- By GREGORY WILLIAM MANK
The 1931 Svengali remains the only true version
of George Du Maurier's classic novel Trilby. It
has charm, flair and humor, and its tragic finale hardly
depresses; indeed, Svengali plays for the most part like
a time machine back to a Lyceum theater of the 1890s,
with all its Victorian flair and frills -- and, of course,
the wonderful performances of John Barrymore and Marian
Marsh. Barrymore, reveling in the baroque wicked role
of the mesmeric maestro, brilliantly played what is hailed
widely as his greatest cinema performance.
Sixty-five years after its premier, Svengali is
a fascinating movie. It's filled with Victorian flair,
morality and daring; indeed, perhaps no film plays with
such grand style of old theatrical melodrama, capturing
perfectly the spirit of Du Maurier's 1894 novel. One of
the greatest charms and powers of Svengali is the leading
lady -- Marian Marsh. She is the epitome of Du Maurier's
doomed heroine. She was an unusual talent who captured
all the imperiled beauty of a classic horror heroine,
who seemed to have wandered out of a storybook -- and
who remembers her career today vividly and happily.
Marsh recalls that before officially arranging a screen
test with Barrymore, Warner Brothers dispatched her to
Barrymore's home, Bella Vista, high atop a mountain above
Beverly Hills, with its tower, glass-topped aviary of
300 birds, giant swimming pool, ponds, waterfalls, fountains
and a menagerie of exotic animals (including Maloney,
Barrymore's beloved pet vulture) for an audience with
The Great Profile. "I was under age, so they had
to take my mother.
"When I first met John Barrymore, he was sick in
bed at his house up on Tower Road. When we arrived at
the house, my mother had excused herself, and said, "I
will sit here and wait for you -- " she seemed to
know to do that, so they wouldn't feel awkward having
the mother there. Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck led me
upstairs to John Barrymore; he was in this great big enormous
bed in this great big enormous room. As I walked in, Barrymore
was propped up in bed, lots of pillows around him; he
sat up rather straighter, and immediately said I looked
like his wife Dolores [Costello], to whom he was happily
married at the time.
" 'Has anyone ever remarked,' asked Barrymore, 'that
you resemble my wife, Dolores?' 'Yes,' " I said.
'Who?' asked Barrymore. And I said, 'The butcher on Vine
Street who gives me liver for my cat!' Well, Barrymore
just laughed his head off!" He agreed to test with
The tests were extensive. Just before Christmas, 1930,
Marian received a special gift; the news that she had
won the part. "There were wonderful actresses all
over the world trying to get the part," marvels Marian
today,"and to think they would choose me -- that
was really remarkable. The day I got the part -- and a
lot of famous actresses had wanted it -- I was to go that
evening to a party at Pickfair, the home of Mary Pickford
and Doug Fairbanks, who were very kind to me and my family.
My mother encouraged me to call Jack Warner and ask permission
to announce the news at the party, and they said yes --
as long as I waited until 11 o'clock, when the newspapers
hit the streets. So, at 11 o'clock, I gave the news at
Pickfair -- and it was a thunderbolt. Everybody applauded.
It was tremendous!"
Barrymore was 49 years old and at the peak of his career;
Marian was 17, and just a novice. For Svengali,
Warner Bros. paid Barrymore $150,000, plus 10 percent
of the gross receipts (advancing the star $50,000 in this
respect); Marian was making $300 per week. Some predicted
that Barrymore would resent and upstage his starlet leading
lady. "He went the other way," says Marsh, whom
he always called Little Maid Marian. "Mr. Barrymore
(as I always called him) worried so about me, which was
"Whenever we rehearsed, he would say, 'Are you comfortable?
Don't worry about anything -- just be natural.' I remember
he spoke to me about my diction; he said at times I spoke
too clearly, and that I should 'jumble it up' sometimes
to sound more natural. He was so helpful, and we were
so comfortable together -- many people remarked on that."
Indeed, Barrymore and Marian were so 'comfortable' that
the Warner front office became concerned. Aware of Barrymore's
'lady-killing' notoriety, there was fear that the star
was prospecting the young girl as a romantic conquest.
But in the end, the relationship proved to be a platonic
Marian Marsh rode the rumors, as well as another Svengali
tempest; the famous scene of Trilby posing au naturel.
The shot of Trilby's derriere as she hops off the pedestal
and runs out of the room still inspires a whoop out of
contemporary audiences. Marian recalls the controversy:
"As for the nude scene, they made a bit of a fuss
about it until they learned I was wearing a body stocking,
and my teacher was on the set. Also, for that one shot,
they used an older girl, a double, and that's who you
see running from the room in that 'nude' leotard. You
had to be over 21 to wear that leotard!"
A key scene in Svengali involves his unrequited
love for Trilby, who, deep in her soul, still yearns for
her former love, Little Billee. One night in frustrated
passion, Svengali goes to Trilby's bed and commands her
to look into his hypnotic eyes. Marian gives quite a show
of passion as she gasps, "I do love you," and
lustfully, soulfully kisses him. But Svengali terminates
it. "Ah, you are beautiful, my manufactured love,"
says Svengali, freeing his mate from the trance. "But
it is only Svengali, talking to himself again."
"After that scene," Marsh recalls, "[director]
Archie Mayo -- a rough kind of fellow, loud, boisterous,
and anything he thought, he said it -- said to me, 'How
did you know to do that like that, and do it so well?'
You know, he figured I knew nothing!"
Throughout the shooting of Svengali, there were
constant rumors that Barrymore would cop an Academy Award
for his performance. Incredibly, he was not even nominated
in the year that his brother Lionel took home the award
for playing the alcoholic lawyer of MGM's A Free Soul
(indeed, John was never nominated at all).
Svengali survives as one of Hollywood's most wonderful
melodramas -- and Marian Marsh's strange, bewitching little
Trilby is one of the genre's most unforgettable performances.
Gregory William Mank is the author of the two-volume
set, Women in Horror. Vol. 1: 1930s, Vol. 2: 1940s
and others available from McFarland