Directed by Archie Mayo
Starring John Barrymore, Marian Marsh and Donald Crisp
Produced by Warner Bros.
This usually where I would do the plot summary, so here it goes:
A guy who is teaching music actually has mind control powers and takes control of a beautiful woman making her fall in love with him. It ends badly for them. The end.
There's obviously a lot more to Svengali, but that's the gist.
I hated this film. It's sloppily constructed, overacted and dull.
How so? The film wants to set up Svengali as this mythical, evil yet tragic monster of a man, someone who would take control of a woman's mind and make her commit suicide. Or who would control the woman he lusts for and force her to love him.
And how do you build such a beast? By making him the center of a comedic, almost slapstick opening, of course. Have this evil, tragic figure give music lessons to a terrible singer, rolling his eyes and cringing the whole time. If he's silly, we will take him even more seriously at the end, right?
I don't know if the thought was to combine the pathos and comedy of a Charlie Chaplin film with the horror and tragedy of Lon Chaney, but that appears to be the goal. And it's about as effective as mixing oil and water and throwing in some pickles for good measure. It's a recipe that just never comes together.
You could make the argument that the true purpose of Svengali is to give John Barrymore a reason to put on a lot of make up and mug for the camera. There it succeeds in spades. Barrymore seems unaware that the over-emotive acting necessary for silent films is not necessary in a talkie. Your movements can be more subtle.
Any of the above could be slightly forgivable if Svengali was entertaining on some level. It's not. It's repetitive and dull. In its comedic moments, it approaches its punchlines with all the grace of my three year old pretending to be a ninja. It grabs its jokes and pummels them into submission.
When it is time for drama, we get the same moments over and over again, with the added problem of Barrymore delivering his lines with the speed of a cartoon turtle. It's excruciating to endure.
What's good about Svengali? The lighting effect that happens with Barrymore's face when he is hypnotizing someone is kind of neat. Other than that....
* out of *****