By Doug Gibson
I'll say this for "Svengali," the 1931 Warner Bros. 81-minute pre-code adaptation of George L. Du Maurier's mostly-forgotten late-19th century, clearly bigoted and anti-Semitic "evil-eye/covetous-Jew" thriller, "Trilby," and that is, it sticks to the novel's downbeat ending. I've seen too many 1930s' and early 1940s' films trash the plots of novels to not appreciate director Archie Mayor for sticking pretty close to the novel.
John Barrymore stars as the anti-Semitic stereotype, a tall, lean, sinful, perpetually dirty vocalist teaching Jew with the evil eye, who sets that eye on pretty lower-class model, Trilby (Marion Marsh), steals her from her feckless artist lover, Billie (Bramwell Fletcher), and turns her into a singing sensation. In Warner Bros' toned-down depiction (that still retains a healthy whiff of bigotry) Barrymore's tall, bearded, long-haired dirty Svengali still manages to garner sympathy from the audience. He does this partially with wit; at one point he jokes with artists that his last bath was when he fell into the sewer, and with pathos (he is mistreated, and generally despised, even by his artist friends). Even with his triumph, garnered through the evil eye, over Trilby, he laments that his love gained is only "manufactured."
Film historian Frank J. Dello Stritto, in his essay, "Svengali: The Forgotten Monster," from the anthology "A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore," quotes Barrymore's take on his role: "The male character must be funny and get lots of laughs, particularly in the first part of the story. Although a sinister figure, he is a wise, dirty, glutinous Polish Jew, with no conscience and a supreme contempt for all those nice, clean straight-thinking English Christians."
Despite Svengali's affability, as defined by Barrymore, the first scene leaves no doubt as to the music teacher's capacity for evil. Madame Honori (Carmel Myers), a rich woman with a terrible voice whom Svengali tolerates both for her money and sexual favors (remember, this is pre-code), arrives. Svengali, not sure what will transpire, sends his minion, Gecko (Luis Alberni), outside. Svengali soon learns that the foolish woman has left her husband without a financial settlement. Outraged, he turns his "evil eye," unseen, on her. She screams in horror and flees the room. Later, it is learned that she drowned in the river Seine, a presumed suicide.
Svengali is obsessed with Trilby, played by 18-year-old Marian Marsh. She tolerates him because he cures her headaches, but otherwise is repulsed by him. Instead, she falls for artist Billie, younger, shorter, and more handsome. However, when Billie catches Trilby in a nude modeling session and leaves in disgust, Trilby goes to Svengali for advice. Unknown to Trilby, Svengali has been putting his hypnotic eye on her. She is easy prey for the loathsome protagonist, and leaves with Svengali, under his spell. Trilby's clothes are left by the river Seine. Billie and others assume she has drowned.
Years pass, with Billie and the others having heard that Svengali has achieved fame with a top singer prodigy. They decide to watch the new star in concert. Billie eventually recognizes her as Trilby, and Trilby him. She greets him happily and they chat for a moment. Suddenly, Trilby turns cold, and ends the conversation. The jealous Svengali, discovering the reunion, has placed the "eye" upon her. Svengali is jealous of Billie, who he knows can excite love in Trilby, whom he desperately wishes to excite in the same manner free of hypnotism. As he says, "You are beautiful, my manufactured love, but it is only Svengali talking to himself again."
As Dello Stritto notes in his essay, the novel is far more anti-Semitic than the 1931 film, which doesn't even specifically name Svengali as a Jew. He writes, "'Trilby' is blatantly anti-Semitic. The novel clearly links Svengali's Jewishness to his evil character and repulsive appearance." Du Maurier, a famous cartoonist for "Punch," wrote three novels late in his life. As Dello Stritto explains, Du Maurier was a short man, and loathed his short stature. His novels idolized persons who were tall, healthy and physically fit, which Du Maurier was not. Dello Stritto writes, "His (Du Maurier's) first two books ("Peter Ibbotson" and "Trilby") succeeded as offbeat tales of love unrequited." In short, Du Maurier's novels were heavily autobiographical, and provided frank hints of the author's deepest yearnings.
With that knowledge, it is telling that Billie, in the novel, is regarded as "Little Billie." While Du Maurier is by no means a fan of Svengali, he does make him tall, and impetuous. Billie is short and wimpy, easily able to spurn Trilby if he fears she won't meet with his family's approval, and apparently not man enough to get her back from the evil Svengali once he discovers she really is alive.
Marsh, who played Trilby, is very good in the lead. She has a laughing, sweet countenance and personality early in the film and she reminded me of Marion Davies in light comedies. In this pre-code film, her "nude" backside is seen as she flees the modeling session, but it is not Marsh. It's a double wearing a nude stocking. Marsh, as mentioned, was only 18. Her career faded through the 1930s and she retired from feature films in 1942 after starring in the low-budget Producers Releasing Corporation comedy, "House of Errors," also starring Harry Langdon. Watch "Svengali" below: