Anthony Adverse is based off the novel by Hervey Allen about the trials of an orphan that only get more intense in his adulthood. Before we can meet the little orphan Anthony, the details surrounding his unfortunate circumstances must be made clear. The film begins as a young woman is leaving on her honeymoon with a much older, and conveniently injured husband, Marquis Don Luis (Claude Rains). While his leg heals in a cast, she meets her young lover, a soldier, and they pledge to run away together before her husband’s leg has healed. But time runs out, she watches her husband kill her lover in a sword fight and soon she dies in childbirth. Rather than raise the lovechild on his own, the husband leaves the crying baby at a convent, and lies to his father-in-law, Mr. Bonnyfeather (Edmund Gwenn), saying that the child died as well. The lines between good and evil are obviously drawn between Don Luis’s cold indifference and Mr. Bonnyfeather’s heartbreak.
The film moves forward ten years, showing us young Anthony (Billy Mauch) at the convent. Since it is an all girls school, he is only allowed in a small part, surrounded by high walls. The boy is obviously lonely, but thankful for Father Xavier (Henry O’Neill), who serves as the boy’s teacher and main parental figure. The nuns seem to be the type that simply don’t like boys and say it’s high time Anthony leaves the convent and become an apprentice. Father Xavier sets Anthony up to work for Mr. Bonnyfeather, who senses immediately that the boy is his lost grandson and gives him the last name Adverse. His speech about the boy’s adversity is only slightly cheesy.
From here out is supposed to be the meat of the film. Anthony grows to a smart, well-rounded young man (Fredric March) with eyes for the beautiful Angela (Olivia de Havilland). Their life seems perfectly sweet and simple for only a moment, then Angela is taken away when her father wins the lottery. Next thing we know, Anthony finds her singing in a show and they’ve secretly gotten married. While Anthony is supposed to meet her, he’s detained by Bonnyfeather, who wants him to leave for Havana the next morning and Angela doesn’t get the message to sail with him. Thus beings Anthony’s adventures sailing the world, becoming part of the slave trade and finding exotic women in the jungle.
Honestly, that whole chapter goes way too fast and seems like it should have more focus. Once Anthony attempts to get his old life back in order in Europe, it seems to slow down to a decent pace again, but things are still convoluted with the Angela’s marital status and old villains trying to cheat Anthony out of Bonnyfeather’s will.
For me, the first half hour of the film was more exciting than the rest. Forbidden love, a sword fight, murder and dumping babies off at the convent, it’s good and juicy. Then everything turned very flat, rushed and boring. Even when Anthony is traveling the world, conveniently running away from the possibility of loving his love, everything seems a bit watered down. Perhaps because this is the part of the story where Anthony is supposed to have a positive life change that propels him back to Europe. Unfortunately, it starts to feel like unstable mush and never lets us find more solid ground.
While I have complaints about the story and its pacing, many of the technical film aspects help made this film more enjoyable. Anthony Adverse won the Oscar for Best Cinematography and Best Editing. Visually, this film is lovely and can bring out the sense of adventure the story tends to lack. While my heart wasn’t hanging on why Anthony was running through the jungle in the rain, my eyes were hooked and soaking it in.
“Those who are destined to live during times of war and social upheaval are victims of cruel fate, unable to find comfort in the past or peace in the present. They are the spiritual orphans of the world.”