Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sweetheart of the Somnambulist: SVENGALI (1931)

Perhaps its forgotten status is due to the one spliced-up source print being used on public domain DVDs, or it's the stodgy pacing and oversize performances or the highly unusual mixture of comic and dramatic/horror elements, but this Archie Mayo joint from 1931 seems right at home alongside similar early sound horror classics like FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA and THE BAT WHISPERS.  The plot involves hand-out hungry beard-so-pointy uber-manipulative music teacher Svengali (John Barrymore) discovering a “mouth with a roof like the dome of the Parthenon” in Trilby (Marian Marsh). She's an artist's model who poses at the expressionistic garret of artists Taffy (Lumsden Hare), the Laird (Donald Crisp) and naïve young Billie (Bramwell Fletcher), where Sven's been known to mooch. Finding out his would-be protégé suffers from headaches, he “cures” her using hypnotism, ensnaring her to his will in the process. 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 sooner has he fallen in love with her than he feels dashed to despair by realizing she poses in the nude. It's implied she's slept with nearly every artist she posed for but that shouldn't bother Billie, if he knows what's good for him. He needs an experienced woman to usher him past the breakers of uptight morality. I mean it's Paris, not Puritan New England! No wonder he couldn't handle more than a few scenes in THE MUMMY (1932) before turning into a blubbering mess.

Based on 1894 George L. Dumaurier novel, Trilby, the film holds a shallow-buried vein of anti-semitism: Barrymore is in his “dirty Jew” makeup, greasepaint-slicked beard and bedecked at times in soothsayer rags; he avoids water and never bathes to the point Taffy and company feel it necessary to force him, fully clothed, into a bath. They lock him in the room, and sneak away, leaving him to find Paddy's wallet and clothes and artist's model He answers the door in Taffy's finest duds, falling for her instantly. Who could resist? She's wearing a man's army coat, with epaulets, rocking blonde bangs and looking like she just snuck out of bed with one of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts club band and stole his jacket before wafting out the door, just as Svengali has stolen Taffy's. Her look is so preternaturally mod it seems the source for all the Marianne Faithfuls, Nicos, and Francoise Hardys of the mod world to come. Their rapport is great because there's more than just hypnotist and subject, lecher and sweet young thing (Marsh was 17 at the time): an undercurrent of otherworldly sympathy, the sort Veronica Lake shared with Alan Ladd, puts them no small ways beyond the wooden and/or one-dimensional characters that surround them. Their characters are united in being set apart from the others, having to live by their wits and charms, to use and be used by art students and rich society matrons the city over.

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 across the rooftops and 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.... even now.

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 and his prudish rejection. Svengali rescues her but 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 so 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 of separation from their beloved: death, impotence, and a lifetime of indulgence roar up like a Forbidden Planet monster to claim you and young bucks skulk around in the periphery of your territory, sizing you up and waiting for their chance to steal yo girl if she's hot, and if she's not, more's the pity. Top of the Parthenon indeed! But now nowhere to go but up... in smoke.


As I say, 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. Marsh's mod look...

So is Svengali a monster ala Dracula, a sad clown ala Lon Chaney or comic relief ala Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY? He's all that and more but we still get no answer, only the lovely hiss of the film going through the sprockets and the gorgeous playful innocence--and occasionally lustful knowingnes--of Marian Marsh adding an ephemeral ache we wouldn't really experience for another actress until maybe... Heather Graham?

(this is expanded from an old review I wrote for Scarlet Street magazine in 2002)

1 comment:

  1. Svengali, as originally edited and released in 1931, is the best film made, before or since. The Mummy (Karloff), Bride of Frankenstein, Lawrence of Arabia, and M.F.A. (Francesca Eastwood) also have humor+horror+an "Eternal Struggle" theme, but Barrymore as defined by great acting, traveling shots, and expressionist filming methods, make this one-man show great.


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