Based on Hervey Allen’s bestselling epic novel of historical romance in the Napoleonic era, ANTHONY ADVERSE emerged as one of the biggest hits of 1936 and was nominated for six Oscars, winning four, including the first-ever Best Supporting Actress (Gale Sondergaard).
Fredric March stars as the title hero, and the film follows his adventures from orphan to adulthood, including his love for the beautiful Angela (Olivia de Havilland). The larger-than-life situations and numerous locales were ripe for the Warner Bros. treatment and its celebrated musical star, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, was the perfect choice to score the film.
Korngold’s approach to film scoring was, in his words, “operatic,” sans the arias. The music would sing for the characters that could not. Korngold used a technique (later copied by many composers) in which the music is pitched just underneath the voices of the actors and surges into the pauses in the dialogue. He also used the Wagnerian leitmotif approach whereby characters and situations were assigned themes (forty-three of them!) that recur throughout the score. ANTHONY ADVERSE was the longest Warner Bros. film to date (2 hours and 21 minutes) and elicited the longest score yet written in films.
From the opening bars, the music is, like our hero, brash and bold. Then we ‘re off and running as the orchestra furiously gallops along with the out-of-control horses and carriage in the opening scene. The first thirty minutes of the film, which are continuously scored, are about as close to a symphonic tone poem as you will find in film music. Like it or not (and there are some who don’t), Korngold was one of a handful of composers whose grandiose music set the stage for the next decade in film music. And, as was stipulated in his contract, Korngold was able to recycle themes from the film in his Violin Concerto.
On award night, as was still the practice in 1936, Leo Forbstein, Music Department head of Warner Bros., walked away with the Oscar instead of Korngold. When Forbstein tried to give the statue to the composer, he politely refused it.
The film has never been released on DVD and the only recording of the score, outside of some snippets on compilations, is a now-out-of-print lackluster studio recording on Varèse Sarabande. That recording left a lot to be desired in the performance and doesn’t begin to capture the energy of the music. The score is ripe for a proper re-recording, one that will give full justice to the majesty of Korngold’s music.