In 1773, young English beauty Maria Bonnyfeather (Anita Louise) is the new bride of the cruel and devious middle-aged Spanish nobleman Marquis Don Luis (Claude Rains). However, she is pregnant by Denis Moore (Louis Hayward), the man she loved before being forced to marry Don Luis. After the marquis learns of his wife's affair, Don Luis takes her across Europe but Denis tracks them down at an inn, where Don Luis treacherously kills him in a sword duel.
Months later Maria dies giving birth to her son at a chalet in the Alps in northern Italy. Don Luis leaves the infant in the foundling wheel of a convent near the port city of Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, where the nuns christen him Anthony, as he was found on January 17, the feast day of St. Anthony the Great. Don Luis lies to Maria's father, wealthy Leghorn-based merchant John Bonnyfeather (Edmund Gwenn), telling him that the infant is also dead. Ten years later, completely by coincidence, Anthony (Billy Mauch) is apprenticed to Bonnyfeather, his real grandfather, who discovers his relationship to the boy but keeps it a secret from him. He gives the boy the surname Adverse in acknowledgement of the difficult life he has led.
As an adult, Anthony (Fredric March) falls in love with Angela Giuseppe (Olivia de Havilland), the cook's daughter, and the couple wed. Soon after the ceremony, Anthony is asked by Bonnyfeather to depart for Havana to save Bonnyfeather's fortune from a laggard debtor, the merchant trading firm Gallego & Sons. On the day his ship is supposed to set sail he and Angela are supposed to meet at the convent before departing together, but she arrives first while he is late. Unable to wait any longer, she leaves a note outside the convent to inform him that she is leaving for Rome with her opera company. But the note Angela leaves Anthony is blown away and he is unaware that she has gone to Rome. Confused and upset, he departs on the ship without her. Meanwhile, assuming he has abandoned her, she departs and continues her career as an opera singer.
Learning that Gallego has quit Havana, Anthony leaves to take control of Gallego & Sons only remaining asset—a slave trading post on the Pongo River in Africa. Three years in the slave trade (so he can recover Bonnyfeather's debt) corrupts him, and he takes slave girl Neleta into his bed. Anthony is eventually redeemed by his friendship with Brother François (Pedro de Córdoba). After the monk is crucified and killed by the natives, Anthony returns to Italy to find Bonnyfeather has died. His housekeeper, Faith Paleologus (Gale Sondergaard) (Don Luis' longtime co-conspirator, and now wife), has inherited Bonnyfeather's fortune. Anthony reaches Paris to rectify the situation and claim his inheritance.
In Paris, Anthony is reunited with his friend, prominent banker Vincent Nolte (Donald Woods), whom he saves from bankruptcy by giving him his fortune, having learned from Brother François that "there's something besides money and power". Through the intercession of impresario Debrulle (Ralph Morgan), Anthony finds Angela and discovers she bore him a son. His wife fails to reveal she is now Mademoiselle Georges, a famous opera star and the mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte. When Anthony learns her secret, she sends him their son, stating that he is better suited to raise the boy. Anthony departs for America with his son, Anthony Jr. (Scotty Beckett), in search of a better life.Fredric March as Anthony AdverseOlivia de Havilland as Angela GiuseppeDonald Woods as Vincent NolteAnita Louise as MariaEdmund Gwenn as John BonnyfeatherClaude Rains as Marquis Don LuisLouis Hayward as Denis MooreGale Sondergaard as Faith PaleologusSteffi Duna as NeletaBilly Mauch as Anthony Adverse (age 10)Akim Tamiroff as Carlo CiboRalph Morgan as DebrulleHenry O'Neill as Father XavierPedro de Cordoba as Brother FrançoisAlma Lloyd as Florence Udney (as an adult)Anne Howard as Angela as a Child (uncredited)
Original choices for the lead role include Robert Donat, Leslie Howard and George Brent.
Errol Flynn was meant to support Fredric March but proved so popular when Captain Blood was released he was instead given the lead in The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Billy Mauch plays the young Anthony Adverse in the earlier scenes. Warner Bros.discovered Mauch had a twin, Bobby and put them both under contract. They were given a starring vehicle in The Prince and the Pauper.
The film holds a 13% "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is the lowest score of any Best Picture Oscar-nominated film on the website. However, Rotten Tomatoes only lists 8 reviews, so the score may not reflect a larger sample of critics.
In his review in The New York Times, Frank S. Nugent described the film as "a bulky, rambling and indecisive photoplay which has not merely taken liberties with the letter of the original but with its spirit . . . For all its sprawling length, [the novel] was cohesive and well rounded. Most of its picaresque quality has been lost in the screen version; its philosophy is vague, its characterization blurred and its story so loosely knit and episodic that its telling seems interminable." Variety described it as "a bit choppy" and "a bit long-winded", but called Fredric March "an ace choice, playing the role to the hilt."
Film Daily wrote that it "easily ranks among the leading pictures of the talking screen" and called the acting "flawless". "I don't think Mr. March has done any better piece of work than this", wrote John Mosher in a positive review for The New Yorker.
The film was named one of the National Board of Review's Top Ten pictures of the year and ranked eighth in the Film Daily annual critics' poll.
Rev. Austin Spencer noted that "In the book as written and published, Anthony Adverse's far-ranging life was clearly intended to be a spiritual journey at least as much as a physical one. Befitting with his name, he goes through great adversity, to emerge a better man - renouncing material possessions in general and the owning of slaves in particular, and aspiring with increasing success to emulate the saintly, martyred Brother François. In the film, all this was chopped off and amputated by cutting off the book's plotline in the middle. The film's Anthony Adverse is in effect denied the spiritual redemption which his literary creator intended for him. Possibly this was simply due to the fact that a normal length film could not accommodate so many adventures and changes of fortune over three continents. But I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the film-makers considered 'too much Christianity' as endangering a film's box office success. Anyway, I strongly recommend to anyone seeing the film to also read the book and find for themselves what they missed."
The noteworthy film critic Leonard Maltin gave the film a positive review of 3.5/4 stars and praised the movie's "rousing musical score". AwardsActress in a Supporting Role: Gale SondergaardBest Cinematography: Gaetano GaudioBest Film Editing: Ralph DawsonBest Music (Scoring): Warner Bros. Studio Music Department, Leo Forbstein, head of department (Score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold)NominationsOutstanding Production: Warner Bros.Best Assistant Director: William CannonBest Art Direction: Anton Grot
The initial theme of the second movement of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's violin concerto was drawn from the music he composed for this film. English singer Julia Gilbert adopted the name of the film's main character when recording for the London-based él record label in the late 1980s.
Screen legend Tony Curtis (1925–2010), who was born Bernard Schwartz, named himself for the titular character; the novel from which this film was adapted was the actor's favorite. Curtis, who soared to fame with his role in Houdini as the legendary illusionist, was buried with a Stetson hat, an Armani scarf, driving gloves, an iPhone and a copy of his favorite novel, Anthony Adverse.
Jack Benny parodied Anthony Adverse on the October 11 and 18 episodes of his "Jell-o Show" in 1936.
In the 1934 short comedy What, No Men!, when their plane lands in "Indian Country" and Gus (El Brendel) is told to throw out the anchor, he tosses out a rope attached to a huge book titled Anthony Adverse.
The novel Anthony Adverse, by Hervey Allan, was included in Life Magazine's list of the 100 outstanding books of 1924-1944.