A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, February 20, 2017

Svengali (Archie Mayo, 1931)

George du Maurier's 1894 novel was called Trilby, as were many of the stage adaptations and early silent film versions. But if you cast John Barrymore as the sinister hypnotist, you almost have to call your film Svengali. It's one of Barrymore's juiciest movie performances, but it surprisingly didn't earn him an Oscar nomination -- an honor he never received. To add to the irony, the best actor Oscar that year went to his brother Lionel for A Free Soul (Clarence Brown, 1931), and one of the actors who did receive a nomination was Fredric March for playing Tony Cavendish, an obvious caricature of John Barrymore, in The Royal Family of Broadway (George Cukor and Cyril Gardner, 1930). Though Barrymore's Svengali doesn't particularly deserve an award, it's the best thing about the film aside from the sets by Anton Grot that were influenced by German expressionism and did earn Grot a nomination, as did cinematographer Barney McGill's filming of them. Like many early talkies, Svengali is slackly paced, as if director Archie Mayo, who learned his craft in the silent era, was still slowing things down so title cards could be placed at the appropriate intervals. It also has some problems of tone: Svengali is not quite the sinister monster you expect him to be from his reputation as an archetype of masterful control. In the beginning he's the butt of horseplay from some of his fellow Paris bohemians, the painters known as The Laird (Donald Crisp) and Taffy (Lumsden Hare), who decide he doesn't bathe often enough and dump him into a bathtub. We know his potential for evil after he causes Madame Honori (Carmel Myers) to commit suicide, but even her character is played for comedy before her untimely end. In this adaptation, by J. Grubb Alexander, the plot revolves around Svengali's manipulation of Trilby (Marian Marsh), an artist's model whose potential as a singer -- even though she can't quite carry a tune -- he deduces from the shape of her mouth. He uses his hypnotic powers to turn her into a diva, though the one performance we see from her, a bit of the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, doesn't merit the ovation it receives -- perhaps he hypnotized the audience, too. But control of Trilby comes at a cost: Svengali's health begins to decline, and Trilby's career along with it, until at the end they both die as she performs in a nightclub in Cairo, second-billed to a troupe of belly-dancers. Only the lovestruck young artist known as "Little Billee" (Bramwell Fletcher), who has devoted his life to tracking Trilby in hopes of winning her back, is there to witness her end. Thanks to Barrymore, and some good support from character actors like Luis Alberni, who plays Svengali's assistant with the improbable name Gecko, Svengali is never unwatchable, and it mostly avoids the antisemitic notes that many have observed in the character, who is said to have mysterious origins, perhaps in Poland, in the novel and its adaptations.