Danny Huston. Anjelica plays the part of the old gent’s granddaughter. John was slated to play the old shut-in, but was too ill at the time so inveigeled his long-time pal Mitchum to take on the role. Other Huston family and friends — Allegra Huston, Lauren Bacall, Harry Dean Stanton, Christopher Durang, Marietta Tree — also heeded the call, as did the cinematographer, Robin Vidgeon, and the editor, Roberto Silvi.
Even I was given a tiny role to play, as were my nephew, various cousins, and a brother.
Vincent Canby called “Mr. North,” “a most enjoyable high comedy, a deceptively summery movie that is full of the intimations of autumn.” Indeed, I was aware as John and I worked on the script that Wilder was in his late 70s when he wrote Theophilus North and that his concerns, John’s too, were those of a man nearing the end of a long, intensely lived life. Both remained fascinated by the world to the end, passions tempered perhaps but not their minds. Wilder died in 1975. John died a few weeks into the shooting schedule.
“Mr. North” is the final film of the 2015-2016 season of Movies at the Library. A Q&A will follow the screening.