Anthony Adverse (1936) with Fredric March

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“Quick to betray! Quick to dishonor!” — Claude Rains to Louis Hayward

Anthony Adverse was, at the time, the most expensive, lavish—and longest—film Warner Brothers had attempted. Seemingly, it had everything going for it. No expense was spared in the authentic-looking sets that stood in for three continents. It had beautiful photography by Tony Gaudio, sumptuous art direction by Anton Grot and a magnificent score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. (The least well known of the three, Grot is better remembered for his work in Elizabeth and Essex and The Sea Hawk.)

The two main stars were the redoubtable Fredric March, having already earned his first Oscar for his dual title performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), and the lovely Olivia de Havilland, the studio’s new discovery, splendidly gowned by Milo Anderson. The quirky Gale Sondergaard drew much attention in her screen début. And there was the always dependable Claude Rains, now in an overtly villainous role.

Yes, the movie seemed a sure thing.

Don’t forget, too, the impressive Warner Brothers supporting players—always an assurance of interest—now four times as many as usual, a gargantuan task of filming logistics. Familiar to the movie-goers of the ’30s, the names included Anita Louise, Edmund Gwenn, Donald Woods, Louis Hayward, Akim Tamiroff, Ralph Morgan, J. Carrol Naish and Leonard Mudie. Also Pedro de Cordoba, Henry O’Neill, Fritz Leiber, Joseph Crehan and Joan Woodbury. And that’s only a small partial list.

As a presumed clincher for a successful, nay, a masterful movie, there was that solid source, heftily solid indeed, American author Hervey Allen’s long, rambling historical novel set in the time of Napoleon. Considerably longer than Gone with the Wind, which itself was of tome status, it was also a best-seller of its time, in 1933. Anthony Adverse, however, was considerably less readable than Margaret Mitchell’s little effort, with much arcane detail.

And with Oscar night the wins seemed to confirm the ambition of the folks at Warners: Sondergaard for supporting actress, Gaudio for cinematography, Ralph Dawson for film editing and Korngold for his score. Anthony Adverse was presumed good enough to be a best picture nominee—this in a year when there were ten nominations—but the competition in 1936 was fairly stiff. Dodsworth, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and The Great Ziegfeld were the most deserving of the award. The latter won.

So what happened? Why didn’t Anthony Adverse turn out to be a great film? Even a good film?

Maybe Jupiter was in the wrong house, or Taurus had wandered out to graze. But no mystery, really. Fact was, though the two Oscars won in more or less visual categories were justified choices—the movie is gorgeous looking—and Korngold’s role was magnificent, everything else seemed to go wrong. Mervyn LeRoy, perhaps never known to dazzle as a director, was sluggish beyond belief, and, as a like-minded accompaniment, Sheridan Gibney’s confusing, at times implausible script did not help matters. To no surprise, neither man was Oscar-nominated in his respective field.

Billy Mauch, better remembered, along with his twin brother, Bobby, in The Prince and the Pauper (1937), was quite adequate playing Anthony as a ten-year-old, mainly—obviously—because he was playing his age. It was when Anthony grew into young manhood that March, at thirty-nine, proved unconvincing. That March was a good actor had been proven with the Robert Louis Stevenson film and would be proven again the next year with an Oscar nomination in the original A Star Is Born. In the meantime, in the movie at hand, besides the age anomaly, he was surprisingly stiff and out of his element, costume dramas not usually his strong suit.

Olivia de Havilland, whose loveliness cannot be denied and who was exquisite in those Empire dresses, proved more a decoration than an integral part of the film, strangely detached and even mannered. And speaking of mannered, there was Sondergaard’s teeth-baring, grimacing performance, a baffling Oscar win. Maybe her presumed exoticism appealed to Academy voters, though she was born no further from Hollywood than Minnesota. In retrospect, her choice seems a misstep, though the competition for supporting actress—a new category in 1936—was not especially strong. A more valid choice among the nominees, though eccentric in its own way, would have been Alice Brady as the wacky wife in My Man Godfrey.

The most interesting star, maybe not as flippant as it might seem for a film in need of at least one convincing “character,” was the coach that conveys Marquis Don Luis (Rains) across Europe. Not a stagecoach of the Western overland variety but a regal post-chaise—four horses, driver and two footmen.

In the film’s beginning, Don Luis is accompanied by his wife, Maria (Louise), who is in obvious dread of him. Following behind the coach on horseback is her lover Dennis (Hayward) who meets her numerous times in the forest. As the result of an error in a candles-in-the-window signal, Dennis shows up when the husband is about and is killed in a duel by him. “Monsieur is quick,” Don Luis shouts in the midst of the melee. “Quick to betray, quick to dishonor.” (Remember the Errol Flynn duels, complete with interjected warnings and fencing advice?)

The coach wanders aimlessly about Europe, finally arriving at an Alpine chalet where Maria dies giving birth to Dennis’ son. Journeying to Italy, the coach stops at Leghorn. Don Luis tells Maria’s father, merchant John Bonnyfeather (Gwenn), that his daughter has died—and the child as well. He leaves the baby at a nearby convent where the nuns christen him Anthony. Ten years later Anthony, just coincidentally, is apprenticed at Bonnyfeather’s business, and is given the last name of Adverse. The grandfather later discovers his relationship to the boy but says nothing.

Grown up now, Anthony falls in love with Angela (de Havilland) and they are married. Before Anthony departs to attend to Bonnyfeather business in Havana, Angela leaves a note for him—she is off to pursue an opera career—but the note is blow away. Anthony assumes she has left him. From Cuba he goes to Africa where he becomes involved in the slave trade and is tempted by a native seductress (Steffi Duna), but is redeemed by Brother François (de Cordoba).

Returning to Italy, he discovers that Bonnyfeather has died and Faith (Sondergaard) has married Don Luis. Unless Anthony goes to Paris to claim his inheritance, Faith will acquire Bonnyfeather’s fortune. In Paris, he finds Angela has bore him a son (Scotty Beckett)—and that she is the mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte (Rollo Lloyd).

The disheartened Anthony gives his fortune to a friend (Woods), and departs with his son for America and possibly a better life. (The last shot, the two in the prow of the ship, recalls Greta Garbo’s final scene in Queen Christina.)

Since the best thing about the film is its score, mention should be made of Korngold’s masterwork, the composer’s first score after Captain Blood. As already indicated in the pirate film, Korngold continued to expand the thematic and orchestral complexity from what had traditionally been a simple, small-orchestra score to a bona fide serious composition, worthy of standing on its own apart from the screen. No score at the time—or probably at any time thereafter—was so complicated, with so many themes, leitmotifs and extended set pieces. As would occur later in The Sea Hawk and Kings Row, in Anthony Adverse the music from the main title onward is continuous for the longest stretch, in this case for twenty minutes or so, and continues essentially unbroken throughout the 136-minute film.

As any number of respectable composers have done throughout history, Korngold was not above borrowing from himself, reusing his movie themes in so-called “serious” works. As he wrote in an article in 1940, “Never have I differentiated between my music for the films and that for the operas and concert pieces. Just as I do for the operatic stage, I try to invent for the motion picture dramatically melodious music with symphonic development and variation of the themes.”

So the solemn music in Anthony Adverse for Brother François would reappear later in the slow movement of his Symphonic Serenade, Op. 39. Likewise, a theme from Anthony Adverse would do service in the second movement of his Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, itself based on three other tunes from his film scores.

An interesting aside in Anthony Adverse is Korngold’s borrowing from another composer. A few years before that film, he had adapted Mendelssohn’s music in scoring Warner Brothers’ lavish production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In early parts of Anthony Adverse, there appears several times a soft, gentle cadence that clearly comes from the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s “Scotch” Symphony. It is a rare instance for him of possible plagiarism, though cross-fertilization, whether intentional or subliminal, has always existed among the great composers. In the case of Anthony Adverse it was probably intentional.

Like the visuals of the coach, perhaps the most original music is written for this “character”—for the galloping vehicle in the opening and especially later when it is traversing some wintry landscapes. The Alpine depictions contain, harmonically, the weirdest and most adventuresome music in the score. Korngold was known for unsettling harmonies, to represent the grotesque and the horrific. In one of the film’s few action moments, Anthony’s coachman spots a suspicious vehicle hiding behind a boulder, possibly waiting in ambush to push his coach into a ravine when it passes. Instead, thanks to a maneuver by Anthony, it is Luis’ coach—the one in hiding—that meets that fate.

Fitting into the plot, in keeping with Angela as an opera singer, two opera excerpts occur during the film. One is Monteverdi’s 1607 L’Orfeo. It is highly unlikely that it was ever performed during the time setting of the film, the early 1800s—in Italy or anywhere—as the regarded “first opera” in music history lay forgotten for three hundred years, and according to the general consensus, was not revived until 1904 through the efforts of composer Vincent d’Indy.

As for the second “opera,” something called The Duchess of Ferrara, it was the unperformed hack work of a Warner Brothers nonentity, an Aldo Franchetti, and is ridiculously anachronistic—too modern for the Napoleonic period. The two opera sequences had been filmed before Korngold began work on the film; he wanted them reshot and perhaps to write his own music but was overruled by the head office—too expensive.

The curse of Anthony Adverse, if it can be called that, even cropped up at the Academy Awards ceremony. From 1934, when an Oscar was first given for music, until 1937, the statuette was handed to the head of the music department, so when Leo Forbstein, who was essentially an executive, stepped forward to accept the award, Korngold was somewhat perplexed. When, however, the composer won another Oscar in 1938 for The Adventures or Robin Hood, the slight had been corrected and he received the trophy directly from none other than Jerome Kern.

The best and possibly only modern recording of a sizeable chunk of the Anthony Adverse soundtrack is the Varèse Sarabande VSD-5285, recorded in 1990, with John Scott conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. This contains, adequately recorded, about seventy-two minutes of the music, arranged in chronological order, a little more than half of the score. There is, for those who can tolerate the 1936 sound, the original soundtrack (Tsunami TSU 0143) conducted by the composer himself, although it is only a few minutes longer than the Varèse.

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5 thoughts to “Anthony Adverse (1936) with Fredric March”

  1. This is really a fine summary of all that went right, and wrong, with Anthony Adverse. That on this site there are articles that appear less informed is truly unfortunate when the capability is so high. Keep up the good work. And, thank you.

  2. I much enjoyed your summary and just wanted to add one small detail. It was because of Korngold’s refusal to accept the Oscar statuette from Leo Forbstein and his complaint about what he regarded as a huge insult, that the Academy changed the rules for the Best Music award. I believe the first recipient to benefit was Korngold because in 1937, Charles Previn won for his classical arrangements in the Deanna Durbin musical “100 Men and a Girl”. It was not until 1938, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” when the Academy created a new category – Best ORIGINAL Score!

  3. I am glad you enjoyed the Anthony Adverse article by Greg Orypeck, pseudonym of the Korngold fan from Lakeland, Florida, with whom you exchanged a few letters years ago. I continue to enjoy the gift of the solo EWK piano music (by Ingrid Jacoby) I received from you in 1998.

    Wishing you the best in music,

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