Mervyn LeRoy’s ‘Anthony Adverse’ with Fredric March

First, I must apologize for the slow posts in October. It was easily the craziest month of my life, as I covered both the New York Comic Con at the start of the month and the Savannah Film Festival at the end. Just to prove that I’m still alive, here’s a quick post on a movie I finally got to see on my DVR.

image from TCM
image from TCM

As much as I love watching Fredric March – he’s easily one of my favorite stars from the ’30s – Anthony Adverse (1936) was torture to sit through. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy and based on Harvey Allen’s novel of the same name, the film is a slog through the life of the title character.

It’s a creaky, episodic film that tells the story of a boy dropped off at a convent by the disgraced husband of his mother (who is not his father) and follows him all the way through adulthood. Sheridan Gibney’s script is disjointed, jumping all over the place. Intertitles are frequently relied upon to skip some really interesting sequences. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie about a proud man forced to turn back on his morals by selling slaves to pay back a debt that’s not even his? Apparently, LeRoy and Gibney didn’t think anyone was interested because most of that is skipped over. Instead, we have to get back to the nonsensical plot from his boss’ housekeeper to steal Anthony’s inheritance.

While some may think of “Oscar bait” as a modern phenomenon that’s only come about in the past two decades or so, Anthony Adverse proves that “Oscar bait” has existed for as long as the Oscars have existed. Warner Bros. made the film for Oscars and it worked. The film was nominated for Best Picture (MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld won instead) and it won four Oscars, including the first ever Best Supporting Actress for Gale Sondergaard’s performance as the vile Faith.

Aside from Sondergaard, there are other performances throughout that make Anthony Adverse a bit easier to sit through. March is at his usual best and the very young Olivia de Havilland is severely underused (we go over a half hour without seeing her at one point after she’s finally introduced). Edmund Gwenn and Claude Rains are fantastic and you really wish that Anita Louise survived the first 20 minutes of the movie.

Anthony Adverse could have used a trim, running about 20 minutes too long. In fact, the information we learn in the prologue could have been better used as a nice third act twist. But LeRoy and Gibney were a bit too concerned with covering everything in the book instead of finding one plot to use in the film.

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