10.01.2006

Gale Sondergaard in Anthony Adverse (1936) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Normally, in charting a month of Supporting Actress Sundays, StinkyLulu tries to devote the first slot of attention to the performance that took the trophy home that year. This month, as with so many apects of attending to 1936 during September, things didn't really go thataway. So, in these last minutes of September, StinkyLulu's just now getting 'round to opining on...


...Gale Sondergaard in Anthony Adverse (1936).

19 minutes and 19 seconds on-screen
13 scenes (only 1 of which is longer than 2 minutes)
14% of film's total screen time

Anthony Adverse is one of those big pics that seem to straddle two vastly different stylistic eras in film-making. Ostensibly set throughout Europe during the French Revolutionary era (as well as amidst the colonial circum-Atlantic slave trade), the film itself is part 1930s glittery escapism and part -- or, rather, mostly -- 1920s silent ├╝ber-epic (albeit with full sound). All the elements of the most opulent silents are in play -- the enormous high-ceilinged sets; the extended facial close-shots; the brash make-up; each actor an expert in vamping, pining and mugging. Indeed, Anthony Adverse's assemblage of facially expressive performances buoy the complex narrative (which relies heavily on intertitles rather than dialogue for essential exposition) to such an extent that one could likely screen the film without the dialogue track and follow along fairly easily. (Especially if Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Oscar-winning music remained to score every single emotional color in meticulous symphonic detail.)

Among the actors, Gale Sondergaard -- as a hustling, mercenary maid ironically named Faith -- emerges as the obvious standout perhaps precisely because her clear vocal presence announces her character's essential significance long before the grand, complicated narrative does. To be sure, most viewers will remember Sondergaard's Faith for her visual traits (her beautiful, shifty/googly eyes; her not-to-be-trusted grin) but it's her voice that makes her pop from this prettypretty picture. The powerful sound of Sondergaard's Faith is alternately frightening and soothing and this serves the character well: as the film's intricate intrigues manifest, Sondegaard's Faith emerges as perhaps the most instrumental character in the story and Sondegaard's memorable voice helps to make that make sense. Sondergaard's vocal effectiveness also serves up the one or two genuinely amusing lines in the piece. When her husband expresses mild sadness ("He was the best servant I ever had.") after their carriage driver failed to force Anthony Adverse off a cliff and instead fell to his own death, Sondergaard's Faith quips: "The carriage was rather handy too." Likewise, when Olivia de Haviland's Angela takes to the stage as the prima donna, Sondergaard's Faith giddily snarks to no one in particular: "When she was a child, she washed my laundry."

All told, it's an odd win amongst this admittedly befuddling field. Yes, Sondergaard's performance is among the best things about this occasionally inscrutable picture (see goatdog's excellent commentary for details). And, yup, Sondergaard gives good face, punches dialogue and generally looks great in the clothes (though the first Swiss Miss number was absurdly twee). But beyond that? Um. (pause) Um. (longer pause) Um, yeah; it's a curious kick-off to this category...and it'll be especially interesting to see what the Smackdowner's will have to say about Oscar's first Best Supporting Actress, Gale Sondergaard. (Who -- believe it or not -- was initially cast as the Wicked Witch in 1939's Oz. Imagine.)

But speaking of the 1936 Smackdown...
It'll be up shortly.
Check back soon.

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