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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Anthony Adverse (Warner Archive Collection)
Anthony Adverse (Warner Archive Collection)
Warner Archive // Unrated // March 3, 2015
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted March 28, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Big and busy...but bland. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Anthony Adverse, the epic 1936 historical romance from Warners, based on the international bestseller from Hervey Allen, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and featuring a huge cast, including Fredric March, Olivia de Havilland (gorgeous), Donald Woods, Anita Louise, Edmund Gwenn, Claude Rains, Gale Sondergaard (winning the first-ever Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this, her movie debut), Akim Tamiroff (hilarious), Pedro de Cordoba, Louis Hayward, Ralph Morgan, Henry O'Neill, Billy Mauch, Joan Woodbury, and Marilyn Knowlden. Warners spared no expense in terms of sets and costuming for this long, sweeping Napoleonic meller; however, Fredric March is too cerebral and refined for the swashbuckling bastard Anthony Adverse, while the superficially entertaining storyline--aided enormously by composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold's brilliant, Oscar-winning score--frequently bogs down in exposition at the expense of action (thank god, though, for Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard, who understand how overripe trash like this should be played). A few extras, including a trailer and an original featurette, are included in the variable fullscreen black and white transfer.

France, 1772. Snotty, infirmed Spanish grandee Don Luis (Claude Rains) can only make snide remarks, not love, to his new bride, Maria Bonnyfeather (Anita Louise), the daughter of Scottish trader John Bonnyfeather (Edmund Gwenn). But that's okay: Maria still has the hots for young, handsome, fully functioning Denis Moore (Louis Hayward), so while Luis is taking the waters, Maria is taking Denis...before her sin is rewarded with child (it's that kind of movie...). Luis finds out, and kills Denis in a sword fight, before spiriting Maria away to the Alps to hide her shame. She dies during childbirth, and the vengeful, half-cracked Luis abandons the baby boy at an all-girls convent. Raised by kindly Father Xavier (Henry O'Neill), the little nameless bastard (Billy Mauch) reaches 10 years, and it's time for adoption--by none other than John Bonnyfeather, who seems to see something familiar in the boy's features. Once he figures out the boy is his grandson, he gives him a new name--"Anthony Adverse"--and treats him as his ward. Anthony grows up to be a middle-aged 39-year-old miscast actor an impetuous upstart who falls madly in love with childhood friend, Angela Giuseppe (Olivia de Havilland), the daughter of Bonnyfeather's cook. Tiny terror Napoleon Bonaparte, however, almost puts the kibosh on the young couple's love, before they're married in haste. However, fate separates them, with Anthony first sent to Cuba to rescue Bonnyfeather's frozen funds, before going to Africa, to participate in the slave trade in order to replenish Bonnyfeather's stolen money. Sick at heart and soul because of his evil trade, Anthony is spiritually reborn, thanks to the efforts of Brother Francois (Pedro de Cordoba), but will Anthony's return to Europe translate into happiness when he finds his long-lost wife?

From what I could gather online, Anthony Adverse was the Brothers Warner's answer to M-G-M's and Fox's domination of the grand historical costume drama. Warners, known more for their hard-hitting, socially relevant--and penny-pinching--house style, scored quite a publicity coup when they secured, for $40K reportedly (the equivalent today of almost $700,000), the movie rights to author Hervey Allen's massive picaresque novel of the same name (it weighed in at over 1,200 pages, and was an international best-seller in 1933). Lots of names were considered for the all-important lead role, including Leslie Howard (too affected to be a bastard upstart), Robert Donat (too unprepossessing), and somehow, George Brent (far too silky and wry and sardonic), before studio freelancer Fredric March was eventually chosen as Anthony--a seemingly strange choice seen from today's perspective of March's career, but one that made sense back then, considering his previous costume drama successes: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Affairs of Cellini, Les Miserables, and Anna Karenina. Warner Bros.' own stable of stars were picked over, with the likes of Bette Davis for Sondergaard's role, Edward G. Robinson for Rains' part, Errol Flynn for Donald Woods' character, and no less than Humphrey Bogart for Napoleon (tell me I'm crazy that he wouldn't have been perfect), either penciled in or tested for Anthony Adverse's massive cast (over 70 speaking parts, so the WB publicists screamed).

According to a few sources, several directors were attached at various points of pre-production, as well, before William Dieterle was signed...only for Mervyn LeRoy to eventually sit in the director's chair...along with some uncredited assistance by Michael Curtiz (frankly, they should have either stuck with Dieterle or Curtiz on his own). The massive production took almost three months to shoot and cost Warners over a million bucks (when their average production budgets didn't go north of a few hundred thousand). It received generally good reviews when it was released in the summer of 1936 (and scored four Academy Awards, including Sondergaard and composer Korngold), and did solid--but not exactly socko--business at the box office (it was, if you can trust the often shaky data from that era, the 18th most popular movie of 1936, which sounds fine...until you look at that budget). Where Anthony Adverse lies today on the classic movie pop culture radar, I can only guess--and that guess would be that it's relatively anonymous in terms of viewer recognition or critical analysis, compared to still-relevant, recognizable titles from that year, like Chaplin's Modern Times, San Francisco, My Man Godfrey, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Follow the Fleet.

And it's all Fredric March's fault (well...maybe not all of it). I haven't had an extra two years to sit down and read Hervey Allen's 1,200+ pages tome, Anthony Adverse, but from what I've gathered, it was a fairly well-respected literary outing during its day: epic in scope, but intimate in psychological detail. That is not what you'll find in Warners' long-winded, small-minded movie adaptation. Sheridan Gibney (The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Locket) is credited onscreen with the script, although Milton Krims (who contested Gibney's solo screen credit) and Edward Chodorov both contributed material on the sly. Deceptively, Anthony Adverse's first act, where Anthony's conception, birth, and adoption are established, is its most successful. Director LeRoy, moving with assured (if passionless) alacrity, sets the viewer up for a pulpy-but-highly polished meller, with the overwhelming sets and elaborate costuming contrasting nicely against the story's rutting subtext. LeRoy has cinematographer Tony Gaudio (also an Oscar-winner here) light a kneeling, praying, diaphanously-gowned Anita Louise like the sexiest Madonna/whore combo you ever saw (as she begs God to make her forget Louis Hayward's whatever), perfectly encapsulating the movie's set-up: Anthony is the product of love, yes--but illicit, sinful love, because Louise cheats on her limp husband (LeRoy's visualization of Louise's and Louis Hayward's conception-initiating tryst isn't nearly as imaginative: he pans upwards into the tree branches when they clinch, coming back down to the post-coitus couple lazing against a tree). Rains, deliciously grotesque as the Spanish grandee (his ignominious entry to their honeymoon suite, carried by his servants, is hilarious), and once cured, prancing about in his feminine pumps, goes completely haywire once he realizes his honor has been sullied. Viciously bending Louise's arm to get Hayward's name, months later he's cackling like a mad fiend when his wife gives birth to a bastard son. LeRoy stages a short-but-sweet fencing duel, featuring a neat visual--Hayward seeing the approaching Rains' reflection in his wine glass--before Louise blows the whole deal by screaming out her lover's name (his concentration broken, he looks over at her and promptly gets skewered by Rains, the dope). The primal, universal drama of an innocent babe, unfairly maligned by an accident of birth, and thus subject to an uncertain future, is quite nicely established at this point, culminating in young Billy Mauch arriving at Gwenn's home literally without a stitch of clothing, ready to begin his transformation from nameless boy to adventurous young "Anthony Adverse." This is the kind of unapologetically melodramatic storytelling that needs no intellectual or aesthetic qualifications to justify its entertaining sweep.

But then, sadly, the movie decides it needs to have a message to counter all this naughty fun (the original sin of all deceptively decadent Hollywood movies of that time), and that message is, "morals are the foundation of a man's soul," which is all fine and good for a sermon or a greeting card...but not so much for a potboiler. And sure enough, once young Anthony learns this downer from Father Xavier, the little bastard grows up to be dreary Fredric March and the whole movie falls apart. Suddenly, Anthony Adverse spends way too much time telling us about all the supposedly fun stuff Anthony is getting up to, rather than showing it to us. It's a very strange sensation, but the rest of the movie's scenes seem to exist either right before or right after something major or interesting has happened to Anthony. We get the feeling all the fun stuff is occurring off-camera. A good example is when Anthony becomes a black slaver. First, he's told by Akim Tamiroff (who's gone after just a few scenes, more's the pity) that to get Gwenn's money back, he'll have to slave, and poof! we're in Africa and Anthony is already a white bwana devil that has the natives shaking in their sandals. Can't we see just a little bit of how that happened? Wouldn't that make his justifiable sickness of the soul and eventual transformation more meaningful? The movie is chock-full of these vignettes that we're told are key to Anthony's development, but they're so flatly presented, and without an overreaching, compelling context, that they begin to resemble random, abbreviated cartoon panels: visually interesting, but thematically fuzzy (earlier, when March worries that Gwenn won't approve of marriage to de Havilland, we're primed for the confrontation--it should be a crucial scene, right? Instead, he tells Gwenn; we get a shot of Gwenn frowning...and that's it). We're in a constant state of flux with Anthony's busy comings and goings, but without any lasting effect or indeed, satisfaction. And at two hours and twenty minutes, that chain-jerking gets old fast.

All of which (or most of) could have been forgiven in Anthony Adverse, had it been headlined by a charismatic star who believably swashed his buckle. And that ain't March. Now don't misunderstand me: March was an actor of incredible delicacy in his ability to believably convey onscreen a wide range of conflicting emotions. And we see that a few times here in Anthony Adverse (his self-revulsion at how far he's fallen from acceptable human behavior because of his slaving, is palpable--about the only "real" moment in the movie). However, March seems strangely enervated throughout Anthony Adverse (or perhaps more correctly: contemptuous of the material), appearing either slightly aloof or blandly correct and formal in the manner of contrived historical fiction heroes. At 39 he's far too old to play Anthony, not in appearance so much as in spirit; March's Anthony Adverse attacks his life's adventures with all the gusto of a bored middle-aged executive going through the motions at a sales rep meeting. March can do Anthony sinking down as he matures and begins to learn about life...but he can't convey the youthful, wild highs that necessarily bring on those levelers. When the incredibly lush de Havilland (still going strong out there at 98!) melts in front of him in those fetching Empire costumes, his response is closer to mild inconvenience rather than a more understandable raging, lustful frustration. Perhaps it's not fair to blame this all on March, since his director, Mervyn LeRoy, was often guilty of the same correct-but-tepid approach in his direction. Even that opening section of Anthony Adverse, while entertaining, is distinctly "tasteful" in its mostly hands-off approach, and that tone congeals as the movie grinds on. By the time the anti-climatic ending (March getting pissed at the opera?), with March and Little Rascals Scotty Beckett sailing off to America, even someone who hasn't read the book knows there has to be about 600 more pages of story left untold...which is fine, because the bigger problem at the end of Anthony Adverse is: we don't care about the rest of that journey.

The Video:
The quality of the original print material is all over the place here, with contrast going from blown out to silky within the same scene, at times, along with image detail and grain. Overall okay, but just.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is also variable, with hiss audible. No subtitles or closed-captions available.

The Extras:
An original trailer is included, along with an original 6 minutes and change featurette on the making of Anthony Adverse. Nice.

Final Thoughts:
Anthony Apathetic. No expense was spared on costumes and sets, while the supporting cast is first rate, particularly a lovely young Olivia de Havilland, just raring to go (...if only she had been given something meaningful to do). However, the leaden combination of passionless director Mervyn LeRoy and miscast, bored Fredric March, both further hampered by a busy but hollowed-out script, turns Anthony Adverse into a strangely detached epic melodrama. A curiosity piece now for fans of these big movies, Anthony Adverse is only a rental.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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