24 August 2000 | coop-16
Flawed, but interesting adaptation of a flawed, but interesting book
Today both Hervey Allen and his novel, Anthony Adverse, are all but forgotten, as is the 1936 Mervyn Leroy adaptation. Allen has never been granted a biography or a critical study( one could also say the same thing about Mervyn Leroy) while both the novel and the film are dismissed as over blown, prolix "white elephants". This is not entirely fair. Allens 1200 page colossus was the greatest best seller of its day, and was only surpassed when Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind, while Leroys film isn't bad. In fact it is pretty good, in its own way. First of all, Leroy managed to condense Allens erudite, baroque epic into the space of a two -hour, black and white film. In doing so, he managed to retain most of the novels elaborate religious symbolism( Allen seems to have been either a Lapsed, but still affectionate Catholic or an Episcopalian of the "high church " variety with a fascination with Priests, The Virgin Mary, and Crucifixion symbols), all of the colorful characters( Allen seems to have ransacked Tolstoy, Dickens, Dumas, and Balzac for ideas.), and most of the action.( the carriage chase in the Alps is one of the great "scenes" of thirties cinema). The film has also retained the novels plot, or most of it. One would not know, for example, that the hero ends up dying rather UNheroically in Texas sometime in the early eighteen twenties, or that the book has a truly bizarre, ambiguous epilogue in which "white trash" settlers of Texas from Missouri stumble across the statuette of the virgin and the ruins of Adverses estate.The great problem with the book -and with the film- is that Anthony Adverse is NOT a heroic figure. He is played upon, not player, a passive, frequently humiliated victim of adversity. Clearly, Allen wanted to make him a philosophical hero, not a swashbuckler. He is a clerk, for heavens sake. Most of the time, he is engaged in capitalist transactions of some sort, instead of sword-play. ( indeed, the only sword- play in the movie is between the villainous Don Luis and Anthony's father.)The basic action is simple. One Priest gives Anthony a mind,by teaching him. Another gives him a soul, by reminding him that slavery is a sin( Incidentally, the film is a powerful indictment of slavery and racism). Finally, Olivia De Havillands character gives him a heart, by introducing him to the son he never knew he had. March-a very fine actor at his best- seems curiously flat and passive in the role of Adverse. The truly great performances are by Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard as the over the top super-villains. Rains exhudes decadence, arrogance and sadism, while Sondergaard won the first best supporting actress Oscar, simply by grinning satanically for two hours.