…than are dreamed of in your philosophy. That’s what Svengali keeps telling people in this movie – I guess he liked Hamlet, and he does have strange powers.
Svengali (1931) was based on the very popular late 19th century novel, Trilby, by George du Maurier that went through several incarnations on the stage and film, including a recent production not yet released. The most famous is this one, with John Barrymore and Marian Marsh. Of course, Svengali has become a byword for an evil charismatic figure. His character in the novel was clearly a standard anti-semitic stereotype, and elements of that are still present in this film, although he is simply presented as an exotic and bizarre eastern-European, albeit with a Yiddish-sounding accent.
The film was made before The Code took force, so it contains a few spicy bits of dialog, as well as some daring views of Marsh. In the image below, Svengali is riding with Tribly, whom he has abducted, and he gently covers her bare leg: the scene gives the impression that he has sexually violated her as well as taken her away.
Trilby is an innocent cleaning girl who can’t sing a note, despite her marvelous “sounding board, and a roof of her mouth like the Pantheon.” Under Svengali’s spell, she sings like a diva, and becomes one: they are the toast of Europe, playing to packed houses everywhere.
Evil mad genius though he is, he falls in love with Tribly who cannot reciprocate: she still pines for little Billee, the Englander who courted her in Paris. Svengali asks her, what does he have that Svengali lacks, he with his silly paints?
He hypnotizes her into feeling love for him…
It works! She says she loves him!
But he’s no fool. He pushes her away…
Her voice is only her master’s voice talking to himself.
Tribly is pursued by Billee, which disrupts Svengali’s concerts. He cannot maintain his spell over her when Billee is present, so his fortunes fail, and he is reduced to playing cafes in French Morocco. Billee follows on, and Svengali confronts him. He knows he is beaten, and the end is near. When he dies in mid-concert, Tribly collapses onstage. Cradled in Billee’s arms, her last word is “Svengali!…” True love after all.
[The film is in English, but the sound was so poor, I used sub-titles.]