The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Svengali.
Based on George du Maurier’s novel Trilby, the great John Barrymore stars as the manipulative but charming music tutor Svengali, who uses his hypnotic powers to entrance a young artist’s model named Trilby (Marian Marsh) and transform her into a European singing sensation. Archie Mayo’s film reverses the book’s focus, emphasizing the sinister Svengali over his attractive victim, resulting in one of Barrymore’s most critically acclaimed performances. Anton Grot’s art direction and Barney McGill’s cinematography were each nominated for Academy Awards and are as baroque and creepy as Barrymore’s portrayal of the mesmeric maestro. Svengali is an under-appreciated classic of Hollywood’s early sound horror films and a tragically tantalizing Pre-Code masterpiece.
- High definition digital transfer with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Audio commentary featuring film historian Gregory Mank
- From Trilby to Today, an interview with scholar Gayle Wald on the Svengali figure
- The Look of Svengali, an interview with designer and journalist Cathy Whitlock
- PLUS: A new essay by filmmaker Guy Maddin
John Barrymore’s life underwent a dramatic reversal between Moby Dick (Lloyd Bacon, 1930) and Svengali (Archie Mayo, 1931). “The Great Profile” had a long and infamous problem with alcohol, dating as far back as his very early teenage years. Moby Dick, his unsuccessful remake of The Sea Beast (Millard Webb, 1926) as a sound film, was poorly received and the film exhibited his drunkenness for open public scrutiny. Now at age 42, Barrymore was suffering from a dangerous ulcer and severe gastric hemorrhaging, and he was forced into a strict treatment founded on abstention and restraint on all counts. The result of that intervention on Barrymore’s diminishing talents was Svengali, the actor’s only remarkable success during his 5-picture deal with Warner Bros. His co-star, Marian Marsh, remembered “Jack” as happy, sober, professional, and in love with his wife Dolores Costello, and the film appears to capture Barrymore once again in top form, playing his star-making tutor with manipulative and malevolent charisma.
Warner Bros.’s adaptation of George du Maurier’s popular 1895 novel Trilby (serialized in Harper’s Monthly in 1894) immediately declares a change in emphasis by renaming it Svengali, shifting focus from the naïve, young artist’s model to the hypnotic, musical villain who entrances her. Svengali is a pianist and vocal coach living in bohemian Paris of the 1850s. Among the painters and sculptors who share his building, he is a source of amusement and even exoticism, but his assistant Gecko (Luis Alberni) knows him to be more dangerous, and we are first introduced to Svengali as he turns away a student who has left her husband (without “a settlement”) to be with her tutor. Svengali rebukes her, forcing her to leave his flat by the sheer force of his gaze, and she is later found having drowned herself in the Seine.
When young model Trilby (Marian Marsh) and her perfect feet arrive at the door of Svengali’s “English friends,” Taffy (Lumsden Hare), Laird (Donald Crisp), and Billie (Bramwell Fletcher), it is the mesmeric master who first meets her and he quickly recognizes she possesses a “mouth with a roof like the dome of the Parthenon.” Svengali adroitly drives himself between the mutual infatuation of Trilby and Billie, and seizes upon Trilby’s complaint of recurring headaches to have her agreeably subject herself to hypnosis, thereby binding her to his will. Shortly thereafter, Billie and Trilby quarrel over her posing as a nude model, and when police find Trilby vanished and her clothes left on the banks of the Seine, she is assumed to have killed herself.
At the same time as Trilby’s disappearance, Svengali and Gecko leave Paris. Flash forward 5 years and Svengali returns to the City of Light as the mentor and husband to Europe’s newest singing sensation, Mme Svengali (who is in fact Trilby under Svengali’s spell). An unexpected meeting between the Svengalis and the English artists results in Billie briefly breaking Svengali’s hold over Trilby. Billie, still in love with Trilby, commits to following Svengali’s tour in an effort to free his love from the mesmerist’s power. Svengali is thereby forced to cancel show after show, aware that Trilby can only sing while entranced and fearful that Billie will again and perhaps permanently release the maestro’s grip on her. The European tour is eventually ruined, forcing Svengali to flee to Africa. Billie follows the pair of falling musical stars to a Cairo cabaret where the toll of Svengali’s psychic hold over Trilby finally kills him. Dying, Svengali pleads, “Oh God, grant me in death what you denied me in life – the woman I love.” In doing so, the fainted Trilby awakens to smile, utter Svengali’s name, and then die, allowing Svengali a final happily ever after.
Svengali‘s cast is uniformly enjoyable, but John Barrymore’s title character is a work of art and one that is all the more impressive given his position as the film’s villain and antagonist. But Svengali is not merely a villain who steals, exploits, covets, and enslaves his way through the film; he is a collection of ugly ethnic slurs that has made the character an anti-Semitic literary icon comparable to Shylock and Fagin. Mayo’s film obscures Svengali’s background, never specifically calling him a Jew and instead associating him with the Orient and suggesting he is a Polish émigré, but he is given a heavy accent, a long, forked beard, and an exaggerated nose that all betray the character’s cultural origins. Barrymore’s performance is impressive for managing to create a character that still elicits sympathy and compassion in Svengali‘s audiences. While in private with Trilby, Svengali exerts his control over his pupil but laments being unable to inspire emotional sincerity her, remarking that her affections are only “old Svengali talking to himself again,” and leaving her to rest unaccosted. Barrymore’s 4th wife, Elaine, recounts in her autobiography All My Sins Remembered that seeing the Great Profile in Svengali transformed her “real crush” into a determined commitment “to meet some day and mean a great deal to each other” notwithstanding that Barrymore was playing (to use her mother’s words) “a maniac with a filthy heart and cataracts.”
Even more than Barrymore’s performance, Svengali may be most celebrated for the astonishing camerawork of Barney McGill and the otherworldly design of Anton Grot. Grot, a Polish émigré himself and a prolific art director for Warner Bros. throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, creates a bohemian Paris that is equal parts nightmare and fairy tale, full of improbably wide passageways and unnaturally canted architectures. Through these warped environments, McGill’s camera slips and scours. In Svengali‘s most extravagant sequence, a close-up of Svengali’s face, lit from below and emphasizing the mesmerist’s milky eyes, widens until the camera escapes out his apartment window and ominously stalks over the undulating roofs of a miniature Paris until it enters Trilby’s flat and she is gripped by Svengali’s invisible power. What is less frequently discussed is how this warped and winding dreamscape disappears when the film advances 5 years and Svengali returns to Paris with his now-wife and star. Aside from Trilby’s rather ostentatious bed, Svengali becomes a rather familiar and sedate film visually. It’s as if Svengali’s psychic influence initially radiates from him, infusing the space about him and distorting it with its craven pressure, but once Svengali’s power is directed solely upon Trilby, its effect is diminished and the world realigns much as Svengali becomes respectable and appears to go straight himself.
Svengali is as engaging and captivating as its eponymous character so ably played by John Barrymore. And like its title figure, Archie Mayo’s film deftly blends comedy, tragedy, and horror to create a singular work. This early sound horror film deserves a high definition hard media release with a full compliment of special features to improve on the now out of print DVD of the Roan Group and the public domain discs that still circulate. Svengali would easily fit into the Criterion Collection, rubbing shoulders with another Pre-Code horror favourite, Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932). The Collection has a great talent for designing contemporary covers for their oldest films, and with that in mind we propose Yana Moskaluk as Svengali‘s cover artist. Moskaluk’s art is typified by keen edges, compositions that harken to classic artistic movements, and bold and modern uses of colour. We’re confident that Svengali’s eerie gaze and psychic potency would be in good hands with Moskaluk.
Credits: The cover summary is adapted from the Roan Group DVD. Gregory Mank provides a commentary on Criterion’s edition of Island of Lost Souls, and we hope he could work the same magic on Svengali. Mank has written frequently about Svengali and no doubt would provide a bounty of information worthy of a Criterion Collection edition of the film. The Gayle Wald interview is inspired by her article for Sounding Out!, “How Svengali Lost His Jewish Accent.” Cathy Whitlock’s Designs for Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction surveys the role of the production designer in cinema’s greatest films and references the esteemed work of Anton Grot therein, and so we’ve proposed an interview with her as well. Finally, we know that Svengali is a favourite of filmmaker Guy Maddin, what with its primitivism, its fantasy, and its doomed, obsessive love story. With Maddin being such a close friend of the label, tagging him for booklet essay was an easy choice.
And we must end by thanking Crystal for inviting us to participate in The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Please be sure to visit In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and explore some of the great posts contributing to the blogathon.