The Mad Genius (1931)

Emphasis on the Word Mad

2 July 2016 | by mmallon4 (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

I feel like no other decade seems to have as many obscure gems lost to time as the 1930’s; case in point, The Mad Genius. Coming out in the same year as the iconic adaptations of Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde; but in my humble opinion, The Mad Genius is a better and more intriguing film than any of those.


The opening of The Mad Genius does a superb job at setting a time and place; central Europe in the early 20th century. There is an impeccable level of detail in creating the world of a travelling performer; with the falling of the rain, the wind and the sound of horse and carriage taking full advantage of sound technology to create a world. Equally as impressive is Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov’s (John Barrymore) Berlin theatre and the large scale stage set with hints of German expressionism throughout and the wide spread use of music in the soundtrack, unlike other early talkies.


John Barrymore is (unsurprisingly) mesmerising as Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov (quite a name), one of the most repulsive characters he ever played as he spends the movie spewing pompous and at times mad scientist like dialogue. He has a misogynistic attitude towards women and is even seen ogling up the skirts of his dancers, in one of the film’s very pre-code elements. He is even a drug dealer, although the word drug is never used in the film nor is it indentified what substances appear in the film. In one scene in which he refuses to deal drugs with the stage director played by Luis Alberni, I love his summary on drugs when he throws them into the fire; “If I drop this, you will be free, but you will suffer of course, but in the end, you will be happier than you could ever dream”. Likewise In one of the movie’s comic highlights there is an early use of profanity in film; “It’s unbelievable that there’s any human being living, who should be such a stupid ass”.


One of the many interesting observations in The Mad Genius is the combination of elements from other movies. The plot itself is derivative of Barrymore’s previous horror outing Svengali, while Tsarakov’s desire to create a great ballet dancer out of a young boy is a variation on Dr Frankenstein (which the movie itself alludes to). When Tsarakov is wearing on overcoat he is bent over like Quasimodo; Barrymore’s facial appearance is very similar to that of Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, likewise his voice is reminiscent of Lugosi’s Dracula. The theatre setting has vibes of The Phantom of the Opera and perhaps most interestingly are the elements of The Red Shoes with the film’s inclusion of ballet and the themes of going to extremes for one’s art. Could Powell and Pressburger have taken inspiration from The Mad Genius?


THE MAD GENIUS (Michael Curtiz, 1931) ***

Author: MARIO GAUCI ( from Naxxar, Malta
23 January 2010
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Warner Brothers were clearly eager to give the 1931 public what it wanted and also consolidate the success of SVENGALI made earlier that year by instantly reuniting the leads from that film – John Barrymore and Marian Marsh – in a quickly rehashed potboiler on similar lines.


Barrymore is an embittered puppeteer whose lameness had dashed his dreams of a dancing career but, as fate would have it, is provided with the opportunity of living that glory vicariously through the agile street urchin he saves one day from the clutches of his cruel father (a small role for a pre-fame Boris Karloff). Growing up to be a peerless dancer (played by an uncharismatic Donald Cook) through the ruthless patronage of his foster father, he is ready to give it all up for the love of an innocent girl in the show (Marsh) but, needless to say, Barrymore will not let anything stand in the way of art and his ambitious plans for the prized pupil.


Amusing sidekick Charles Butterworth helplessly looks on as Barrymore sadistically convinces dope-addicted choreographer (Luis Alberni) to fire Marsh but Cook overhears their heinous scheme and this causes a rift between impresario and protégé. Years pass but more scheming on Barrymore’s part enables the estrangement of the lovers and the rekindling of the working relationship between father and son. Once again, however, fate intervenes with Barrymore eventually getting his just desserts at the hands of the distraught Alberni – on stage during the performance of what was to be Cook’s crowning achievement! Admittedly, the plot is much inferior to that of SVENGALI but an unhinged Barrymore is always worth watching, Marsh is typically lovely while Michael Curtiz’s expressionistic direction (his first of three notable forays in the genre) and Anton Grot’s stylish sets lend the production a touch of class that keeps one watching if not exactly enthralled.


The Follow – Up To SVENGALI

Author: theowinthrop from United States
29 January 2008
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When Michael Curtiz directed this odd ballet and horror film he presumably had the recent success of the John Barrymore – Marian Marsh film SVENGALI (from George Du Maurier’s TRILBY) in mind. That story was based on a novel wherein a great singer is actually controlled (by hypnosis) by her impresario. Although Svengali’s character in the novel was quite obnoxious, the film version softened it to make one realize he was in control of Trilby but loved her and could not be certain if she loved him back. In the end it turned out she did.


The story of THE MAD GENIUS was similar – Donald Cook is a brilliant ballet dancer who was trained by impresario Barrymore, and the latter is determined to get his protégé the career he deserves – by all means necessary. This means derailing anything or anyone who Barrymore concludes will prevent this. Marsh is a female member of the ballet company that Cook is falling for, and Barrymore is willing to push her out of the company, and even turn her into a wealthy nobleman’s mistress to keep Cook in line.


The film actually works. In the background was a misunderstanding of the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinski (who many thought was that impresario’s puppet). Here one realizes Barrymore is a man who is so hung up on the success of his adopted son that he does not stop even while he realizes he is doing harm to so many others. To perfect the boy’s dancing (and the company’s) he is willing to be the drug supplier to dance master Luis Alberni (one of the first examples of cocaine use in movies). When not pimping for his wealthy aristocratic backer, he runs a tight ship on all the dancers and his factotum associate Charles Butterworth.


But he is human. One of the funniest aspects of the film is how Barrymore picks up his own sexual partners from starry eyed young woman coming in to join the ballet company. He always uses the same line with them, and even the same hour the next day to visit his office (three o’clock). Butterworth adds his bit too, as he tries constantly to interest Barrymore or anyone in a really bad ballet he’s written (Barrymore, who is happy and drunk when Butterworth finally corners him, slowly sobers up when hearing this idiotic story line, and ends up saying he never realized what an ass Butterworth really was).


Finally there is a cameo that I find fascinating. This is the film wherein Boris Karloff (for about one minute) shares screen time with John Barrymore. They never did so again.

tasty ham, attractively served; side dishes not bad

Author: mukava991 from United States
1 February 2015

In “The Mad Genius” John Barrymore delivers one of his most enjoyable screen performances, playing a club-footed, alcoholic, womanizing Russian puppeteer who takes an abused youth under his wing and molds him into a great star with the Ballet Russe, an accomplishment he could never attain himself due to his deformity. Some may consider his performance hammy, but at least it’s Grade A.


The film opens expressionistically somewhere in “Central Europe” on a rain-drenched night with Barrymore and his dim-witted sidekick (the deadpan Charles Butterworth) rehearsing a traveling puppet show when a barefoot youth (Frankie Darro), fleeing a beating from his insanely sadistic father (Boris Karloff), stumbles into their tent. Barrymore and Butterworth hide him and leave town in a horse-drawn wagon shot at a tilted angle as it creaks along a muddy road.

Zip to Berlin several years later. The youth is now a young man (Donald Cook) who is in love with a fellow dancer (Marian Marsh). Barrymore, still the puppeteer but of humans now, wants no one interfering with his controlling relationship and maneuvers Marsh out of the company while elevating a lesser dancer to her position. Meanwhile, Barrymore’s dance director (Luis Alberni) is slowly going mad from a cocaine addiction enabled by his employer. The two are locked together, feeding on each other’s weaknesses, paralleling the central relationship between teacher-mentor and star-protégé. Barrymore needs Alberni’s skills as a dance master; Alberni can’t function without the drugs Barrymore provides.


The camera often shoots from low angles, with ceilings visible. Lots of chiaroscuro. Pre-Code subject matter includes extramarital cohabitation, prostitution, drug addiction, and (for the time) grisly violence. Suggestive dialogue abounds.

Barrymore feasts on the role. Luis Alberni plays the frenzied addict to the hilt. Marian Marsh and Donald Cook are sometimes mechanical and artificial but not to the extent that they undermine their roles and both have strong moments. Carmel Myers is excellent in a brief drunken scene with Barrymore.

Donald Cook looks so much like the Warners contract actress Kay Francis that they should have been cast in a movie together as siblings. Just sayin’.


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