Monday, March 22, 2010

Svengali (1931)

When Svengali (John Barrymore) and his lackey Gecko (Luis Alberni) visit the studio of artists, The Laird (Donald Crisp), Taffy (Lumsden Hare), and Billee (Bramwell Fletcher), he is in search of a meal. His latest conquest Honori (Carmel Myers) has proven a failure, though she left her husband thinking Svengali loved her, she refused her husband’s offer of money much to Svengali’s apparent disappointment. She is later found having killed herself. Instead of a meal Svengali finds himself thrown in some bath water with The Laird and Taffy rushing off to tell others Svengali has finally been bested when it comes to personal hygiene. While they are away, Svengali makes use of one of Taffy’s suits which happens to have a pocketful of The Laird’s money. Happy with his discovery, Svengali is even happier to find his next conquest in artist model, Trilby O'Ferrall (Marian Marsh). He is enchanted by her voice and decides he can use it for profit but must use his hypnotic powers to win her away from Billee whom she loves.
One day under the pretext of curing her headache, Svengali hypnotizes her and thereafter is able to control her by the power of his thoughts. When Billee discovers Trilby posing nude for a group of artists, they quarrel, and Svengali convinces her to fake a suicide and leave Paris with him. Five years later The Laird, Taffy, and Billee discover Trilby is alive when curiosity brings them to the Paris debut of Madame Svengali the singer and toast of Europe. Astonished to see the woman he thought was dead attached to Svengali, Billee is now convinced that Trilby is under Svengali’s spell and is determined to win her back. Knowing that the strain of maintaining his mental grip on Trilby will eventually be his downfall, Billee follows their tour until Svengali must cancel all engagements and is forced to have Madame Svengali perform in only the lowliest of places. Now fully in love with Trilby himself, Svengali is haunted by the fact she will not return his love of her own free will. Deciding to give up on life and by extension Trilby, Svengali’s last wish is to be granted in death what he was denied in life, Trilby’s love.

Through a bumpy series of events that do not mesh smoothly, Svengali showcases an incongruent image of a man who forever changes the course of Trilby's life. A tongue-in-cheek cum Gothic horror cum sappy romance is jarring for any viewer trying to wrap their head around Svengali's true nature. Combine these inconsistencies with Barrymore's overpowering talent compared to Marsh's overplayed naïveté (I'm assuming here as I have not seen her in other films and have no comparison to say whether or not she was a talented actress) and what you have is a mediocre film tribute to a thrilling story.

Side note:
Ironically, I am currently reading Marlene Dietrich, a completely absorbing and entertaining biography by her daughter Maria Riva which paints Dietrich's relationship with von Sternberg in a completely different and less ominous light. I recommend it to everyone even if you, like me, are not well acquainted with Dietrich's work. It's really quite refreshing in its straightforward honesty and creative narrative.

Tonight on TCM! Guest programmer Kareem Abdul-Jabar has picked out quite a line up!

The Big Sleep (1946) Private eye Philip Marlowe investigates a society girl's involvement in the murder of a pornographer. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers Dir: Howard Hawks

The Maltese Falcon (1941) Hard-boiled detective Sam Spade gets caught up in the murderous search for a priceless statue.Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre Dir: John Huston

The Shootist (1976) A dying gunfighter tries to set his affairs in order. Cast: John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart Dir: Don Siegel


  1. I recall trying to read George Du Maurier's Trilby (the original text I expect the movie is based on), but never finished it. The pictures of Svengali you've got here look pretty eery and spot on! Yet another film I've yet to see...!

  2. I'm surprised he didn't pick "Airplane!"