Hello once again, classic film fans! I know it’s been a long time since I’ve written a post for you all; as you might recall, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be available to blog much until August 7th as I was enrolled in the TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock online course. It was an uphill battle completing everything and devoting my time and effort to the class as well as my other commitments, and I have to admit that it took me a little bit longer to get back into the full swing of things because I flew to Virginia on August 9th, spending some time there and driving back to my home state, which took until the 11th. On the plus side I managed to incorporate some Old Hollywood adventures into the trip, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to announce that I had the pleasure of visiting Smithfield, North Carolina, the city that houses the Ava Gardner Museum as well as her final resting place! For the few weeks before my trip I immersed myself in Ava history by watching her films and reading her autobiography, and I can’t wait until I take the time to write up a blog post or two and share my adventures with you all! Until then, I couldn’t be happier to present my entry for the Third Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted as always by the wonderful Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, and I’d like to start off by thanking her for bringing back such an awesome blogathon idea. I hope this year is as successful as ever, and I can’t wait to participate again next year!
When I found out that this blogathon concept would be brought back again for the third year in a row, I knew that I simply couldn’t resist joining, and while I’ll admit that I didn’t have a particular film in mind to write about, I knew exactly which Barrymore I would be saluting: the marvelous, ever-so-talented grandfather of Drew Barrymore, Mr. John Barrymore himself. John has always been my favorite Barrymore and I’m fairly certain that he always will be; ever since I saw his stellar performance in Twentieth Century (1934) I was entranced by him, so much so that I wrote this little post on my Tumblr after discovering his films that to this day never fails to make me laugh. So as you can imagine, it was more of a question of which film of John Barrymore’s I would be writing about rather than which member of his illustrious family I would be writing about. After a little bit of research into the films of his that I had not yet seen, I found that Svengali (1931) fit the bill nicely with a compelling plot and some intriguing background information that I feel fortunate to share with you all. The film was based on the iconic novel Trilby (1894) by George du Maurier, who was actually the grandfather of another famous writer involved in classic films, Daphne du Maurier. Daphne went on to become a dame and penned countless stories that were eventually adapted into films made during the golden age of Hollywood like The Birds, Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, and My Cousin Rachel. But first there was Trilby, which was a resounding success and inspired everything from Trilby hats, the city of Trilby in Florida, countless stage and film adaptations (including one made for television in 1983 starring Peter O’Toole and Jodi Foster), and an even more iconic novel written by Gaston Leroux called The Phantom of the Opera in 1910.
The 1931 adaptation in particular puts the focus on Maestro Svengali (John Barrymore), a pianist and singing teacher who, along with his assistant Gecko (Luis Alberni), struggles to make ends meet by giving lessons in Paris. From the start Svengali uses devious measures in order to get his next meal and to pay the rent, including stealing money from his acquaintances and seducing his female students by using his hypnotic powers, only to discard them when they are no longer of monetary value to him. His whole life changes, however, when he meets the youthful but tone-deaf model Trilby O’Farrell (Marian Marsh). He instantly becomes infatuated with her, while she in turn falls in love with Billee (Bramwell Fletcher), a painter who lives nearby with some of Svengali’s friends. Trilby and Billee are smitten with each other and all goes well for the lovers until he finds out that she has been modeling nude for other male painters for money. An argument ensues, which leads Trilby right into Svengali’s arms, and he convinces her to pretend to take her own life so that their painter friends will forget about her, which will lead her into marrying him. With the help of his commanding hypnosis she does as he asks, and her feigned suicide works like a charm on Billee and the rest of Svengali’s cronies. Slowly but surely Tribly falls deeper and deeper under Svengali’s spell, the two wed, and Svengali transforms Trilby into a singing sensation under the name La Svengali across all of Europe by using his supernatural powers. In fact, we learn that Trilby cannot perform without his assistance as conductor, and that the use of Svengali’s abilities for every single one of her performances is taking quite the toll on his health. Five years after Trilby supposedly killed herself by drowning in the Seine, we see her and Svengali as wealthy and revered performers, and once again Billee enters the picture. Of course he instantly recognizes his lost love, uncovers Svengali’s evil plot, and vows to undo his scorcery, but will he succeed? Will the maestro or his protégée succumb to the black magic that controls each of their lives?
Svengali (1931) was made at a high point during the lives and careers of both of its stars. At only 17 years old, Trilby O’Farrell was Marian Marsh’s first starring role, and despite her young age it would go on to become the part that gave her the most acclaim as well as the part that audiences would associate with the actress until her death in 2006. John Barrymore was 49 while filming Svengali (1931), and happily married for the third time to former costar Dolores Costello, which according to Marian Marsh (who was affectionately called “Maid Marian” by Barrymore) led to him not drinking at all on or offscreen, a rare feat for the actor who was usually closely linked with his alcoholism. Barrymore received high praise for his portrayal of the title character in the picture, with critic Martin Dickstein of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle writing that Barrymore “registers a personal triumph in the role” while also calling his performance “Brilliant… one of the best of his movie career”. Barrymore did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Svengali (1931) or any other film for that matter, but the film itself was nominated for two Oscars, one for Best Art Direction by Anton Grot and another for Best Cinematography by Barney McGill. In 2003, the character of Svengali was nominated for a spot on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Heroes and Villains list of the last hundred years. In my opinion Barrymore’s characterization was spot on, right down to the white contacts that he wore during the scenes in which Svengali hypnotizes Trilby. The contacts are actually considered to be the first ever worn onscreen, but despite John Barrymore complaining that they were clumsy and uncomfortable for him to wear, I feel just as he did that they also improved his performance. In fact, my only complaint is the painfully slow delivery of his lines. If he spoke at a normal pace, the running time of Svengali (1931) could have easily been cut in half. Marian Marsh was absolutely stunning to look at too, and I found myself unable to take my eyes off of her or her strikingly modern blonde locks during most of the film’s duration. It’s easy to say that the enjoyable parts of this film carry it from start to finish, and I would wholeheartedly recommend Svengali (1931) to any fan of horror or troubled relationships between a maestro and protégée like the one displayed in Phantom of the Opera, and especially to any fan of John Barrymore.