Wednesday 1 August 2012

Film Review: "Svengali" (1931)

Although, it’s a couple of days late, this is my last film in the Marian Marsh marathon, the odd horror classic, ‘Svengali” (1931)

I was too interested by the direction and appearance of the film to get the full details of the plot, so the below comes mainly from IMBD and parts of my memory.

Svengali (John Barrymore) or “maestro” - as he is often called - is a talented music teacher with a strange, dark talent. He has the ability to hypnotise people just by looking them in the eyes. In the beginning of the film he is shown with a woman, clearly obsessed with him, who has left her husband with the hopes of marrying Svengali. She was to be his chance at fortune and a ticket to high society, but she has refused any money from her estranged husband and, after looking deeply into his glazed eyes, is later found dead on the banks of a river. Destitute he goes to the apartment of his friends, painters, with whom he has borrowed money from before.

While there, he meets the glowing artist’s model, Trilby (Marian Marsh) dressed in a male overcoat and slippers, smiling and yelling, “milk below.” He is instantly enchanted by her innocence and beauty and intends to make her his next mistress.

But, unhappily, she is already in love with the youthful and handsome Billee (Bramwell Fletcher) who also means to marry her. Svengali, doesn’t see this as a hindrance and, at the first opportunity, he hypnotises her into an obsession with him. Later, with the object of removing her from her friends, he persuades her to fake a suicide and carries her off, draped in a thin cloak, into the night.

Trilby surfaces some weeks later, married to Svengali, and transformed into a brilliant classical singer, a public and critical success. Their married life is quiet until one night Billee appears and recognises the performer as the beautiful Trilby, his lover that he lost. He tries to save her but she is still under Svengali’s spell and returns to him. Svengali is pleased but something odd is happening. He is falling in love with his young bride and begins to feel guilty about deceiving her.
He aims to make her return his love but she is too far into the hypnosis to respond truthfully. With Billee’s presence he is becoming reckless and desperate. Will he relinquish Trilby or take her where no living person will find her?      


I don’t know what to think of this movie. I have to admit I don’t watch a lot of Precode horror films (I haven’t even seen Frankenstein yet) and I don’t have anything to compare it to. “Svengali” (1931) has an interesting storyline based on the book of the same name by George du Maurier that fits the trend of Victorian literature with debased characters within the English upper-class, such as, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 

 John Barrymore is strangely entertaining as the perverted, bearded Svengali. Although, I did see him in his silent triumph ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1920), I was not ready for the level of makeup and alterations made to his appearance when playing the role. As I had seen his other Precode’s ‘Arsene Lupin’ (1932) and ‘Grand Hotel’ (1932) previously, I assumed John had shifted from his performances filled with heavy stage acting and overemphasised gesturing to playing sophisticated, bored noblemen. I was wrong. His exaggerated costumes, expressions and movements occasionally seems like he is playing the role for laughs rather than horror. However, this is something I grew to like; as the film progressed, I began taking his role for what it was and stopped comparing it to modern horror films, like ‘The Grudge’ or ‘Scream’. If you take the character as being a parody rather than reality and towards then end when Svengali softens, you begin to sympathize with him. His love of Trilby, who can never return it, makes Svengali a little more human and the film more relatable. 

Marian Marsh is more radiant in this role than any other. Her entry, leaning on the door smoking a cigarette with her shining straight blonde hair and vacant expression is reminiscent of 1940’s femme fatales. The dark, almost green film print makes her clear white skin glow compared to Barrymore’s which is always clouded in shadows.  Marian breaks her stereotype for parts of this movie as the artists model Trilby who behaviours like an innocent but always seems to be semi-clothed or trying to be. The main Precode feature of this film – other than Svengali’s obvious expressions of lust – is Trilby’s nude scene with her body covered by a discretely placed sheet. I was interested to find out that the scene was performed by a body double and not Marian herself. 

And the ending. I had an inkling the film was going to end the way it did – I didn’t want it to – but there was no other reasonable conclusion for the characters then that one. I don’t want to give anything away but this, being Svengali’s last line, sums up the movies conclusion:

“Oh God, grant me in death what you denied me in life, the woman I love.”     

It was a compelling ending to a film that at times was a little slow and boring but would be entertaining for lovers of John Barrymore, Marian Marsh or vintage horror.  
Here is a couple of the interesting shots of Barrymore as Svengali:

  Blink and you will miss it.....


  1. Funny, I enjoyed this one a lot.I don't go much for John Barrymore, but I loved his performance in this, the way he walked the fine line between creepy pervert and lonely soul. Marian Marsh was just gorgeous. And I love the influence of German Expressionism in the sets.

  2. "Trilby" is also a 1915 film based on the same novel with an artists model named Trilby who poses nude (shown only on an intertitle card).