When Crystal personally invited me to participate in a Barrymore family blogathon she was holding on her blog (http://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/), I scanned the entries already submitted and was surprised to find no one had yet chosen SVENGALI as a subject. That 1931 Warner Bros. film, based on George Du Maurier's famous novel TRILBY, is in my opinion one of the finest examples of the magnetic acting personality that was John Barrymore.
Despite his matinee idol image and his "The Great Profile" nickname, John Barrymore was really a character actor at heart. He loved nothing more than twisting and hiding his features and creating outlandish figures of ill repute. The role of Svengali was perfect for John Barrymore--a charismatic, larger-than-life mysterious hypnotist who is also charming, funny, and determinedly devious.
John Barrymore as Svengali
The viewer is automatically impressed by Barrymore as Svengali just by getting a glimpse at him. With long scraggly hair, exaggeratedly pointed beard, and make-up designed to showcase the actor's eyes, Barrymore's Svengali is a show in himself. His wardrobe, which includes a black cloak and a high, wide-brimmed hat, only accentuates the show.
When he looks full-face into a camera, the effect is startling, mainly due to his eyes--like the eyes one sees in paintings of the saints, and photographs of serial killers.
--Gregory W. Mank, writing about John Barrymore in the book THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT
It is the eyes that Barrymore uses the most in his performance as Svengali. They almost count as a special effect, especially when Svengali is hypnotizing someone (at various points in the movie Barrymore was fitted with special contact lenses to give his orbs an otherworldly effect). But Barrymore uses his eyes in other ways as well--to give emphasis to a certain line, or to show what Svengali is really thinking.
One would assume that Barrymore would play Svengali as broadly as possible--but the Great Profile doesn't make the hypnotist a stock melodramatic villain. He injects a lot of humor into Svengali, and he also gives the character a heart--a twisted one, no doubt, but a heart none the less. For SVENGALI is really more of a love story than a horror tale.
The story begins in Paris in the late 19th Century, where Svengali is "teaching" music to numerous young females. Despite his scraggly appearance and his con-artist ways, Svengali still manages to overwhelm nearly everyone he meets. The self-proclaimed maestro happens upon a very young, and very beautiful, artists model named Trilby (Marian Marsh). Svengali becomes smitten with her, and uses his hypnotic powers to spirit her away from her true love Billie (Bramwell Fletcher).
Marian Marsh as Trilby with John Barrymore
Marian Marsh was only 17 during the making of SVENGALI, and she looks even younger. The actress had only one other film credit before her role as Trilby, and her youth and inexperience made her perfect for the part. The innate sweetness and innocence of Marian Marsh fits the character of Trilby like a glove. An older and more polished actress would not have worked in the role. Marsh's fresh-faced beauty makes a grand contrast to the bizarre image of Barrymore's Svengali--there's something very unsettling in the hypnotist's desire for this virginal creature.
Svengali fakes Trilby's suicide, and makes her into a famous concert singer. Five years later Billie finds out what has happened to Trilby, and he determines to break the spell that Svengali has over her. Billie follows the couple to every performance they give, and his presence affects Svengali so much that the maestro starts refusing to let Trilby sing. Svengali and Trilby are reduced to playing in low-rent dives, and Billie catches up with them in Cairo. By this time, the strain of controlling Trilby's mind has physically and mentally weakened Svengali, and he tells Billie that tonight's show will be their last. During the performance, Svengali, totally spent, collapses--and Trilby collapses with him. Billie rushes to Trilby and cradles her in his arms....but she dies saying the name "Svengali....Svengali..."
Svengali's love for Trilby may be unnerving, but Barrymore shows that it is love nonetheless. Svengali may control Trilby, but he does not control her heart. At one point Svengali hypnotizes Trilby to be passionate to him. Marsh's change of expression here is startling--she's no longer a sweet, innocent girl--and the effect even bothers Svengali, who knows he can never have Trilby's real passion (he breaks the spell, saying, "It is only Svengali talking to himself again").
Svengali may be somewhat of a loathsome and unusual character, but Barrymore is able to make the audience sympathetic and understanding toward him in the end. Most other actors would have played Svengali as an out-and-out villain. John Barrymore has often been accused of being a "ham", and there certainly are times where that applies here--but the fact that he can give someone as outlandish as Svengali human qualities is a testament to the actor's greatness.
SVENGALI is still considered today as a "horror film", even though as I have mentioned it really isn't. This is due to a show-stopping sequence in the film where Svengali "calls" on Trilby by sending his mind over the rooftops of Paris and contacting her in her room. It is a dazzling photographic moment, and more proof that early 1930s sound films were far more cinematic than given credit for. Many also put SVENGALI in the horror category due to the expressionistic set design. Fittingly the two Academy Award nominations SVENGALI received were for Cinematography (Barney McGill) and Interior Decoration (Anton Grot). Unfortunately, neither man won.
SVENGALI, the film, holds up well today, due to the fine atmosphere injected into it by director Archie Mayo. It definitely has a Pre-Code feeling to it, due to the extreme youth of Marian Marsh and the non-happy ending.
But what makes SVENGALI truly exemplary is John Barrymore. It is one of his greatest roles, and aspects of the character would follow him in other films--for example, in TWENTIETH CENTURY, there's a scene where Barrymore is dressed in a black cloak, with a wide-brimmed hat, just like Svengali...and of course Barrymore's character in that movie is something of a Svengali to Carole Lombard. Svengali is a larger-than-life, extraordinary role, and it takes a larger-than-life, extraordinary performer to play it. If you want to see John Barrymore at his absolute best, I can think of no better example than SVENGALI.
NOTE: I would like to point out that Greg Mank has written extensively on the making of SVENGALI and its cast, and most of the information about the film in this blog post comes from his work.