Svengali (1931)

Svengali (1931) movie poster

director Archie Mayo
viewed: 01/04/2018

I first stumbled on Svengali as a horror film loving kid. Though I don’t recall the context being that it was exactly a horror film or what prompted me to watch it late one night, but I was quite impressed with it and have always meant to get back to it.

Adapted from George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, its horror cred is owed in part to its legacy relationship to the Gothic horror genre. That, and perhaps as important, are the film’s design and aesthetics, which straight borrowed from Expressionist cinema to a great effect. And, of course, John Barrymore in one of his most notable roles, the titular Svengali.

Marian Marsh stars as Trilby, the former titular heroine of the novel. As noted elsewhere, the film’s choice to focus on the villain rather than the heroine as the core of the story, turns this also from a more typical drama and into a darker, more supernatural film.

When I first saw this film, I probably couldn’t recognize the depiction of Svengali as being anti-Semitic, but if you’re familiar with the depictions of the era in which it was made, it’s hard to get away from. Some might argue that Barrymore makes more of the character than any simple racist caricature, but it is deeply imbued in his costume and make-up, as well as some other characteristics.

It’s a visually rich and inventive pre-code horror film. Sincerely recommended.

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