Perhaps its forgotten status is due to only one dog-eared 16 mm source print seemingly in circulation, from which all the public domain DVDs doth spring, or from the stodgy pacing and oversize performances, or maybe it’s just the highly unusual mixture of comic and dramatic/horror elements in the film. Directed by Archie Mayo, the 1931 SVENGALI seems right at home alongside similar early sound horror classics like FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA and THE BAT WHISPERS, even though it’s horror elements come and go in the midst of romance, drama, and comedy. The plot involves hand-out hungry, pointy-bearded, uber-manipulative music teacher of the title (John Barrymore) discovering a “mouth with a roof like the dome of the Parthenon” in Trilby (Marian Marsh), a model who hangs out at the expressionistic garret of artists Taffy (Lumsden Hare), the Laird (Donald Crisp) and naïve young Billie (Bramwell Fletcher). Finding out his would-be protégé suffers from headaches, Svengali “cures” her using hypnotism, ensnaring her to his will in the process. The naive Billie thinks he'd rather have her suffer the headaches than be cured that way --what a patriarchal little jackass! It's not up to him whether or not Trilby should suffer from headaches or be permitted respite. No wonder he couldn't handle more than a few scenes in THE MUMMY (1932) before turning into a blubbering neurotic pool of nerves. He seems to be cast in things mainly so David Manners seem earthy and robust.
Based on 1894 George L. Dumaurier novel, Trilby, the film contains a subtext of anti-semitism: Barrymore is in his “dirty Jew” makeup, and tattered rags for clothes; he avoids water and never bathes, so Taffy and company feel it necessary to force him, fully clothed, into a bath. Soon he's stealing food, money, women, and whatever else he can from the good-natured artists and when the radiant, blonde Marian Marsh drops by their pad he answers the door in Taffy's finest duds, falling for her instantly. Who could resist? Wearing a man's army coat, with epaulets, she looks like she just snuck out of bed with one of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts club band and stole his jacket, just as Svengali has stolen Taffy's. Their rapport is great because there's more than just hypnotist and subject, lecher and sweet young thing (Marsh was 17 at the time).
Soon he's held under his lustful, lovelorn sway can seem like some then-still-budding Nazi movement propaganda dream come true, but there is also a touching, weird chemistry between them. Marsh (then just 18-years old) radiates modern cool in all her non-trance scenes and her initial appearance, with her sexy demure aura, those epaulets and long straight blonde hair with bangs, makes her seem like the source for all the Marianne Faithfuls, Nicos, and Francoise Hardys of the mod world to come. Barrymore brings his own bag of comic tics, swaggers and pauses to his strange role, and together the pair seem light years beyond the wooden and/or one-dimensional characters that surround them. Taffy, the Laird, and Bille live comfortably and pursue art more as a hobby, as the hip thing to do in Paris. But Trilby and Svengali don't have trust funds. They depend on their respective charms, one literal in the sense of spells. Certainly Svengali is much more sympathetic than prudish Billie, who wins Trilby’s love only to flee in horror when he stumbles on her modeling nude.
The real show-stealer here, however, is not Barrymore or Marsh, but art director Anton Grot, whose expressionistic sets and impossibly wide doors linger in the mind like a dream. The big horror highlight of the film is all his, an incredible tracking shot that starts with the white glow of Svengali’s eyes and then backs out over the roofs of a crazy miniature Paris and slowly makes its way into Trilby’s boudoir. Occurring about halfway through the film, it signifies a drastic dip from the relatively innocuous stuff that has gone on before. Hypnotism is one thing but this is remote viewing, telepathy, a whole new ballgame, and there's not another shot like it anywhere.
From then on things pick up for this rough and tumble pair. Trilby heads to the Seine to throw herself in as was the style of the time for fallen, broke women, all because of Billie (Svengali happens to know all the guys she's slept with in the past, too) and his prudish rejection. This is the part that gets me madder than anything else. Fuck Billee and his judgmental scowl. Even so, Svengali rescues her and just fakes her Seine jump (the way he didn't with his previous "student") and the next time we see them she's adorned in furs and jewels and he's got a dandy white tux. But she's a zombie by this point, and all his seductions end up being just "old Svengali talking to himself again." It's sad, it's the crushing reality at the core of May-December relationships; for the older person every new day brings a wider gulf as death roars up to claim you and meanwhile young Turks skulk around in the periphery of your territory, sizing you up and waiting for their chance to strike. Fuck 'em , I say! I made it, ma! Top of the Parthenon! But now nowhere to go but up in smoke.
There seems to be only one existing print of this film. The best transfer I've seen so far is the old Roan DVD, with deep blacks, and more detail visible in the sets than I saw in my old VHS dupe, but also a fine layer of grain, and lots of film blemishes, lines, acid marks visible throughout, which to me is part of the charm. It's a constant companion in my little go bag of emergency DVDs, all that great Anton Grot expressionism, the unusual tone (is Svengali a bad guy ala Dracula, just a romantic clown ala Lon Chaney or comic relief ala Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY? There is no answer... only the lovely hiss of the film going through the sprockets and the gorgeous playful innocence--and occasionally lustful knowingness of Marian Marsh adding an ephemeral ache we wouldn't really experience for another actress until maybe... Heather Graham?