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Svengali (1931)

Posted: May 12th, 2007, 9:52 am
by dfordoom
Svengali, made in 1931, is not quite a horror movie although it obviously has quite a bit in common with horror movies. It was clearly very much influenced by the movies of the German Expressionist school such as Der Golem and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with its wonderfully bizarre and disturbing set designs and off-kilter camera angles. This is a movie that doesn’t even pretend to realism. John Barrymore as Svengali gives a very stylised and totally over-the-top performance, but it’s also an extremely effective performance. Marian Marsh is good as Trilby, the young woman held by Svengali’s hypnotic powers. Svengali uses these powers to give her the ability to become a celebrated and successful singer, but also to gain her love. In fact he really only gains an acquiescent mistress.

The scene where Svengali first exercises his power to draw Trilby to him is superb, as the camera takes as over a surreal roofscape from Trilby’s room to his. It’s a movie that has little in common with modern movies (although it has perhaps some affinities to some of Tim Burton’s films, especially Sleepy Hollow), but I found it enthralling. It’s a pre-code movie and it has its racy moments.

Posted: May 12th, 2007, 6:38 pm
by Garbomaniac
Oh, gosh! You certainly hit a nerve with me. I have that film, but I haven't watched it in years! I am going to get it out and watch it again. You are so right about the German influence. I missed that long ago when I saw it last, but I know exactly that about which you are speaking! It is really a masterpiece of the surreal. Thanks for bringing it up again. After I watch it, I will post again.

Posted: May 12th, 2007, 9:55 pm
by feaito
This is one of Barrymore's first films I ever saw. A mesmerizing performance. A unique film. The set design is really fantastic. In the tradition of the German Expressionism as dfrdoom wrote. I'll also make a point of watching the DVD again! :wink:

Posted: May 13th, 2007, 11:17 pm
by Garbomaniac
Well, I just watched Svengali, again. Wow, what a great film! So surreal! I really enjoyed Marian Marsh's performance; she was a cutie! The sets were unbelievable. The streets were crooked, the buildings were crooked, and the stairs were crooked. What a great illusion it created. Barrymore was fantastic, and the effects! His eyes were like balls of fire.

I had forgotten how annoying the character of Billee was! Bramwell Fletcher played the part and did a very good job. However, due to his impetuous drive, he created Trilby's fate! It is typical of youth not to accept the way things are and force change often ending in disaster. The two older fellows tried to stop him, but he wouldn't listen. Sad ending.

I had also forgotten that Donald Crisp and Luis Alberni were in the film. They were great additions!

Highly recommend this film!


Posted: May 15th, 2007, 3:44 pm
by jdb1
I've seen this movie only once, late at night. It was a very bad print, but I loved it.

I thought Barrymore was great, so creepy and seductive, but the real prize was Marian Marsh. She was so cute and appealing, even with that stupid hairdo.

Just goes to show, sometimes old fashioned and histrionic can be good, too.

Posted: May 16th, 2007, 11:19 pm
by Garbomaniac
Hi, Judith! I agree completely. And, I love your avitar! I looks just like you! :wink:

Posted: May 17th, 2007, 11:18 am
by jdb1
Garbomaniac wrote:Hi, Judith! I agree completely. And, I love your avitar! I looks just like you! :wink:
Thanks, J. Yours is quite comely as well.

Posted: May 17th, 2007, 12:08 pm
by nightwalker
I always felt that this film, stylistically and thematically, resembled the classic CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, right down to the camera angles and distorted sets.

Posted: July 30th, 2007, 1:15 am
by precoder
Compelling, expressionistic and fantastic describe "Svengali" (Vitaphone 1931), perhaps the best film adaptation of G.L. du Maurier's 1896 novel, "Trilby" ...

John Barrymore is Maestro Svengali, professeur de chant, pianiste virtuose, who lives among the artisans in Parisian rooftops and attempts to train concert vocalists for his selfish glory. He first appears greasy and unbathed with long matted hair and a devil beard, but his make-up later becomes more conservative. The artists are Englanders; Laird (Donald Crisp), Taffy (Lumsden Hare) and Billie (Bramwell Fletcher), who's Trilby's love interest and ineffective rescuer. I laughed at the scene where the Englanders (off screen) throw Svengali into the tub for a much needed bath. There are a couple of close-up moments where Barrymore actually resembles Bela Lugosi in both look and speech ... He does it all in one film ... Amazing ...

Svengali becomes disgruntled with his protege (Carmel Myers) and more or less directs her to go jump into the Seine, which she does. He discovers Billie's new girlfriend, a model (Marian Marsh), and Svengali immediately attempts to seize her. In an amazing piece of camera, he uses mental telepathy and hypnosis to entrance her from across modeled chimney tops. Barrymore instantly becomes a villainous personality and several mesmerizing close-ups showcase his intense glowing eyes and make-up. He has the power to dissolve her headaches too ...

Trilby tries to resist but cannot, and disappears with him for years, only to re-emerge, a concert vocalist, married now to Svengali but still under his spells. He is the complete master of her being, until he realizes he can find no genuine soul within her to love ... He calls her "my manufactured love", like Pygmalion unfulfilled, and turns away from her, regreting himself. As his heart fails, he gradually loses his grasp on her and she slips in and out of his trances ... Only his eventual death can completely release her ... A good ending ...

Classic Barrymore, intimidating, humorous, Shakespearean, you name it, his character changes several times; from comedic, to horrific, to stubbornly tragic. Marian Marsh is very blonde with straight bangs and dimples and portrays the French modele 'liebchen' enthusiastically. She's very pretty. First time I've seen her on film: (looks like Keeler, performs like Clara) ... A little timid in the clinches but still a pretty good actress ...

Interesting too, after first meeting Trilby, Bramwell Fletcher turns and paints, of all things, her 'foot' on the door which is significant to those viewers who have read the book as du Maurier describes the models most appealing feature is her exceptionally beautiful feet ... In this film, this is only momentarily addressed ...

Creeky and very old ... But the spacious Murnau-type gothic sets, sustained close-up photography and good direction from Archie Mayo (plus a compelling storyline) all instantly made me notice ... this one is a classic ...

G.L. du Maurier's novella was so popular that no fewer than seven silent film adaptations were produced as either "Svengali" or "Trilby" before this 1931 version was made ...