Svengali (1931)

So having watched Maurice Tourneur’s Trilby recently, this adaptation of the same novel under a different title seemed an appropriate follow-up. I’d watched the Roan Group DVD a couple of times before, but not for a few years. The story was much more similar to the earlier movie than I remembered, although this one is definitely dedicated to John Barrymore’s performance as Svengali, channeling his inner Bela Lugosi in what looks like a Warner Bros reaction to the horror films Universal was releasing at the time, e.g., Dracula (1930) and Frankenstein (1931).

Screencap from Svengali

The reason I’d picked up this DVD in the past was because I was exploring the German expressionist films of the ’20s, which led me to the American horror films of the ’30s that were heavily influenced by the Germans. One of the main pleasures of this film are the sets by Anton Grot, which betray expressionist fingerprints such as forced perspective and distorted forms like elongated doors. The lighting and camera work also show the influence, and not always subtly, as above.

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The 1931 version actually ends on a more downbeat note than the 1915, which feels stronger and is apparently closer to the ending of George Du Maurier’s novel, Trilby, yet it also lacks the proto-feminist implications of the 1915 movie’s ending. Clara Kimball Young from the earlier movie has more charisma than Marian Marsh, and one of the weaknesses of the later movie is the way it complicates Trilby’s character without really achieving any greater depth. She’s more sexually ashamed in Svengali, whereas she’s a kind of child of nature in Tourneur’s film. Marian Marsh looks the part but can’t sell the more complicated feelings.

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The sexual subtext of the story is of an experienced older man stealing a free-spirited girl from her innocent beloved. What’s curious is that in both films the young painter Billie whom Trilby loves is a more or less useless twit, by far the least interesting character even compared to his boisterous Scottish painter pals or Svengali’s toady violinist sidekick, Gecko. Svengali himself is the most interesting character, especially in this version, and he even gains a certain amount of sympathy through becoming the victim of his own monstrousness. The loneliness of the control-freak is played up as he cannot take pleasure from forcing Trilby to love him.

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From what I’ve read about the novel, the painter, called Little Billee, is the protagonist — an upper class Englishman whose mother convinces Trilby that a marriage with a working girl such as herself would be disastrous. Trilby agrees to leave Billee for his own good. The fundamental change both movies make is to remove the class element and make Svengali the agent of Billee’s loss of Trilby. This move probably reflects the fascination audiences had with the mesmerizing Svengali.

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The book is apparently also much more overt in its anti-Semitism, which at least to this goy was initially only apparent in the 1931 movie in the occasional use of ridiculous hooked-nose prosthetics on Barrymore. Svengali’s ability to part his bohemian friends from their money is treated as a joke in both films, but it no doubt carries more than a whiff of anti-Semitism as well. Svengali’s Jewishness is never overtly referred to in either film, which seems odd to me, but that probably only reflects my ignorance of how the social acceptability of anti-Semitism was evolving at the time.

The same year Svengali was released Barrymore made another horror film called The Mad Genius with much the same production crew, but with director Michael Curtiz instead of Svengali‘s Archie Mayo. If the expressionist influence is as strong on that one as it is on this one, it’d probably be worth seeing, because Curtiz’s films are usually pretty good even on their own terms.



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