svengali 1931 review

Svengali (1931)

Svengali (1931) Directed by Archie Mayo

As a salacious pre-code tragedy this tale of obsession and madness is a triumph, as an adaptation of George du Maurier’s popular 1894 novel not so much. A histrionic John Barrymore plays the avaricious music maestro Svengali – a creepy guy with a disheveled, shabby appearance – who develops an obsession with the heavenly prettiness of Trilby (Marian Marsh), a young model with a prodigious operatic talent for singing. However, Trilby is more frightened than enthralled by Svengali’s presence, and for this reason, the nefarious Svengali uses his mesmerizing hypnotic powers to control Trilby’s vulnerable psyche, exploiting her carnal allure and sublime musicality to his advantage.

The novel on which this story is based is called Trilby, not Svengali, yet this sensationalist production is more interested in the smarmy villain than in the hypnotized victim, which engenders a dramatic conflict between what should be a priority and what should not, thus losing the melodramatic intrigue just for the populist whim of wanting to draw attention to the juicy details. Thankfully, John Barrymore is terrific in the role of Svengali – this character could easily pass as a Universal monster – his phantasmagoric gesticulations and quasi-comical theatricality make this one of the most memorable performances of his career. But as riveting as Barrymore’s conspicuousness in the plot is, Marian Marsh in the female role is simply enchanting; she is playful when the comedy of the script allows it and wistful when the more poetic sections of the script emerge in their fullest magnificence.

At only 17 years old Marian Marsh has her prurient pre-code moment – Trilby appears suggestively undressed – immortalizing the acting chutzpah that distinguished her throughout her career. It’s arguably a film that could have been better than it was, the lack of literary insight in Archie Mayo’s direction leaves many plot holes, but the antagonistic romantic tragedy between Barrymore and Marsh is poignant and terrifying enough in equal measures to give this production the artistic merit of being something deeply interesting.


Matteo Bedon

Written by

Editor and Official Film Critic at

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