Svengali (1931)

“You are beautiful, my manufactured love…”

Svengali Poster

Synopsis:
A sinister musician (John Barrymore) hypnotizes a model (Marian Marsh) into becoming his wife and a famous opera singer — but her true love (Bramwell Fletcher) refuses to give up hope that she will one day return to him.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that “John Barrymore gave one of his finest screen performances in this unusual adaptation of George du Maurier’s classic novel Trilby” — but I can’t quite agree. While he is indeed “menacing” and “sleazy” (not to mention “in-need-of-a-bath”), Barrymore’s performance, perhaps not surprisingly, far too often borders on hammy. Much more impressive is beautiful Marian Marsh as Trilby, the object of his obsessive desires; from the moment she appears on-screen, Marsh radiates a unique, surprisingly modern energy — making it easy to see why both Svengali and Fletcher’s “Billee” would fall so hard for her. Unfortunately, the “racy” narrative comes across today as dated and largely uninteresting, with occasional bursts of creative energy (i.e., Svengali’s initial hypnosis session with Marsh) adding some much-needed horror and thrills to the proceedings. Anton Grot’s Oscar-nominated, highly expressionistic sets are also noteworthy, though they give the film an undeniably stagy feel. As Peary notes, the “depressing ending” does indeed come as a bit of a surprise.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marian Marsh as Trilby
    Svengali Marsh
  • The eerily effective hypnosis scene
    Svengali Hypnosis
  • Expressionistic art direction
    Svengali Art Direction

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for its historical value, and to see Marsh’s performance.

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One Response to “Svengali (1931)”

  1. Hopelessly hokey. Weak script. Nothing of note here, particularly.

    I can’t say I fell under Marian Marsh’s spell. In the early part of the film, though she may have a bit of a “modern energy”, she still comes off as rather amateurish. Later, when hypnotized, she shows a bit of range – but I wasn’t much moved.

    Without knowing it, Barrymore appears to be rehearsing for another Svengali(-ish) role he would play three years later in the screwball classic, ‘Twentieth Century’: better co-star, script, director, everything. And, in ‘TC’, what Barrymore brings to the role is much better suited to the material.

    This film seems to want to be more of a horror film (what with Svengali’s ghoulish, gothic eyes and all). But no one seems to have mentioned to Barrymore that he is, in fact, in horror territory, so his performance is at odds with the genre. But then, there’s not much by way of established tone to this movie either.

    Oh…there is one fave (camera) moment: In his bedroom late at night, Svengali wills Trilby to come to him. This silent call to Trilby is sent clear to the other side of town – to her bedroom – and the camera follows over rooftops until the call reaches her.

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