SVENGALI (director: Archie Mayo; screenwriters: J. Grubb Alexander/from the book Trilby by George du Maurier; cinematographer: Barney “Chick” McGill; editor: William Holmes; cast: John Barrymore (Maestro Svengali), Marian Marsh (Trilby O’Farrell), Donald Crisp (The Laird), Bramwell Fletcher (Billee), Carmel Myers (Madame Honori), Luis Alberni (Gecko), Lumsden Hare (Monsieur Taffy), Paul Porcasi (Bonelli, Concert Manager); Runtime: 81; MPAA Rating: NR; Warner Brothers; 1931)
“Vintage old-fashioned psychological melodrama about the evil use of mind-control.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This vintage old-fashioned psychological melodrama about the evil use of mind-control is based on the 1894 novel Trilby by George du Maurier. It’s directed by Archie Mayo (“The Petrified Forest”) and written by J. Grubb Alexander. It features John Barrymore chewing the scenery in a stagy performance as the madman Svengali; he becomes the focus of the film. In the novel, it was the model Trilby he hypnotized who was the center of the story. Trilby is played by the 17-year-old Marian Marsh, an extra at the studio. It was originally filmed as a silent in the 1920s and there have been numerous remakes, but this 1931 one remains the best version.
The Polish Svengali sets up shop as a singing teacher and pianist in the Paris of the 1890s. When one of his female singing students he was having an affair with (Carmel Myers) tells him she dumped her hubby to be with him but settled for no money, he stares intently at her and she runs out of his garret apartment hypnotized with fright. Later his servant Gecko (Luis Alberni) tells him she was found drowned in the river.
The film centers around Svengali falling for the artist’s model Trilby O’Farrell, whom he hypnotizes and turns into an opera singer but the ingenue doesn’t return his love. Trilby has fallen for the English painter Billee (Bramwell Fletcher), who shares a flat with fellow countrymen painters Laird (Donald Crisp) and Taffy (Lumsden Hare). But under Svengali’s influence Trilby writes a letter to Billee telling him she no longer wishes to see him and her clothes are found near the Seine indicating a possible drowning. Some five years later Billee spots her performing on a European tour and she’s married to Svengali. Trilby recognizes him, but as soon as Svengali looks at her she denies what she just said was true. But the love sick Billee senses sometimes wrong and trails the Svengalis everywhere they go, upsetting them so much they have to cancel all their shows. Their upset manager (Paul Porcasi) quits. Unable to work any longer in Europe, the Svengalis end up performing in an Egyptian cafe. Svengali realizes that Trilby only loves him when under his hypnotic spell and that he can no longer live without fully possessing her. During the Egyptian concert a weakened Svengali collapses, and then she does too. The evil overbearing Svengali and his submissive passive woman both die, as that is the only way the weary one believes he can have her forever.
The film has the look of a horror film and the style of German expressionism. Its odd sets are designed by Anton Grot and reminds one of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Svengali has become part of the world’s vocabulary indicating someone evil who uses his power to control another. Otherwise, the film looms as a fossil. At the time Barrymore’s performance was called great, but looking at it today it holds up only because the rest of the cast was so wooden that he was the only one in the film who merited our attention.
REVIEWED ON 3/25/2006 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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