Svengali (1931)

Cinematography Barney McGill
Directed by Archie Mayo

Svengali is a 1931 American pre-Code supernatural drama/horror film produced and distributed by Warner Bros. The film stars John Barrymore and co-stars Marian Marsh. It was directed by Archie Mayo and the screenplay was written by J. Grubb Alexander. It is based on the gothic horror novel Trilby (1894) by George du Maurier. The film was originally released on May 22, 1931. Warner Brothers was so pleased by the box office on this film that the studio hurriedly reteamed Barrymore and Marsh for another horror film The Mad Genius, released on November 7, 1931.

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Svengali (1931)

3 April 2005 | by MARIO GAUCI (marrod@melita.com) (Naxxar, Malta) – See all my reviews

I’ve only watched the film once – by way of Roan’s fine if not outstanding DVD – and this happened fairly recently. SVENGALI follows its source novel (“Trilby” by George Du Maurier) pretty closely, which is rare for horror film-adaptations of the 1930s. Apart from John Barrymore’s appropriately mesmerizing leading performance (here revisiting the genre after a whole decade), I recall one particularly amazing tracking shot demonstrating Svengali’s hypnotic powers over Trilby, and there are even brief flashes of nudity (remember this was a Pre-Code film, but also that our heroine is a model)! Barrymore followed SVENGALI with the thematically-similar THE MAD GENIUS (1931) but, unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to watch that one…

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Superb Barrymore-Delightful Marsh

10/10
Author: roxyroxy
9 March 2005

This is such a great early sound film from the Warner Brothers studio. The sets by Anton Grot are amazing (there is an eye-popping miniature set of the rooftops of Paris). The sentimental background music used in “Svengali” is Thomas Dunn English’s “Ben Bolt”, which is played effectively throughout the film and is partially sang twice. The great John Barrymore IS the one and only Svengali and is superb in the role. He captures Svengali’s wicked humor and cunningness perfectly.

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Marian Marsh is ideally cast and simply delightful as the artists model Trilby. She even looks like Trilby as drawn in George Du Maurier’s novel. She displays an infectious smile and high-spirited jolliness that other actresses who have played Trilby have failed to deliver (Clara Kimball Young was okay in the 1915 silent version (“Trilby”), but Hildagarde Neff and Jodie Foster weren’t at all appealing in the later sound remakes). Mostly everyone else in 1931’s “Svengali” give good performances (the exception being Carmel Myers, whose acting dates badly). This 1931 version of “Svengali” will always be a film worth seeing for Barrymore’s humorous villain, Marsh’s adorable heroine and those glorious expressionistic sets by Anton Grot on the early Warner Brothers sound stages.

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A Real Treat!

10/10
Author: MarcoAntonio1
5 August 2005

I just love this version of the classic tale “Trilby”. John Barrymore is excellent as Svengali and pretty Marian Marsh is utterly charming as Trilby. The film has a very bohemian look and feel to it which is one of the reasons why you should enjoy it. The expressionistic sets were by Anton Grot and there is the famous striking miniature set of the rooftops of Paris that the camera tracks over in the classic scene where Svengali wills Trilby from her apartment to his one stormy midnight. Warner Brothers paired Barrymore and Marsh once again in “The Mad Genius” which is a rather adult, pre-code story with Barrymore just as menacing as he is in “Svengali”, but not the demoniac that he is in this film. Note: The Roan Group (Roan Group.com) has the best DVD edition of “Svengali” available on the market.

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Fantastic design and Barrymore in his prime.

Author: Bobs-9 from Chicago, Illinois, USA
19 April 2004

The remark of an earlier commentator below caught my eye when he stated that the change in perspective from comedy to serious drama in this film didn’t work for him. I’ve found this to be a most striking feature of the film as well, but I always thought it very effective in giving the film, and the characters, more scope than the average uniform, by-the-book comedy, thriller, horror film, drama, etc. A bit like real life, no?

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Anyway, I’ve always been a fan of this film, and I don’t think the acting is at all hokey for its era or genre. The stylized acting of the time, which appears artificial by today’s standards, seems to me to go well with the weird expressionist set design in evoking a fantastic world where fantastic things can occur. Also, the chance to see Barrymore ham it up in grand style as Svengali is, in my view, a rare treat, like experiencing a bit of show biz history. I bristled a bit at the review of this film by Scott Weinberg of the Apollo Movie Guide (see “external reviews” link).

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He states that in 1931 you could entertain people by showing 75 minutes of an airport runway, and that his being born in the 70s may explain why this film put him to sleep. Maybe so. I myself was born in the 50s and also did not grow up with this style of filmmaking, though I probably saw more of it on TV than he did. That doesn’t preclude my appreciation of it, any more than it precludes my appreciation for films of the 70s, the 80s, or the 20s for that matter. Good film is good film, and having no appreciation for the first 3 decades of cinema and some of its greatest innovators seems a severe handicap for anyone who writes about film, but at least he was honest about it.

I’m not saying that this film is on a par with the work of Murnau or Eisenstein, but I do think it’s a fascinating and stylish look into a bygone era of cinema, and can be appreciated as such.

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“Himmell!! That Throat!!!”

10/10
Author: theowinthrop from United States
9 October 2006

Historic note of interest: In the early 19th Century, there was a scandal involving the British General-in-Chief of the Armies (then fighting Napoleon) where his mistress was found to have been selling commissions to wealthy, but undeserving men, for high private fees. The General-in-Chief resigned in 1809 as a result of this scandal. He was Frederick Augustus, Duke of York, second oldest (and favorite) son of King George III. The mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, faced some legal problems, but triumphed over most of them (she actually had public opinion on her side).

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Ms Clarke would marry and have a family. Her grandson was George Du Maurier (more of later); Her great-grandson was Gerald Du Maurier, the leading stage actor of the first half of the 20th Century; Her great-great-granddaughter was Daphne Du Maurier, novelist (REBECCA, JAMAICA INN, FRENCHMAN’S CREEK, MY COUSIN RACHEL, THE SCAPEGOAT), and great-great-grandma’s sympathetic biographer (MARY ANNE). By the way, while Ms Clarke had quite a noteworthy progeny, the Duke of York never had any legitimate children, or illegitimate ones of note.

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But SVENGALI is not Daphne’s book. It is the chief novel of her grandfather George. By the way, the title of the novel is not SVENGALI, but TRILBY. Trilby O’Farrell is the heroine of the story, and Svengali is the villain (“Little Billee” is the hero). But in Svengali George Du Maurier created one of the most memorable villain figures in the 1880 and 1890s, with Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula and Conan Doyle’s Professor James Moriarty, Anthony Hope’s Rupert of Hentzau and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Henry Jeckyll/Edward Hyde.

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Unfortunately there is an element in Svengali that is played down somewhat (but his appearance – based on the novel’s illustrations by Du Maurier (who was a successful cartoonist) emphasize without subtlety). Svengali is Jewish – and a real villain in the story. He is first seen as a hanger-on, and one who sneers at the attempts by Little Billee, Taffy, and the Laird to be artists. That is because he has his own powers, but he is looking for the right person to use them on. He finds that person in Trilby, a beautiful young girl, quite innocent, who works as a model. One day he examines Trilby’s throat somewhat bemusedly and discovers that it is perfectly formed for singing (hence the comment I put in the “Summary Box”).

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Up to that time she is falling for Billee, but soon Svengali is giving her all kinds of singing lessons. Billee and his friends note this with apprehension (they barely can tolerate Svengali). Then she becomes increasingly distant and cold to them, especially Billee. Soon she leaves with Svengali. Billee suffers a collapse as a result.

Billee recovers and in a few years learns that Trilby is the leading concert singer in Europe. But wherever she goes it is always with her impresario/husband Svengali. He “keeps an eye” on her and her activities. Billee can’t stand this, especially after an accidental meeting with her leads to a feeling she doesn’t even know who he is. He starts pursuing them, and finally drives to the fatal conclusion (which is quite different in the novel, but similar).

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I doubt if hypnotism really could do what Du Maurier suggested Svengali could do to Trilby. But this film certainly suggests it can. John Barrymore’s Svengali was the closest role (in his sound films; he had played Dr. Jeckyll in a silent film) to a horror part, but he manages to make the impresario/hypnotist/musician a sad and compelling figure: the tragedy for Barrymore’s Svengali is his success – he knows he controls Trilby (Marian Marsh), but that knowledge also brings doubt that she could ever love him or give herself to him on her own free will. It is a damning situation, and he does not know the answer until the last moment of the film. Svengali would be a hallmark role for Barrymore – he is a reference point in the role of Oscar Jaffe in the comedy TWENTIETH CENTURY, and a slightly watered down version is his unhappy impresario/husband to Jeanette MacDonald in MAYTIME.

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