Friday, October 12, 2012

Anthony Adverse (1936)

Warner Bros.

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
The heart of a term “prestige picture” lies in a studio’s drive to take something of great significance in another entertainment form, usually a novel or Broadway play, and turn it into an epic sized film in hope that it would peek the public’s attention resulting ultimately in great box office revenues as well as lasting esteem for the studio in accomplishing a great piece of cinematic art. Warner Bros’ great prestige picture of 1936 would be of Anthony Adverse, an adaptation of a sprawling 1200+ page novel penned by Henry Allen in 1933. Not all prestige pictures necessarily work out (see Romeo and Juliet of 1936), but here with Anthony Adverse Warner Bros. played the correct cards at the correct time, banking on the popularity of a book still very fresh in the public’s mind, turning it into a very lengthy 141 minute feature that attempts to bring the story to life. For its time Anthony Adverse would be a great film, but one that would not carry on in the minds of audiences into the future.

Anthony Adverse is a drama encompassing the life story of a man and his adventures that take him around the globe, and how he changes while continually seeking to reunite with his wife. Born an illegitimate son of passionate love affair, Anthony Adverse (Fredric March) is raise first in a convent, then by a kind Italian merchant John Bonnyfeather (Edmund Gwenn), whom discovers later is actually the grandfather of Anthony, but decides to hold back that information. Growing up Anthony falls in love with and marries his cook’s daughter, Angela (Olivia de Havilland), but soon after leaves for Cuba to save Bonnyfeather’s fortune, before long losing contact with his young bride. Years pass and Anthony continues his work in Africa making him a more corrupted businessman of slave trading before returning to Italy to learn of the death of his mentor Bonneyfeather. After saving his inheritance from landing in the hands of the Bonnyfeather’s former greedy bride Faith (Gale Sondergaard) Anthony first aids an old friend with financial trouble, then is assisted in reuniting with Angela, and to his surprise is introduced to the son she bore him. Despite the happiness Anthony learns of Angela’s life as a famous opera star and mistress to Napoleon Bonaparte, leaving him heartbroken. Determined to start afresh once again, Anthony and his son as they sail to America, knowing he can make something of himself in a new land with his loving son by his side.

The picture is rather long and very episodic. Very little carries over from one situation to another for Anthony in this epic-length feature. The visuals are done well, though for a film of epic grandeur one would expect more epic sized shots, which is devoid of in this case. March is well cast as the title character and becomes a person to whom you can connect with in his journey of life; so too is true as well with the strong connection to the characters of Bonneyfeather, Angela, and even Anthony’s short lived mother Maria (Anita Louise) and her passionate affair that begins the film.

Director Mervyn LeRoy continues to impress as he ever seems to take on new genre and styles in his directorial style. With such notable credits in his past that include the gangster classic Little Caesar, grungy drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and even the musical Gold Diggers of 1933, LeRoy  manifests great range and all produced with great quality. This skill would help lead him to his big job that he lands in 1938 as head of production at MGM studios, perhaps one of the most important positions in all of Hollywood in the height of its Golden Age. Here in Anthony Adverse LeRoy films a in rather simple manner, allowing the actors to portray the roots of classic archetypes which can be seen simply on the actors’ faces, from the kind heart roles played by Edmund Gwenn and Olivia de Havilland, to the evil characters manned by Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard. He may be simple, but it works as this film is a extensive undertaking, but manages to be contained primarily in Southern California production area of Hollywood, with no budget to travel to locals.

It is always difficult to transfer story from a literature standpoint to that of the screen, and in this case squeezing a 1224 page novel into an estimated 141 minute movie. As with any case there are changes needed to make the story fit, but for the sake of sticking to the cinematic means the film packs a great deal into its several minutes which ultimately damages part of the experience of the feature. As mentioned beforehand the film plays very episodically. The story goes from one event to the other, with very little connection to each other, and it becomes difficult to encompass a lifetime into a short period of two hours and 20 minutes, but its shortcoming is the lack of singular drive. For the most part the picture does not have a core drive as we watch Anthony go from one event to another, not giving audiences the clear understanding of what he is striving for, or leaving audiences something to look forward to. Near the final quarter of the feature we discover that it is the reuniting with his wife Angela that drives him to want to return to Italy, but for most of the drama that takes place between their wedding and their reuniting Anthony seems very tied up in a sense of obligation and not love for his wife, leaving a hole in the soul of the character, which ultimately the story we as audience members need filled.

Aspects of the film and its production feel off from time to time, and a lot of it can be due to lack of exposition in a feature that cannot warrant any more space in its length. To make up for time and exposition the feature makes wide use of title cards to transition in periods of Anthony’s life, simple stating changes and not showing them, leaving audiences with a sense of reading a history book instead of a dramatic story. Anthony’s son is a surprise, especially since we never see more than a puppy love between Angela and Anthony (thanks production code). To be introduced to the son is a twist that takes a while to get use to. We also wish for more closure on most characters, such as kind hearted Bonnyfeather, and even the more evil characters in Don Luis (Claude Rains) and Faith.

In taking a step back from story or even time of production, one may notice that even sense of place may feel wrong. This is probably most evident in the time Anthony is in Africa. The film’s portrayal of Africa seems to be a convoluted amassing of many exotic places of the world with Polynesian style dressed girls, Middle Eastern culture, and a few black men thrown in there. Is that the “Dark Continent” as seen through people of 1936, filmmaker LeRoy, author Allen, or a mix of all the above? From a contemporary standpoint, all of the Africa scenes felt very off with place and even character, as Anthony is forced into being played as a more hardened man without seeing why, but rather simply explained in a title card. In these cases the film struggles.

Fredric March by this time was a well known leading man in dramas, including being the recipient of the Academy Awards for his work in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His performance makes for a personable character that draws you into the story which lacks a better script. His co-star Olivia de Havilland makes you believe that these two are very much in love despite being separated for about ten years. Her energy and conviction in her eyes creates the near perfect match in passion with March despite her lack of overall screen time. De Havilland at this time was best known for her role opposite Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, and would continually return to being Flynn’s screen love interest as she plays well the passionate beauty in adventure pictures.

In a life-span epic story you are bound to have a large cast and this film would not disappoint. The feature opens with the passionate love affair that would conclude with the birth of Anthony. Here we are engrossed by the beauty and fervor Anita Louise as Anthony’s mother. Her short time on screen, though quickly buried as the movie moves on, makes for a great mini-feature that opens us up to time and place of the film. Veteran actors Edmund Gwenn and Claude Rains form a good ying and yang to the story of Anthony, portraying the kindheartedness that is within Anthony as well as the evil of the world that continually tries to break him down. Other little known actors would be given their chances in this prestige film with. Gale Sondergaard would get the acclaim from her role as Faith, the maid of Bonnyfeather whom would soon marry him and try to take his fortune after his death before Anthony claims it back. This role as an evil plotting side character that eventually teams with Don Luis would be Sondergaard’s cinematic debt, and earned her the very first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Looking back years later, one can easily question the why Sondergaard won this award, but in comparison to her competition of fellow nominees, which was also roles of fairly low greatness, you can see how she took home the statue. It would seem the idea of supporting acting awards by the Academy would evolve into roles that are important to the story, but not the main characters, instead of here where they are very minor characters that could almost be omitted without notice.

As a film adaption that was released in the height of the novel’s short lived major fame, Anthony Adverse was a film of perfect timing. Audiences would go see the film in good numbers. Few critics would give bad marks to the feature, especially in comparison to the original, more fleshed out book, but in the end the film was one of the highest praised films of 1936. Apart from being named one of the top films of the year by many, the picture was nominated for seven Academy Awards including: best assistant director, best art direction, and best picture. Four Oscars would go home with Anthony Adverse, the most for any one feature that year, for categories of Best Supporting Actress (Sondergaard), Best Cinematography (Tony Gaudio), Best Editing (Ralph Dawson), and Best Score (Leo F. Forstein). The epic tale and story of adversity would live in the minds of many that saw it at that time. Not necessarily known as a classic Anthony Adverse was in fact one of the best successes for Warner Bros. in the mid 1930s.

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