Svengali is a drama/horror film directed by Archie Mayo . The film stars both John Barrymore as the title character and Marian Marsh. Svengali is a 1931 pre-code film so it contains adult themes and immoral behavior. Svengali was so successful with its initial release that John Barrymore and Marian Marsh were quickly cast again in the film The Mad Genius.
The story starts with Svengali (played by John Barrymore) meeting with his current pupil who is a very bad singer who tells Svengali she has left her husband for him. He uses his powers hypnotism and mind control to get her to commit suicide then goes to visits his English friends Gecko (Luis Alberni) and Monsieur Taffy (Lumsden Hare) to attempt to borrow money to pay rent. While visiting he meets Trilby (played by Marian Marsh) and while leaving he hears her singing. Which leads Svengali conclude that Trilby has the perfect mouth for singing. Trilby meets Billee (Bramwell Fletcher) after Svengali leaves and the two fall in love. Later when visiting again his English friends he encounters Trilby again she mentions she has frequent headaches and Svengali uses his powers to remove her headache. While she’s under his spell he examines her mouth concluding he was correct and that she does have the perfect mouth for singing then leaves. Later that night he uses is powers to pull Trilby to him continuing to strengthen his hold over her. He convinces her to fake taking her life after breaking up with Billee so no one will come to look for her. They then leave Paris to travel Europe become famous over the next five years for Svengali’s music and Trilby’s beautiful singing while under his thrall. One night Gecko, Monsieur Taffy and Billee go to see Svengali perform and learn that Trilby is still alive after meeting him outside after the show. Svengali’s hold breaks momentarily and Trilby runs to Billee delighted to see him. Svengali uses his powers once again to pull her under his sway. After seeing that Trilby is alive Billee declares his intent to follow Svengali waiting for the day his hold over her breaks again. Svengali cancels so many shows while trying to avoid Billee that he eventually can no longer perform in Europe and travels to Egypt. In Egypt Svengali and Billee confront each other again the night of Svengali’s final performance.
Like many movies of this Era I really enjoyed it. Like other horror films from this era it’s very artistic with grand and expressionistic sets. Which is something that I always enjoy about them. The distorted sets cause a dreamlike quality combined with the Barrymore’s slow methodical voice create a subtle but tense atmosphere.
The five principal actors in this film all do wonderful jobs especially Marian Marsh. I’ll be honest that I didn’t know who she was before watching this film .Which is a shame given that she has 10 film credits during which is quickly becoming my favorite era of Hollywood horror films. Barrymore is of course delightful and deliverers a villain that is both sympathetic and sinister. But my favorite performances are those of Luis Alberni and Lumsden Hare who play the English friends Gecko and Monsieur Taffy. Every time these two men were on screen I found myself thoroughly entertained.
The music while strong throughout the film didn’t carry the emotional resonance that I feel it could have. Even the singing of Marian Marsh while good is very dated and I didn’t enjoy the scenes that she performed. This is more a question of my taste then that of skill. So I can’t very well fault a film that’s over 80 years old for not holding up to my more modern tastes in music.
While I did thoroughly enjoy this film its slow pacing will make it more than a little boring for some. This films powers lay more in the unsettling actions of Svengali over jump scares and the like. This film only features two deaths which is very timid by today’s standards and both deaths are as far from violent as possible. So all said and done the slow pacing, music and the very low key horror leaves me wanting so Svengali gets 6/10. But I do recommend it for those who enjoy early horror but have yet to see it.