Svengali (1931 film)

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Window card for Svengali
Directed by Archie Mayo [1]
Produced by Jack L. Warner [1]
Screenplay by J. Grubb Alexander [1]
Based on Trilby
by George Du Maurier
Cinematography Barney McGill [1]
Edited by William Holmes [1]
Warner Brothers-First National [1]
Release date
  • 1 May 1931 (1931-05-01)(New York)
Running time
81 minutes [1]
CountryUnited States [2]

Svengali is a 1931 American pre-Code drama film directed by Archie Mayo. [2] The film stars John Barrymore and co-stars Marian Marsh.It is based on the novel Trilby (1894) by George du Maurier and was among the many film adaptations of the book. The film was shot from January 12 to February 21, 1931. On its release in the United States it received some good reviews but did not perform well at the American box office.



When attractive but untalented Honori confesses to her sinister singing teacher Svengali that she has left her husband but refused his offer of money, he fixes her with an intense stare that drives her screaming from the room. A short time later her body is found in the Seine. Untouched by her death, Svengali and his flatmate Gecko visit the studio of English artists, The Laird, Taffy, and Billee, in search of a meal. On leaving they meet a lovely young milkmaid and artist's model, Trilby O'Ferrall. Svengali is enchanted by her, but she falls in love with the handsome, young Billee. One day under the pretext of curing her headache, Svengali hypnotises her and thereafter is able to control her by the power of his thoughts. When Billee discovers Trilby posing nude for a group of artists, they quarrel, and Svengali convinces her to fake a suicide and leave Paris with him. Five years later, as Madame Svengali the singer, she has become the toast of Europe with the help of his powers. Her old friends attend her Paris debut and they are astonished to see the woman they thought was dead. Determined to win her back from Svengali, Billee haunts her performances. His powers weakened by the strength of her attachment to Billee, Svengali keeps cancelling performances until finally they are reduced to an engagement in an Egyptian cabaret. When Svengali suffers an attack, his power over Trilby fails, she falters and sings horribly off key. As he dies, he begs to be granted her love in death as he never was in life. As if in response, she then dies in Billee's arms. [3]



In the book The Dread of Difference the films genre was discussed with the author noting that whether Svengali was a horror film has been debated for a number of years. [4] The film is not included in Phil Hardy's The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies (1986) while William K. Everson contextualized the film in relationship to the Hollywood horror cycle in 1973 in The New School Program Notes. [4] Ellen Draper was described as "merely assuming" the film belonged to the genre while writing about it in 1988 due its character mesmerizing heroines. [4]



Svengali was based on the 1894 novel Trilby by George Du Maurier. [5] The novel is titled after the stories doomed heroine, but the character that caught the public's attention was the villain Svengali, a Jewish hypnotists and painist who hypnotizes Trilby into becoming a great vocalist. [5] The success of Trilby was a surprise to Du Maurier as the novel was adapted to stage where Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree performed as Svengali in the United Kingdom and Wilton Lackaye portrayed him in 1895 in the United States. [6] At least six silent film adaptations of Trilby were made, ranging from 1908's Trilby to 1923. [6]

Actor John Barrymore had performed on Broadway in early Du Mauriere adaptations including the title role in Peter Ibbetson . [6] In September 1930, Barrymore went on a vacation on his Yacht not to return until December. By November 20, Louella Parsons reported what they described as "the most surprising news of the year" that Warner Bros. had bought the rights to adapt Trilby and that Barrymore was set to play the role of Svengali. [6]


While at sea, Barrymore cabled his ideas for the film to Warner Bros., specifically that Svengali "must be funny and get lots of laughs." [7] Warner Bros. initially wanted Evelyn Laye for the role of Trilby. [7] Stories conflict on why Laye was not cast for the role with one being the actress wanted to return to England for a vacation while another story claims that Laye was exhausted from overwork and was in a sanitarium. [7] Slightly before December 25, Warner Bros. hired Marian Marsh for the role of Trilby. [8]

Among the crew was Archie Mayo as the director. [9] The cinematographer is Barney "Chick" McGill, who was Mayo's cameraman on The Doorway to Hell . [9] On January 28, Barrymore fell ill missing four days of shooting. [10]


Svengalii began shooting on Stage 8 at Warner's First National lot in Burbank. [9] The film was shot from January 12 to February 21, 1931. [1] First days Daily Production and Progress Report noted that the script was unfinished, with screenwriter J. Grubb Alexander providing the scenario pieces at a time. [9] [11]

On February 14, the production on Svengali was moved to shooting at Universal City where Warn Bros. rented Universal's Phantom Stage, used originally for The Phantom of the Opera (1925). [12]


Svengali opened in New York City at Warners Hollywood Theatre on May 1, 1931 and in Los Angeles at Warner Hollywood and Downtown Theatres on May 22, 1931. [1] In its first three days in New York, Svengali takes in $17,384 which film historian Gregory William Mank described as "decent money, but hardly sensational." [13] In its first week at the Warners Hollywood Theatre, Svengali earned #30,0002, and in the following week, $25,441. [13] In comparison, the Warner Bros. pictures The Public Enemy earned $63,776 in its first week. [13] The film had large crowds on its opening day in Los Angeles, but otherwise did poor box office. [13] With a budget of $499,000 to produced, the film only made a worldwide rental of $498,000. In comparison, Dracula had $1,200,000 in worldwide rentals. [14]


Film Daily in Hollywood discussed the film following its New York premiere stating that the film was a "creeping, intense, human and at times believable" noting that John Barrymore was "brilliant" in the role and the production was "elaborate, the cast splendid, and the background kept with the feline atmosphere of the story." [15] The New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall also praised Barrymore's Svengali stating that his performance "surpasses anything he has done for the screen, including the motion pictures of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Clyde Fitch's Beau Brummel ." [15] Variety critiqued the film, noting that Barrymore "takes care of everything. So much that they won't go away remembering much of anybody or anything else [...] Barrymore's hypnotic powers are interesting until getting a look at Miss Marsh under an unbecoming wig. After which a lot of people will figure it's a waste of expert concentration." [13] The Los Angeles Times critic Edwin Schallert praised the film as a "classic rvived" with Barrymore marked by "its excellent irony and sinister interest [...] smoother, quieter, with a diminishing of the forced and somewhat self-sonscious style" [13]

Cinematographer McGill and set designer Anton Grot received nomination at the Academy Awards for their work in Svengali. [9] The film lost to Floyd Crosby for Paramount's Tabu and Max Ree for Cimarron resepctively. [16]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Mank 2014, p. 65.
  2. 1 2 "Svengali (1931)". American Film Institute . Retrieved December 24, 2020.
  4. 1 2 3 Grant 2015, p. 69.
  5. 1 2 Mank 2014, p. 32.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Mank 2014, p. 33.
  7. 1 2 3 Mank 2014, p. 34.
  8. Mank 2014, p. 35.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 Mank 2014, p. 37.
  10. Mank 2014, p. 40.
  11. Mank 2014, p. 42.
  12. Mank 2014, p. 43.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Mank 2014, p. 57.
  14. Mank 2014, p. 59.
  15. 1 2 Mank 2014, p. 56.
  16. Mank 2014, p. 60.