Often termed an early Warners’ horror film, 1931’s Svengali only fits the label in the most broad of respects. If anything this wonderful film is a mixture of a comedy and a psychological thriller, with the first half containing the bulk of the comedy and the thrills coming more on the backside.
Starring John Barrymore, Svengali centers around the title character, a rather downtrodden maestro who composes and teaches vocal lessons. Clear from the start that he’s a bit of a scamp, meandering from clients to neighbors to either earn or beg for his keep, Svengali lives in a bit of an artist’s commune in short proximity to others of the same ilk.
Svengali encounters young Trilby (Marian Marsh) when she visits his neighbors. Though neighbor Billee (Bramwell Fletcher) becomes smitten with her, it is Svengali himself who locks onto her, hypnotizing her to love him. As Billee fights to keep Trilby with him Svengali deepens his hold on her until she finally leaves with him on a concert tour of Europe- but not after he first leaves all with the impression that Trilby drowned in the river.
Now free of the artisan scene, Trilby and her new beau travel concert halls to great success and acclaim, being sought after by royalty and the wealthy and powerful alike. Billee after innocently attending one of the concerts to see his old neighbor Svengali learns that Trilby is still alive, which rekindles his feelings for her. He begins following them from city to city hoping to bump into Trilby and get his second chance.
Having learned of Billee’s pursuit, Svengali begins cancelling concerts- so much so that finally he can’t secure a concert date in all of Europe. Ultimately he and Trilby shed all their fine trappings to support themselves until they find themselves in a small Egyptian lounge playing as a supporting act for a belly-dancing troupe.
Finally after realizing that for all his efforts Trilby has no real love for him, Svengali decides to release her from his grasp in a relatively abrupt and final- final scene.
There is a lot to like about the picture and the first of these is the work of art director Anton Grot. Overall the film is clearly heavily in the German style, full of deep, heavy and angular shadows and contrasts- not to mention arched doorways and ceilings. In a precursor of many of the great set pieces he developed later in his sixteen film partnership with Michael Curtiz, here we have a great Grot scene flying over a French village. One has to feel bad for Svengali’s director Archie Mayo as this has the look and feel of a Curtiz film, though the pacing is somewhat slower than your average Curtiz effort.
The second great highlight of Svengali has to be John Barrymore, the “great profile” himself. Though he shines throughout, he is most effective early on where most of the humor lies. Though some have termed his performance here as overacting or perhaps ‘hamming’ it up, it is really a combination of him letting the audience in on the joke and a lingering touch of unfamiliarity with the relatively new sound process.
Don’t let his exaggerated facial contortions or near winks of the eye fool you- much less some of the sounds he makes (which resemble Peter Sellers’ as Inspector Clouseau) , as Barrymore wants you to know that he’s having a bit of fun here and so should you. In the opening scene as we are introduced to Svengali, a young lady comes for her singing lesson as he asks:
“Ach, now what did we do last?
Don’t you remember?
(with eye-roll and a wave of the hand) I am speaking about music!”
Ms. Marsh, still a teenager at the time of filming, is great as Trilby but seems to somehow be unable to create much chemistry with Barrymore (for my own arbitrary reasons I’m blaming her and not Barrymore here). In her defense it’d be hard to create much chemistry with your 49 year old costar when you’re a mere 17. She is effective however in altering her on-screen personality wonderfully as the script dictates.
In her early appearances she is vivacious and almost overly flirty, almost making one wonder if Trilby is one with perhaps questionable morals. Her eyes twinkle and she’s perpetually flashing a big smile. Later, after she’s been hypnotized by dear Svengali, the life has clearly gone out of her. Outside of a brief reunion with Billee where her true self reemerges (as Svengali momentarily looses his hold on her) she’s really become a ghoul of sorts. Though she looks wondrous in her furs and fancy gowns, her shoulders now slump and her language and eyes are lifeless and devoid of emotion.
Though her career took an irrevocable downturn after she squabbled with Warners after the release of the same year’s Under Eighteen, much of her early work shows signs of great promise.
On the negative side (of which there is little to say) must reside Bramwell Fletcher as Billee. Though thankfully an afterthought for much of the picture and with only one real significant scene he has to show up for (the final meeting with Svengali in Egypt) he’s perhaps one of the most unengaging love interests to hit screens of any size.
But don’t let the erstwhile Fletcher through you from checking out Svengali. It’s a rare chance to see John Barrymore in an iconic role that’s unfortunately not viewed often enough. That said, there’s no reason not to see it as in an especially rare situation you can for free! Though it is out on DVD and airs on rare occasions on TCM, as the copyright has expired the film is available in the public domain.
For goodness sakes, even youtube has the whole film!