This 90 year old film starring John Barrymore in the titular role was based on the novel Trilby by George du Maurier. It essentially is a tale of a swindler character who lures women to him through the use of hypnosis and profit from their fortune. The term ‘svengali’ actually means someone who can control or mesmerise someone for sinister means.This has left some debate around the categorising of Svengali as a horror film, which admittedly has a thinly veiled occult theme due to Svengali’s abilities,
We learn that Svengali’s motives are nefarious early on the piece when he cruelly snubs Honori, a young lady that has left her husband to be with him, but with no money or talent for Svengali to sponge off, he influences her into running off and allegedly take her own life.
Barrymore relishes in this cavalier attitude that he carries around with him and brings a larger than life demeanor to his performance that is engaging to watch. This infectious nature is apparent when engaging with the other characters around him, who either shrink away for fear of being controlled or are instantly drawn to him like a moth to a flame.
So when Svengali falls for the young Trilby (Marian Marsh) he decides to manipulate her to his will. Especially when she doesn’t return his love, as she has eyes for another, Billee (Bramwell Fletcher).Once ensnared, Svengali then persuades Trilby to fake her own suicide and reun away with him to Paris.
In Paris they set up a new life and Trilby becomes a successful singer and they both live off the fruits of her success.
Billee meanwhile refuses to give up and continues to pursue them in the hopes that he can win her heart back.
Svengali follows a fairly simple plotline but did win critical approval when it was released, which included an Academy Award nomination for the cinematography and set design. It didn’t, however, resonate with the audience at the time and failed to draw people into the cinemas.
Svengali was also surprisingly dark for its time as there is no happy ending to the film. Instead the movie encircles its leads towards a bleak conclusion. This in part was in kee[ping with the movies of the time, labeled Pre-Code, before there was an official approval process. This allowed some filmmakers to produce some questionably deep subjects for the era, especially moving into crime stories such as Public Enemy. For this, Svengali does stand out along with Barrymore’s performance.
- Saul Muerte