If you give a boy the last name “Adverse,” you’ve got to expect that his life story is going to be rough. So it is with Anthony Adverse (1936), the tale of a lad born of, well, awkward circumstances that don’t get any better in his adulthood.
It wasn’t the the title character — played by Frederic March — that intrigued me enough to seek out this film. It was a picture of his love interest, Angela Guessippi, played by Olivia de Havilland, wearing this extravagant outfit, below, which turns out to be an opera stage costume worn at the very end of this two and a half hour long movie.
Unfortunately, there are only fabulous costumes (gowns by Milo Anderson) at the very start of the film and at the very end. In between, I was subjected to a fairly tedious and depressing moralistic story about Anthony’s suffering. Why? Because he has to learn Valuable Life Lessons, I guess. But he started as a low-born foundling, so why bring him further down? IDK. It’s weird.
The movie starts off with his origin story — which he never learns, btw. A pretty young daughter of a Scottish merchant has been married off to a wealthy, slightly creepy Spanish nobleman, the ambassador to France before the Revolution. But he’s injured, their marriage is unconsummated, and he’s headed off to ‘the baths’ in the countryside for treatment. She’s headed off to get some lovin’ with a soldier who she’s really in love with, and of course gets knocked up. By the time her husband is done with the cure, she’s pregnant. Hubby kills her lover in a duel, the lady dies in childbirth, and the Spanish nobleman drops off the baby at an Italian convent.
Some 10 years later, the convent farms out the boy, that they’ve named Anthony, to a Scottish merchant who needs an apprentice. Obviously, this is the kid’s grandfather, which the merchant suspects, as does his sneaky maid, who has been pals with the Spanish nobleman all these years. Nobody says anything to the kid though, who they give the last name “Adverse.” He gets friendly with the cook’s daughter, Angela, and when they grow up, they fall in love. She also has aspirations of being an opera singer. By this time, the French Revolution has toppled the monarchy, and Napoleon has taken over and invaded Italy.
The plot is a weird cross of capitalist forces fighting against romantic love, even from the start, but especially once Anthony grows up and marries Angela. He wants to work for the Scottish merchant he considers his patron (but who’s really his grandfather) and pay off that man’s debts, while also making his own fortune though various deals that include slave trading in Cuba and Africa. But that causes him to reject his Catholic faith and lose his wife. He tries to claw his way back to both of these, but only manages to regain a small amount of personal satisfaction in the end — although the one thing he does get is the financial settlement owed to him. The movie is inconsistent in punishing and rewarding Anthony.
The costumes are also inconsistent, at least in how shiny and exciting they are. The first 30 minutes are frilly and fun with Anthony’s mother, Maria (Anita Louise) in very ’30s interpretations of 1770s gowns. Her nasty unwanted husband, Don Luis (Claude Rains), also gets gloriously embroidered satin suits and high-heeled shoes.
Then we get a lot of dull stuff, until the very last 30 minutes of the movie, set in the early 1800-1810s. There’s a fabulous masked ball where Napoleon, Angela, and Anthony almost meet, and then the aforementioned opera performance where Angela wears that amazing costume.
In addition to a few gowns on Olivia de Havilland, I have to mention the ensembles worn by Gale Sondergaard as Faith Paleologus, the sneaky maid who later marries that horrible Spanish nobleman. She gets some amazing Regency bad girl outfits, all dark, stripey, wickedly wonderful. She was also the first woman to receive the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, as this award for actress and actor was instituted at the ninth Academy Awards.
Are you adverse to giving this one a view?