Monday, December 26, 2016

Anthony Adverse (1936)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy                                   Writers: Sheridan Gibney & Milton Krims
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold              Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Fredric March, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard

Anthony Adverse was only Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s second feature for Warner Brothers--the third if you count his adaptation of Mendelsohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His first was Captain Blood, and one would think the film misses the presence of Errol Flynn to go along with Olivia de Havilland. But by the time the second half of the picture begins, it’s clear the title character needs to be someone with a lot of innocence, which Flynn could never be convincing in trying to portray. Flynn was actually set to have a small, supporting role in this film, but because of his success in Captain Blood he was given a starring role in The Charge of the Light Brigade. This film is a costume drama set in France prior to the Revolution. And since part of the plot deals with opera, Warner’s tapped their resident expert from Vienna and had Korngold write the score, which unfairly won an Academy Award for Leo Forbstein as the head of the music department, not Korngold. The story is based on the 1933 novel of the same name by Hervey Allen, an adventure-romance that quickly became a bestseller. It takes the title character from Italy to Cuba to Africa--where he becomes a slave trader obsessed with making enough money to pay off his family’s debts and return home to the woman he loves--then to France and America.

The film begins with a carriage ride as Claude Rains and Anita Louise go to Rains’ estate after their wedding in Versailles. Rains has gout, and won’t be able to consummate the marriage that night, with seems fine with Louise, who appears to the be the victim of an arranged marriage to the rich Rains. As she prays that night she invokes the name of Louis Hayward, who had followed the carriage on horseback to the estate. While Rains is gone away to heal, Louise and Hayward carry on a torrid love affair, so committed are they that on the night of Rains’ return they play to run away together. But Rains finds out and takes Louise away the next morning, eventually dueling with Haywood and killing him--thanks to Louise’s ill-timed scream. Their journey continues to the French Alps where Louise has Hayward’s child and mercifully dies giving birth. Rains continues on to Italy and leaves the child at a convent, but the mother superior wants to get rid of him because he is a male. The head of the church, Henry O’Neill, allows him to stay as long as he remains inside the walls of the convent. By the time he’s a young boy, however, Billy Mauch begins to chafe at the restrictions, and the mother superior finally sends him to be apprenticed to Edmund Gwenn--who turns out to be Louise’s father, and the young boy’s grandfather. Gwenn soon realizes, but decides never to tell the boy.

Years later Fredric March is the adult Anthony, and the cook’s daughter is Olivia de Havilland. They fall in love, but when March tells Gwenn he wants to marry her, he doesn’t think it’s a match worthy of his grandson. Fate, however, intervenes. The two become separated when her father wins the lottery, but she makes him promise to find her later. No matter what good fortune they have, it seems circumstances always contrive to keep them apart. In the process March becomes someone he never wanted to be, but he also loses his innocence and that’s when things really get interesting, especially when Rains shows up again. In fact, the last act of the film is quite good, with circumstances for Adverse living up to his name. While the first half of the film has a lot of drive in the plot, the second act seems to lose its way as March tramps all over the globe and loses his own sense of purpose. The only problem with the final act is the ending, which lacks a real conclusion. Hervey Allen’s original novel was a huge, sprawling book of over twelve-hundred pages. In fact, when it was re-printed later in the 1970s it came out in three volumes, the third being Anthony Adverse in America. But the screenplay to Warners’ film ends before that section of the book begins, which accounts for the rather abrupt ending.

The performances in the film, while not up to the standards of the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, are very good. The scope of the story is impressive, and March does a tremendous job, especially as he goes from the idealistic orphan to a world-weary cynic, and somehow manages to get his idealism back again. Olivia de Havilland, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to do and is sort of wasted, not appearing again until the end of the film. Her character is also a bit muddled and that probably accounts for the fact that there is no clear motivation for her near the end. The film was a huge undertaking for Warner Brothers with an enormous cast, including a number of character actors like Frank Morgan, Akim Tamiroff, Ottola Nesmith, J. Carrol Naish, Frank Reicher, Leonard Mudie and Gale Sondergaard who won an Oscar for playing the scheming friend of Rains’ in the picture. Claude Rains does his evil best in the picture, as only he can do. Billy Mauch plays the young Anthony, and is yet another connection with Korngold, as he also played the title characters in The Prince and the Pauper which the composer also scored. Korngold’s score remains one of the high points of the film, and he even used part of the score as the basis of his violin concerto. While not a great, Anthony Adverse is an interesting if meandering film, and worth seeking out just for the experience.

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