Based on Hervey Allen’s bestselling epic novel of historical romance in the Napoleonic era, Fredric March stars as the hero, Anthony Adverse. The film follows Adverse from orphan to his adult adventures that span the globe from Spain to Italy, Cuba to Africa, 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 (two hours and twenty-one minutes) and elicited the longest score yet written in films.
Though Variety described the music as “pleasant, rather than exciting,” 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 Anthony Adverse in his Violin Concerto (which also included melodies from Another Dawn, Juarez, and The Prince and the Pauper).
Anthony Adverse was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. At the end of the night, it won four, including the first ever Oscar for Supporting Actress (Gale Sondergaard), cinematography, Film Editing and Korngold’s score. However, as was still the practice in 1936, the head of the music department (in this case, Leo Forbstein) won the Oscar instead of the composer. When Forbstein tried to give the statue to Korngold, he politely refused it. As biographer Brendan Carroll stated in an interview with Film Score Monthly: “For many, many years after that, Korngold still refused to accept the Oscar….It stayed in Leo Forbstein’s office. It finally went into Korngold’s house after Forbstein died. By then Korngold had gotten over it. He didn’t bear a grudge but he just didn’t really want the thing. He didn’t feel it was his.”