Trilby (1915)

I put this DVD in my Netflix queue, unsure which label it came from since I’d never seen it listed anywhere previously. I should have known it came from Alpha Video, which subsists on public domain titles and puts them out in crappy, low-budget editions with stock music for the silent titles. I’ve refused to watch Alpha DVDs before, because the image quality is typically so poor, which is a major problem for films by visually gifted artists like Trilby‘s director, Maurice Tourneur. The quality of this disk is no exception, but I found myself quickly entranced by the pace of the film and by the stock music used. I didn’t recognize the music, but it sounded like high romantic modernism, with an urgency and brooding tension that was probably out of step with the story a number of times but certainly kept my attention fixed.

Trilby is based on the George Du Maurier novel that has been adapted for film many times, sometimes under the title Svengali. It’s about a young model in Paris named Trilby who falls in love with a young painter but then falls under the hypnotic sway of an older musician named Svengali. Svengali uses his hynotic powers to steal Trilby from her beloved and turn her into a renowned stage singer, while the uncomprehending Billie (the painter) tries to get over his broken heart and get on with life.

The sexual politics of the story are a bit strange, with Trilby a passive, helpless victim under the tutelage of the demonic Svengali. She’s completely unaware that she’s under his control, which only intensifies the sense of her innocence. What’s interesting about this version (I don’t remember this from the 1931 Svengali) is that Svengali ultimately cannot bear the strain of controlling Trilby constantly. This story is not so much a warning to potential Trilbys to watch out for controlling men as it is a warning to potential Svengalis against the idea that control comes without a price. Perhaps it’s even a warning to artists that the creation a work of art (which in some sense Svengali’s creation of the singer Trilby is) comes at a cost.

I would love to see a better transfer for this film, because even in this degraded form it’s clearly chock full of Tourneur’s signature visual acuity. The staging and framing of scenes is crisp and dynamic. At sixty minutes, the film moves like a rocket, and the spirited trio of young painters that Billie is part of project a bohemian brio that reminded me of Fredric March and Gary Cooper in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933). It also looked like the title cards were used to artistic effect, with many of them incorporating stylized images of the characters to add emphasis to the words. I’m not going to recommend this DVD, but I’d recommend the movie unhesitatingly.

Every film of his I see convinces me that Maurice Tourneur was one of the great directors of the early days of feature films. I’ve seen nine of them now (including one short he made in France before coming to the US, although that wasn’t actually all that great), and I’ll be writing about the rest of them as I get the chance. I’ve long loved his son’s movies, and I’m coming to love the father’s films just as much.

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