Svengali (Archie Mayo, 1931, USA)

Svengali is the most famous screen adaptation of George du Maurier's 1894 novel TrilbyTrilby was one of the best-selling novels of the 1890s. The tale of a young half-Irish girl working as an artist's model in Paris in the 1850s, the character of Trilby was in many ways a proto-flapper. She inspired many different things, including the famous style of hat which bears her name. Today, however, the novel is perhaps best known for Svengali, the mysterious hypnotist manager who grants Trilby the power to sing and turns her into his slave. Svengali has entered the modern lexicon.

The film stars John Barrymore in the role of Svengali. Though largely known only by film buffs today, Barrymore in his day was considered the most talented actor of his generation, with an impressive resume on both stage and screen. Alongside this veteran actor, a relative newcomer - Marian Marsh - only 17 years old at the time, took on the role of Trilby. Ironically, Barrymore became something of a svengali to Marsh on set. Barrymore was notoriously difficult to work with, with a slew of personal problems, but he reportedly enjoyed working on Svengali

Svengali is noteworthy for its incredibly downbeat ending, which differs from many films of the time including its contemporary - Dracula (1931). Perhaps because of this downbeat ending, Svengali was a box office failure. Dracula, with similar subject matter, far outperformed Svengali despite having no big names and coming from a lesser studio (Universal versus Warner Bros.). Despite its age, Svengali feels remarkably modern, and there is a great deal of humor in the film, particularly coming from Barrymore. Barrymore delivers an iconic performance that should have landed him in the pantheon of Lugosi and Karloff, though some have argued that Svengali is not a horror film.



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