Coming out of the Trance: Lost Pace in Archie Mayo’s SVENGALI
7 October 2012
Adapted from Trilby, George du Maurier’s 1894 novel, Svengali is a 1931 horror film starring John Barrymore and Marian Marsh, directed by Archie Mayo. The film begins with Svengali (John Barrymore), draped in shadows, masterfully playing a piano in his apartment/studio in a small town in France, when a woman, Madame Honori (Carmel Myers), enters for her music lessons. Clearly, Madame Honori is infatuated with Svengali, but it becomes clear Svengali’s interest in Madame Honori have nothing to do with her or her vocal abilities (or lack thereof); Svengali is interested in Madame Honori’s money because he is broke. He desperately offers music lessons to women to pay his bills. When Madame Honori reveals she has left her husband to be with Svengali his kind, yet creepy demeanor toward her changes. The camera stays behind Svengali, only showing the back of his head, while capturing a petrified Madame Honori who repeatedly pleads, “Svengali, don’t look at me that way,” before fleeing the apartment. The next day Svengali’s assistant reports the Madame Honori’s body was retrieved from the lake; she committed suicide.
Shortly after, Svengali gets bullied by tenants in the apartment building for his poor hygiene. While stranded in a tenant’s apartment without his clothes, Svengali meets blonde haired, bright-eyed Trilby O’Farrell (Marian Marsh), a model looking for artists in hopes of work. Their meeting is brief, however they begin seeing each other frequently as Trilby visits the building to pose for artists who reside there. Trilby falls in love with Billie (Bramwell Fletcher), an artist she often sits for, but Svengali falls for Trilby and notices she has the potential of becoming an outstanding operatic singer.
Svengali has a secret; he is a self-serving hypnotist, alluded to by Madame Honori’s comment, “Svengali, don’t look at me like that.” He hypnotizes Trilby, convincing her Billie will never love her because she has been with other men, and that Svengali is the only one who cares for her. Confused and entranced, Trilby agrees; she and Svengali fake Trilby’s suicide, and the two flee their small town and head to Paris.
Five years pass and Billie travels to Paris to see Svengali and his new wife in concert: Svengali the maestro and his wife the operatic singer with accompanying orchestra. After the show, Billie catches a glimpse at Svengali’s new wife up close, and realizes it is his lost love, Trilby; however, Trilby barely recognizes Billie, and it becomes clear to him Svengali hypnotized her. Billie vows to follow Svengali and Trilby to each of their concert stops until the day he can break Trilby of the spell Svengali cast on her. By this time Svengali’s heart has weakened, which weakens his power over Trilby. Eventually, Svengali suffers a heart attack, which immediately causes Trilby to collapse. Svengali, dying, pleads that God grant him the happiness in death he could not have in life: true love. Svengali dies, and so does Trilby.
Interestingly, Svengali’s plot is a mirror for the film overall. Svengali is a powerful, self-serving hypnotist, but halfway through the film he weakens and the rest of the movie is his slow, inevitable demise. The film starts off very powerfully, but halfway through it weakens, loses paces, and begins its descent toward inevitable demise.
The first half of Svengali is full of groundbreaking camerawork, dramatic lighting, and dynamic set design. In the beginning, the camera sweeps around Svengali’s apartment. The camera, it seems, is Svengali’s most trusted companion; it captures all the protagonist’s underhanded and, at times, humorous moves when with Madame Honori, but slides behind Svengali to hide his face from the audience when he hypnotizes her into committing suicide. The camera’s allegiance to Svengali reveals his character as both devious and charismatic, but also conceals his secret. Moreover, the dramatic lighting creates large shadows around Svengali, giving Svengali an eerie, ominous presence. This lighting creates the mystery and exaggerates fear for viewers.
The curious prop pieces placed around the sets, as well as the minimalist furniture and obscure shapes of doors, hallways, and rooms—which is greatly reminiscent of German Expressionist films—, also enhance the first half of the film. Inside the artist’s apartment molded faces hang on the walls. The hanging heads, with whited out eyes, foreshadow the appearance of Svengali as hypnotist, as well as remind the audience of the masks we all wear, the mask Svengali is wearing by pretending to look out for Trilby’s best interest, but instead seeking his own desires, which ultimately destroy her life. Also, Svengali’s room has a low ceiling, and even though it is not cluttered with furniture, the room has an enclosed feeling, while the hallways connecting the apartments are incredibly spacious and barren, the opposite of Svengali’s lair. The doors, in every apartment, are oversized, seemingly out-of-place, reinforcing the fantasy, or supernatural element to the film. In all, these details of the set design create unease, strongly support the film’s horror genre.
Yet, even though the film starts off so well, midway through Svengali weakens, in both narrative and cinematics. From a plot perspective, once Svengali takes Trilby to Paris, and five years instantly elapse, the narrative loses steam. Viewers were watching a menacing hypnotist with musical brilliance wreaking havoc on those around with his supernatural powers. After midway, viewers watch, at a slower pace, a washed-up hypnotist and musician stammering around Europe, and eventually down to Egypt, with Trilby and a heart condition, desperately running from Billie. Gone is the camera’s clever dance around Svengali, the dramatic lighting, and the Expressionist-influenced set designs. The filmmaking loses its flare simultaneously with the narrative.
Moreover, because of a slower, lack-luster second half, obvious problems with Svengali come into the forefront. The first and most obvious is the film’s anti-Semitic statements, which are present throughout, but unmissable as the film lingers on. Svengali’s exaggerated facial features and dark hair identify the character as a stereotypical Jewish man, which keeps true to the character’s ethnicity in de Maurier’s novel. His poor hygiene and desperation for money are additional negative stereotypes the film promotes. Also, Svengali is demonic, evident by his supernatural powers, not to mention is pointed, serpent-like beard. The film is undoubtedly anti-Semitic.
Also, a feminist reading reveals the film’s negative statements against women, evident through the treatment of Madame Honori and Trilby. Madame Honori, who commits adultery with Svengali, dies early on in the film. The audiences watches her in a flashy dress, the bust-line of which she keeps pulling down, foolishly embarrassing herself by singing wretchedly in front of Svengali. Why must viewers watch all this but not her death? Her suicide is a passing comment made by a secondary character. Madame Honori is erased without much care because she was a loose woman who chooses not to play by the rules. Moreover, Trilby first appears in the film in a man’s coat and little else; she is also a non-conformer. She is a model who frequently poses nude, and she offers to strip down for Svengali before she knows anything about him; her sexual promiscuity is made clear early on. Like Madame Honori, Trilby dies. Curiously, the audience never learns what kills her; she is a young, seemingly healthy woman. It is clear her death is linked to Svengali’s heart attack, but the film does not explain what causes her to die. Apparently it does not matter what her cause of death is, she just has to die.
In all, Svengali leads off as one of the best supernatural horror films of the 1930s, a particularly rich time for the horror genre. But, this film ultimately fizzles out. More than that, there are major problems in the film’s messages about Jews and women, which a modern day audience is likely to be more sensitive to than 1930s viewers. Although Svengali was a sensation in its day, with unsettling statements about Jews and women and inconsistent cinematics, Svengali does not carry off the same popularity today.