Warner Brothers was faced with kind of an impossible task in adapting a book of this size and scale (not to mention popularity), especially in 1936. In another era, Anthony Adverse could have been an epic trilogy or a miniseries. As it was, at 140 minutes, it was still the longest movie the company had made to date, requiring 140 sets and 2,000 actors, close to 80 of them speaking parts.
And after all that record-breaking effort, the film still had to cut out huge swaths of the book, ending halfway through the story as Anthony boards the boat for America, a place where book Anthony goes on to have two marriages, three kids, two imprisonments, and one death.
And even within that first half of the story, the movie still has to skim over a lot, using dialogue infodumps and those intertitle things from the silent movie era to move things along.
Actually, you can really tell Anthony Adverse was made during the transition time when directors still didn’t quite have a handle on talkies, mostly because the overacting levels are set at maximum capacity.
But Warner Brothers didn’t just stop at plot snipping; they did their best to take this complex, thoughtful book and cram it into a standardized Hollywood mold.
Instead of having many different romantic relationships of varying intensity, for example, movie Anthony gets One True Love, in the form of Angela/Mademoiselle Georges, to whom he is fiercely loyal, in spite of a few other she-demons who are after him.
The villains, too, are given a simplified motivation in the form of an inheritance they are trying to steal from Anthony, rather than the mess of contradictory emotions they feel toward him in the book (Don Luis, rage and grief over his cuckolding and Faith, jealousy of Anthony’s mother and hurt feelings over his sexual rejection).
Overall, the film really just tries to make Anthony more sympathetic. I mean, they still do the whole falling-into-evil-via-the-slave-trade thing from the book, and actor Fredric March’s interpretation of his character mainly seems to involve looking sullen all the time, with or without any reason for it.
But not once during the whole movie does Anthony suffer any consequences for his actions. Everything that goes wrong is the result of either a dastardly scheme by the bad guys or a farcical misunderstanding, never a mistake on the part of Anthony or the other “good” characters. Yes, when Anthony is a slave trader, he is considered “bad” in a sort of nonspecific way, but we never actually see the suffering he causes, and the actors playing the slaves are used as little more than props.
Both the book and the movie make you root for the main character to win, even if he’s really not all that great as a human being. But the difference is, in the movie, he actually does win. The book gives us nothing we want, while the movie gives us everything.
Yes, bad things happen to movie Anthony, but he is never fooled by the villains for long, and some good always comes out of his suffering in the end. The movie gets just sad enough to give the audience a good cry, but never crushes their soul the way the book does.
For instance, here’s what the book says when Anthony realizes his dream of raising his son will never happen:
He burned the blackboard taken from the “schoolroom” and sold a boy’s pony with “unused saddle and harness, owner sacrifices for private reasons, spirited, well-bred, little horse.”
Uuf. That’s right up there with “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” as one of the most heartbreaking details I’ve ever read.
Bu instead of making the audience cope with Anthony’s sadness, the movie just goes ahead and sends him and his son off to America together. And, sure, we’re a little sad Mom can’t come with us, but at least she taught us about Love.
Speaking of Anthony’s son, I was particularly curious how black-and-white Hollywood would handle the sex stuff, especially since they would have to change major plot points to avoid it. They kept in the part about Anthony being born out of wedlock, as well as the relatively gentle attempted marital rape of Anthony’s mother (Don Luis gives up when she passes out, like a gentleman),…
…but wussed out on Anthony producing a bastard of his own by having him and Angela elope the night before Anthony Jr.’s conception. None of the other sex scenes make an appearance, although one between him and his African servant Neleta (see third screen cap) is just barely suggested.
The reception of Anthony Adverse was mixed. The film did ok, but not do well enough at the box office to justify Warner Brothers first ever million dollar budget.
On the other hand, it did win four Academy Awards, including the first ever best supporting actress for Gale Sondergaard for her role as the villainess Faith. Faith was my least favorite transition from book to movie, for the record. In the book, she can alternate at will between her prim and proper maid persona to her scheming, lascivious real self. In the movie, she’s just obnoxiously slimy all the time, with an evil grin that would make the Grinch envious.
And unlike in the book, movie Anthony is never, ever taken in by her, which makes her kind of toothless (metaphorically speaking, obviously) as an enemy.
Actually, the villains are, in general, the most pointless part of an already meandering plot. The film does recreate my favorite action scene from the book, in which Don Luis and Faith attempt to toss Anthony into a gorge in the Alps, with some pretty decent miniature work.
But after that foiling, Don Luis and Faith make one lame attempt to get Anthony arrested that lasts all of two minutes, and then…that’s it. We see them once more at the opera and never again. Was failing at two halfhearted schemes enough to make them give up? Did they catch a case of sudden death on their way home from the opera? Will they continue tormenting Anthony for the rest of his natural life? Nobody knows, and, apparently, nobody cares.
With all of that said, I still found Anthony Adverse kind of charming. These old melodramas are just so good at distilling emotions down to their purest forms: love and friendship are perfectly faithful and unyielding, goodness is wholesome and comforting, evil is uncomplicatedly despicable. And, well, I liked seeing Anthony triumph in the end. So sue me.
Also, as someone who enjoyed at least parts of the novel, I appreciated the recreation of many familiar settings and characters. For what the movie missed from the book in plot and overarching themes, it made up for in small, irrelevant details.
And while it doesn’t have the transported-to-another-time-and-place quality the book does, there is some kitschy fun to be had in seeing what the 1930’s thought places like Cuba and Guinea were like.
Some of the supporting cast were entertaining as well. Anthony’s best friend Vincent Nolte had charisma, and Carlo Cibo, the merchant who in the book is likened to Dionysus, is fun in an over-the-top way.
Anthony Adverse isn’t worth going out of your way for, but if you have a very high tolerance for early Hollywood cheese, it might be worth a library checkout on a rainy day.
Anthony Adverse is available in DVD form only on Amazon.