by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Anthony Adverse, based on a 1,224-page blockbuster novel by one Hervey Allen (who, like Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, seems to have been a 20th century writer deliberately writing in the picaresque 19th century style of people like Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray) which was published in 1933 and which, Charles once told me, was such a huge success that its sales single-handedly kept many bookstores from going under during the Depression. The screen rights were acquired by Warner Bros. for $40,000 and their production of an epic-length (141-minute) movie based on a blockbuster novel was the final step in Warners’ winning acceptance as a full-fledged major studio and not just the little company that made those cool gangster movies and musicals. Anthony Adverse has one of the most convoluted plot lines of all time: it begins in Leghorn, Italy, where Spanish nobleman Don Luis (Claude Rains) has gone to bathe in the local spas in order to cure his gout. He’s married to a much younger woman, an Englishwoman named Maria Bonnyfeather (Anita Louise), but she’s sufficiently restive that she’s having an affair with Denis Moore (Louis Hayward) and planning to run away with him — only Don Luis catches them, challenges Denis to a duel and kills him. Maria dies later giving birth to Denis’s child, and Don Luis abandons the baby on the steps of the local convent on St. Anthony’s feast day.
The sisters name the child Anthony and raise him until he’s 10, when local priest Father Xavier (Henry O’Neill) takes him to his grandfather, expatriate British merchant John Bonnyfeather (Edmund Gwenn), who notices the resemblance and adopts the boy, giving him the last name “Adverse” in recognition of the difficult life he’s had so far. Anthony grows up to be played by Fredric March — Warners may have had the resources to produce this story at the level it needed, including elaborate sets and 98 actors (78 of whom have speaking roles), but they still had to go off-lot and hire a freelancer for the title role (though quite frankly Errol Flynn, a Warners contractee who had just rocketed to stardom as a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Robert Donat in Captain Blood, might have actually been a better choice: for all March’s considerable versatility and talent as an actor, he didn’t have the sort of dash the character demanded and Flynn could have brought to it in spades) — and to be a responsible and successful businessman in Bonnyfeather’s operation.
The problem is he was born in 1773, and so he’s sailing into adulthood right at one of the most tumultuous times in European history, with the fall of the monarchy in France and the rise of Napoleon following the Reign of Terror plunging all Europe into war. Love rears its head in the plot at about this point, with Anthony falling in love with Angela Guisseppi (Olivia de Havilland), daughter of Bonnyfeather’s cool and an aspiring opera singer (we find out she has a voice when she and Anthony are taking a carriage ride through the countryside and she suddenly starts singing to the accompaniment of the unseen Warner Bros. studio orchestra — though her voice was actually dubbed by Diana Gaylen). The two are married secretly, but just after they consummate the marriage (through most of the film we’re actually left under the impression that they didn’t do that, but towards the end Angela reappears with a boy she tells Anthony is his son) Anthony is called to Havana to collect a major debt without which the Bonnyfeather business will fold. He leaves a note for Angela outside the convent but it’s blown away in the wind, so he ends up leaving for Havana — and from there he heads for Africa when he finds out that Bonnyfeather’s debtor was a slave trader and the only way he’s going to be able to raise the money to save his grandfather’s business is to enter the slave trade himself.
Anthony ends up spending a miserable three years in Africa, getting rich and having a sort-of affair with native (or at least semi-native) woman Neleta (Steffi Duna) but losing his conscience — monk Brother François (Pedro de Cordoba) is there, ministering to the natives and telling Anthony he should quit the slave trade and leave before he goes over to the dark side completely. But Anthony sticks it out until he’s been there for three years and has made the money to pay off Bonnyfeather’s debt completely, and just as that happens Brother François dies and forgives Anthony his sins literally with his dying breath, enabling Our Hero to go back to Leghorn with a clear conscience. Only once he gets there he finds that John Bonnyfeather is dead and he will inherit the Bonnyfeather fortune if he can get to Paris to claim it. Otherwise the fortune will go to Bonnyfeather’s housekeeper, Faith Paleologus (Gale Sondergaard, who won the first-ever Academy Award for best supporting actress for this role), who in the meantime has hooked up with Don Luis (ya remember Don Luis?) and blackmailed him into marrying her. The two would-be claimants race by coach from Italy to Paris, and Anthony escapes an ambush Don Luis and Faith cooked up to try to kill him. When he gets there, Anthony meets up with an old friend from his days in Leghorn, banker Vincent Nolte (Donald Woods), who needs a large sum of money being held in Mexico for Napoleon, without which both the French government’s finances and his own will collapse. Anthony agrees to put up his own fortune as collateral and to go to the New World in search of the money, but first he wants to find Angela — who proves surprisingly easy to find: she’s still singing (in a quite elaborate opera sequence from a work by Baron Alberto Franchetti, the Puccini contemporary who composed operas as an avocation and allowed the Ricordi music-publishing company to do him out of the rights to Tosca because Ricordi’s executives knew a Puccini Tosca would make them a hell of a lot more money than a Franchetti Tosca would have) but she’s now known as Mademoiselle Georges and is the mistress of Napoleon (Rollo Lloyd).
They meet at her home in the Paris suburb of Passy and she says she can’t see him anymore but he can take her son on his trip to the New World — and for some reason the script makes a big to-do about his never having been there before even though he’s already been to Cuba — and Anthony gets onto an American ship (we see it flying the Stars and Stripes) for a new life with his son (Billy Mauch) in the New World. (Frankly, where I thought this was going was that Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo would be the deus ex machina that would free Angela from her ties to him and allow her and Anthony to get back together, even though he’d also be rendered penniless because the collapse of Napoleon’s government would cost him all the money he put up to cover Nolte’s debt.) It’s a surprisingly bittersweet ending for a movie made in 1936, which in addition to being based on a blockbuster novel was a blockbuster itself, making Warners tons of money then and again when they reissued it in 1948 (and tried to take Gale Sondergaard’s name off the credits because her husband was blacklisted Hollywood 10 writer/director Herbert J. Biberman). It certainly established Warners’ ability to produce at the very highest level — the sets are ample and extensive (apparently the entire African slave village was reproduced life-size over 12 acres of the Warners backlot, though earlier Warners’ productions had had equally impressive sets — like the reproduction of Versailles made for the 1934 film Madame Du Barry), though Warners was still cost-conscious enough that as “Havana” they reused the model of Port-Royal they had built for Captain Blood.
The American Film Institute Catalog lists some of the alternative casting suggestions that were made — including Kitty Carlisle (who at least wouldn’t have needed a voice double!) as Angela, J. Carrol Naish and Humphrey Bogart (!) as Napoleon, Bette Davis as Faith, Freddie Bartholomew as the young Anthony and Edward G. Robinson and Basil Rathbone as Don Luis (either of them would have been fine, but Claude Rains was ideal). Anthony Adverse was originally supposed to have been directed by William Dieterle, who had done such a stylish job with Madame Du Barry, but instead the assignment went to Mervyn LeRoy, mainly because he was married to Harry Warner’s daughter at the time, and the script was credited to Sheridan Gibney although various other scribes, including Milton Krims (who requested credit but lost) and Edward Chodorov, also contributed. Anthony Adverse was a quite well made and stylish film; though nothing in LeRoy’s previous résumé had indicated he could handle an historical spectacle, he acquitted himself quite well — and the film also benefits from a wall-to-wall musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that won him the first of his two Academy Awards (The Adventures of Robin Hood was the other), a gorgeously overripe composition that for once virtually fulfills Jack Warner’s wish that the music start when it says “Warner Bros. Presents” and not stop until it says “The End.” The score is quite good enough one would want to hear it recorded apart from the film — though Charles lampooned it, saying that Korngold had sent Claude Rains off to his healing bath with the sheer amount of sound and fury anyone else would have reserved for the start of a world war.
The problem is the story, which doesn’t seem to have much of a through-line and just flits from incident to incident and dramatic issue to dramatic issue; though the script puts Anthony through a wide variety of dramatic situations, it doesn’t seem like he really grows or changes through them. Not having read the novel (Charles recalled once owning a copy but he never read it, either) I’m not sure whether the fault is Hervey Allen’s or Sheridan Gibney’s et al., but contemporary reviewer Frank S. Nugent sniffed at the final result and said it hadn’t lived up to the promise of the book: he called the film “a bulky, rambling and indecisive photoplay which has not merely taken liberties with the letter of the original but with its spirit . . . For all its sprawling length, [the novel] was cohesive and well rounded. Most of its picaresque quality has been lost in the screen version; its philosophy is vague, its characterization blurred and its story so loosely knit and episodic that its telling seems interminable.”
Comparisons are almost inevitable to Gone With the Wind, another 1930’s blockbuster set against cataclysmic historical events and based on a contemporary novel written (or at least plotted) in 19th century style, but Gone With the Wind holds up far better, partly because of two incandescent performances in the leads, partly because the Civil War is a much bigger and more intimately integrated part of the story of Gone With the Wind than the Napoleonic Wars are of Anthony Adverse, but mostly because even though Gone With the Wind is over an hour longer, the script is better constructed and we don’t get the feeling we sometimes do in Anthony Adverse of wondering why one particular scene is happening after its predecessor instead of the welter of other possibilities the writers had available. It was a well-regarded movie in its day, with four Academy Awards (for Sondergaard, Korngold, cinematographer Tony Gaudio — whose work is black-and-white at its finest, rich in contrasts and utterly luminous, though there are still portions of this film where the sheer beauty and weight of the spectacle leave us wishing for color — and editor Ralph Dawson) and it holds up decently if not spectacularly today.