Sunday, January 01, 2006


The name "Svengali" has entered popular culture usage tp refer to anyone who has some overwhelming power or influence over someone else, usually in a negative sense. The producers and managers of such "manufactured" music stars as Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys are called "pop svengalis"--you'll get lots of hits on Google with this phrase. The term comes from the character of Svengali the hypnotist in the novel "Trilby" by George DuMaurier, popularized by this early talkie starring John Barrymore. This is sometimes referred to as a borderline horror film, but anyone approaching it that way will be disappointed, though the stark, oversized sets and atmospheric lighting are reminiscent of CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and make the movie a stylistic kin to the later Universal horror films, especially SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Barrymore's Svengali is as pathetic as he is sinister; with overly theatrical makeup, he comes off like a grungy cross between Fagin and Dracula. In the first scene, we see him in a shabby apartment with a rich woman (Carmen Myers) who has just dumped her husband for Barrymore, but when he finds out that she neglected to get a cash settlement from the hubby, he glares at her until she goes running from the room and jumps in the river to her death. In the apartment of two artists (Donald Crisp and Luis Alberni) who enjoy pulling pranks on Barrymore), he meets a lovely young model (Marian Marsh) with whom he becomes obsessed. Although she seems to be romantically interested in blond fop Bramwell Fletcher, Barrymore uses his hypnotic powers to make her think that she's just a common tramp and not good enough for Fletcher. He fakes her death and spirits her away, turning her into an operatic sensation. Barrymore realizes he can force her through hypnosis to love him, but he remains unsatisfied because, as he says, making love to her is like talking to himself. Five years later, Fletcher and his artist friends come upon her at one of her performances and her memory is jogged enough to cause trouble. Barrymore and Marsh flee to Egypt but Fletcher follows them and in a nicely melodramatic ending, Barrymore drops dead, Marsh loses her voice and also drops dead, while Fletcher looks on helplessly. I wasn't terribly impressed with Barrymore or Fletcher, but Marsh is quite good (and quite sexy, and even gets a brief nude scene). One scene showing Barrymore's power over Marsh is justly famous: as Svengali stands at his window, the camera pans out of the room and across the roofs of Paris into Marsh's room, where we can tell that she feels his presence (accompanied by the loud sound of rushing wind). As horror, this doesn't quite cut it, but as a period melodrama, it's an interesting exercise in visual style. [TCM]

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