Anthony Adverse ★★★

Hervy Allen's novel Anthony Adverse doesn't linger much in the cultural memory nowadays -- and judging by the silliness of this Warner Bros. film adaptation it's fairly easy to guess why. When I announced to my wife what film I was about to watch she remarked that it sounded like one of those Marvel Comics things, and she was more right than I expected -- the guy literally gets the name "Adverse" from his guardian because of all the adversity he's had to deal with, and there's an opening-act origin story and everything. Said adversity includes being the product of an affair which results in, after he loses his mother at birth, her husband abandoning him and spending the rest of the film making snide remarks and trying to kill him. This is incalculably episodic -- the cast and plot in the opening scenes bears little relation to what's going on half an hour later, a pattern that continues for the duration; by the time we spend about twenty minutes in Africa with bonkers commentary on slave trading for no logical reason whatsoever, you've learned that you're not dealing with an especially predictable narrative. With orphan Anthony wandering through life and love and inheritances and various perfectly dire twists of fate while eventually sharing a romantic partner with Napoleon Bonaparte, the story manages to be both schlocky and incredibly morose, like Forrest Gump crossed with Interview with the Vampire. With all that said, it's kind of a riot -- Claude Rains steals the film as a flamboyantly heartless Italian aristocrat who laughs at literally everything and manages to throw in some admirably salty insults when he's being cuckolded early on. Fredric March is unrecognizable from films he made just a few years later, the Hollywood equivalent to Alex Chilton's Box Tops/Big Star chasm. And you might not have thought Olivia de Havilland could look younger than she did in Princess O'Rourke, but she's a baby here.. and still utterly sophisticated, resplendent, warm. I've got no artistic defenses for a movie that lurches all over the place like this but despite its overlength it's a good deal of fun, with striking set deisgn by Harper Goff and house WB art director Anton Grot running circles around actual auteur Mervyn LeRoy, who's unable to avoid letting this fall into a disjointed mess.