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While very much a prestige project of its era, Warner Brothers' lavish adaptation of the Hervey Allen novel Anthony Adverse (1936) becomes more and more obscure with each passing year. Some of this may be due to problems of scale in distilling the 1,200+ page book into two hours and twenty minutes of screen time, problems that were apparent even to critics of its day. Still, the impressive production values and the efforts of a uniformly fine cast make any kind of offhanded dismissal unwarranted.
Allen's substantial tome was an immediate and worldwide hit upon its publication in 1933, and Warners, who were best known as social drama specialists, were eager to demonstrate that they could mount a lush costumer as well as the next studio and secured the rights. The scenario opens in 1775 France, where the Spanish aristocrat Don Luis (Claude Rains) is visiting his chateau with his young new bride Maria (Anita Louise) in tow. While the don is unable to consummate the union, the handsome young Irish officer Denis Moore (Louis Hayward) is not quite so challenged. Discovering the infidelity, Don Luis kills Moore and spirits Maria to the Italian Alps to hide the scandal. There, Maria dies in childbirth, and the nobleman callously abandons her son at a convent.
Deposited as he was on St. Anthony's Day under adverse circumstances, Father Xavier (Henry O'Neill) has a name for his new charge. When the boy (Billy Mauch) reaches ten years old, the priest recommends Anthony for apprenticeship with the Scottish merchant John Bonnyfeather (Edmund Gwenn), not realizing that the kindly trader is, in fact, the orphan's maternal grandfather. As he grows to manhood, Anthony (now played by Fredric March) nurtures an affection for Angela Guiseppe (Olivia de Havilland), the daughter of Bonnyfeather's cook. Their planned elopement is foiled by circumstance, and an embittered Anthony spends years of globetrotting in Bonnyfeather's service, sinking into a life of debauchery.
Redeemed by a sympathetic priest, Anthony returns to Europe, to find that Angela has become a celebrated opera star. He further discovers that Bonnyfeather has died, leaving Anthony his business concerns. Unfortunately, it seems that Don Luis has conspired with Bonnyfeather's conniving housekeeper, Faith Paleologus (Gale Sondergaard) to rob Anthony of his legacy.
The sequence where young Anthony first sojourns to Bonnyfeather's--and gets his few ragged possessions ripped off his back by a band of taunting youths--caused director Mervyn LeRoy some conflict with the industry's morality monitors of the day, as recounted in the filmmaker's 1974 autobiography Take One. "We had routinely submitted our script to [the Breen Office], and it came back with forty pages crossed out," he wrote. "Their notations said that we couldn't film those forty pages, because the hero [was] naked in one scene, when he was a little boy...I was furious. I had never done a picture that contained anything offensive in it--I never would--and I resented their lack of trust."
After three days of fruitless face-to-face meetings with office head Joseph Breen, LeRoy pleaded to film the scene as written, telling Breen that his people could trim anything they wanted if they didn't like it. "He didn't object to a single frame," the director wrote. "Later, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church saw it, and they were among the first to give Anthony Adverse their blessing. The little boy was still nude, but he was a block away."
Anthony Adverse was certainly well regarded by the AMPAS, accruing six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Art Direction. Sondergaard became the first-ever recipient of the newly-instituted Best Supporting Actress Award (then a plaque, rather than a statuette), and the prizes were also awarded to Gaetano Gaudio's cinematography, Ralph Dawson's editing and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score. It was then industry practice to present the latter award to the winning studio's music department head; the following day, WB music head Leo Forbstein offered the Oscar® to Korngold, who declined. The statue remained in Jack Warner's office for years until the composer gave in to the studio's repeated entreaties.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy; Michael Curtiz (uncredited)
Screenplay: Sheridan Gibney; Hervey Allen (novel); Milton Krims (dialogue and screenplay, uncredited)
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Film Editing: Ralph Dawson
Cast: Fredric March (Anthony Adverse), Olivia de Havilland (Angela Guiseppe), Donald Woods (Vincent Nolte), Anita Louise (Maria), Edmund Gwenn (John Bonnyfeather), Claude Rains (Marquis Don Luis), Louis Hayward (Denis Moore), Gale Sondergaard (Faith Paleologus), Steffi Duna (Neleta), Akim Tamiroff (Carlo Cibo), Ralph Morgan (Signore De Bruille), Fritz Leiber (Ouvrard), Luis Alberni (Tony Guiseppe).
BW-141m. Closed Captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg