CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
Noel Langley’s 1954 color version of “Svengali” doesn’t get talked about much, and those who do mention it tend not to like it. While it won’t win any accolades from fans of the 1931 B&W version, it’s not really a terrible film. It’s curse seems to be that it’s a well-made film which it’s British publicity billed as a “dramatic romance.”
But let’s back up a moment to 1931. Warner Brothers, ever alert to new trends, thought that the vogue for horror movies might be worth exploring. Universal had “Dracula” with his hypnotic stare, Warner Brothers would dust off George Du Maurier’s late-Victorian romance-with-supernatural overtones and give audiences “Svengali,” another baleful gent with “the eyes that paralyze” (to steal a tag-line from a later fantasy film). In the hands of director Archie Mayo, scriptwriter J. Grubb Alexander and production designer Anton Grot, Du Maurier’s creation was presented as very much a horror film with John Barrymore’s unsightly mountebank hypnotically possessing comely blonde Marion Marsh every bit as effectively as Bela Lugosi had done over at Universal.
Now let’s fast-forward to Langley’s film and compare one scene as presented in both films–Svengali’s first summoning of the hypnotized heroine Trilby O’Farrell. In Langley’s production everything happens quite naturalistically. Sir Donald Wolfit, playing Svengali explains to his devotee Gecko that he will now summon Trilby to him. He sits at a piano facing a window and begins to play, The scenes of Wolfit playing are intercut with scenes of Hildegarde Neff’s Trilby traversing the crowded streets en route to him. In the Mayo-Barrymore version we begin with a close-up of Svengali’s glowing eyes, then the camera draws away from him, travels out the open window of his room, across the rooftops of Paris to Trilby’s room where a gust of wind blows open her windows. The girl awakens, we see her feet, bare at first, then shod as she makes her way to Svengali’s attic room. (Warner Brothers used a different technique than that employed by Universal giving Barrymore’s eyes the eerie look of poached eggs.) The earlier film treats the summoning as a purely supernatural event, emphasizing the power of Svengali’s gaze. (Grot’s marvelously expressionistic sets giving the scene a sense of being more from a E.T.A. Hoffman tale than a Victorian romance.) Not the least of the differences between the two films is that Wolfit’s Svengali is one character upon many, sharing screen space with Neff’s Trilby, Terence Morgan’s Billy Baggot and even David Kosoff’s Gecko, whereas Barrymore’s “Svengali” is clearly a star vehicle and Barrymore is the star. He is the picture, period.
The producer George Minter wanted to film quality versions of classic British novels, so not surprisingly Langley’s film digs deeper into the literary source than did the shorter Mayo film and it softens Svengali’s character a bit. Yes he behaves like a shit but it’s because he loves a woman who he can hypnotize into saying that she loves him, while feeling nothing for him in her heart–and he knows it. By contrast, Alexander establishes Svengali’s Draculean character early on when he has him hypnotize a society woman who no longer pleases him into committing suicide. In a neat touch we don’t initially see the gaze, we only see its effect upon the doomed woman. Interestingly though, Langley’s version is the one that ultimately pulls its punch. In Du Maurier’s novel and in Mayo’s film, Trilby dies when Svengali dies and the deathbed presence of the young British artist Billy Baggot–who was always Trilby’s true love–is powerless to break Svengali’s after-death hold over her. In the film she even dies with “Svengali” on her lips, as if in response to Svengali’s dying prayer to be granted in death what he was denied in life. Perhaps Langley or Minter felt that the British public had experienced enough tragedy in their lives and wanted them to leave the theaters happy, so he allows true love to triumph as Billy pulls Trilby back from the brink of death, while Wolfit merely collapses in his theater box and dies.
In the end Langley’s “Svengali” is one of those films like Andre de Toth’s “House of Wax” and Roy Del Ruth’s “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” that may have served as a design template for the Hammer Horrors soon to come.