Svengali (1931)
©1931 Warner Bros.


Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

Svengali (John Barrymore) is an impoverished music teacher living in Paris with his companion Gecko (Luis Alberni). In the opening scene, Svengali is trying to teach the talentless Madame Honori (Carmel Myers) to sing. Madame Honori is obviously infatuated with Svengali but when she announces that she has left her husband, Svengali rejects her. Crying, she tells Svengali that she has no place else to go and pleads with him to take her in, saying she'll do anything for him, even die. Svengali turns and stares at her and she goes into a panic, eventually fleeing in terror. Later, Gecko informs Svengali that they found Madame Honori's body in the river. Short on money to pay their rent, Svengali and Gecko decide to visit artists Taffy (Lumsden Hare) and The Laird (Donald Crisp). As a joke, Taffy and The Laird force Svengali to take a bath, then go to fetch witnesses so everyone can see. Unfortunately for them, while they're gone, Svengali borrows Taffy's best suit, which happens to have his purse in the pocket. However, before Svengali leaves, a lovely young model named Trilby O'Farrell (Marian Marsh) shows up. Svengali pretends to be an artist to get Trilby to pose naked for him but Gecko announces that Taffy and the Laird are returning and they must flee. As they go, Svengali hears Trilby singing and is amazed by her voice, vowing to find out more about her. Meanwhile, Billie (Bramwell Fletcher) encounters Trilby and is immediately smitten with her. He's overjoyed when she decides to move in with Taffy and The Laird to look after them. Over the next few weeks, Trilby and Billie fall in love and she agrees to marry him. However, when Billie mentions taking Trilby back to England with him, she seems unsure. A few minutes later, Svengali shows up saying that he'd been looking everywhere for Trilby and she tells him she hadn't work that day because of a headache. Seizing the opportunity, Svengali offers to cure Trilby's headache and proceeds to hypnotize her. While she's under, he discovers that 'the roof of her mouth is like the dome of the Pantheon'. He also cures her headache, as promised, and tells her to come to him if the headache returns. That night, Trilby rises from her bed and shuffles off into the darkness. Arriving at Svengali's, still dressed in her nightgown, Trilby seems unsure of why she's there but can't seem to leave. Svengali asks if her headache has returned and she says it has but when he tries to hypnotize her again she resists and runs away. The next day, Billie walks in on Trilby posing naked for an art class and flees in disgust. A moment later, Trilby flees in shame. Later, Svengali encounters an obviously upset Trilby and, while pretending to comfort her, he convinces her that she's not good enough to marry Billie. When Billie gets Trilby's note saying that she's going away forever, he vows to find Trilby but is told by the police that they found her clothes on the banks of the river and it's assumed that she committed suicide. The truth is that Svengali has transformed Trilby into a great singer and is touring Europe with her posing as his wife. The tour travels to England and Taffy, The Laird and Billie attend a performance to discover that Trilby is alive. Unfortunately, Trilby is completely under Svengali's control and doesn't recognize them, except for a brief moment when Svengali's control lapses. Back at their hotel, Svengali puts Trilby in a trance and makes her say she loves him but he realizes that her words are 'only Svengali talking to himself again'. Aware that Trilby is alive, Billie follows Svengali across Europe, vowing to break Svengali's spell on her, but fearing that Billie's love may actually be able break his hold on Trilby, Svengali cancels appearance after appearance. Finally, Svengali confronts Billie and tells him that Trilby will be giving her last performance that night and then she can decide on her future. The performance begins but Svengali soon collapses. A moment later, Billie runs to Trilby's side as she collapses too. Knowing he's about to die, Svengali prays to God to 'grant him in death what he denied him in life'. The movie ends with Trilby dying in Billie's arms but with Svengali's name on her lips.

Type of mind control: Hypnosis/Telepathy?

Mind control scenes:
The opening scene of the movie may or may not be mind control. Whether Madame Honori kills herself because Svengali made her do it or just because he rejects her is unclear but her terror at the way he stares at her leads you to believe the former. The next mind control scene is when Svengali hypnotizes Trilby with his eyes and removes her headache. Trilby's visit to Svengali that night seems to be the combination of a post-hypnotic suggestion from that session and some kind of telepathy. Once Trilby surrenders to Svengali she seems to spend much of the rest of the movie in varying degrees of trance. Two obvious mind control scenes are when Taffy, The Laird and Billie encounter Trilby after her performance but she doesn't recognize them and when Svengali makes Trilby say she loves him. In the first of these scenes, Trilby momentarily comes to her senses when Svengali has some kind of attack and loses his concentration but immediately goes back into a trance when Svengali recovers. In the second scene, Trilby tells Svengali that she's grateful for everything he's done for her but she doesn't love him. Unwilling to accept this, Svengali puts her in a trance and makes her say she loves him but he realizes that her words are untrue.

Subjective Rating: 5 out of 5
Although the hypnosis in this movie is more unrealistic than its 1955 counterpart, John Barrymore's immense screen presence makes it work. Marian Marsh's portrayal of Trilby has an wonderful innocence to it that makes her seduction and subjugation by Svengali all the more intense. This is the first and definitely the best 'Svengali' and a must-see for any fan of hypnosis or mind control.

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