The Third Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon: John Barrymore in Svengali (1931)

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Hello once again, classic film fans! I know it’s been a long time since I’ve written a post for you all; as you might recall, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be available to blog much until August 7th as I was enrolled in the TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock online course. It was an uphill battle completing everything and devoting my time and effort to the class as well as my other commitments, and I have to admit that it took me a little bit longer to get back into the full swing of things because I flew to Virginia on August 9th, spending some time there and driving back to my home state, which took until the 11th. On the plus side I managed to incorporate some Old Hollywood adventures into the trip, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to announce that I had the pleasure of visiting Smithfield, North Carolina, the city that houses the Ava Gardner Museum as well as her final resting place! For the few weeks before my trip I immersed myself in Ava history by watching her films and reading her autobiography, and I can’t wait until I take the time to write up a blog post or two and share my adventures with you all! Until then, I couldn’t be happier to present my entry for the Third Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted as always by the wonderful Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, and I’d like to start off by thanking her for bringing back such an awesome blogathon idea. I hope this year is as successful as ever, and I can’t wait to participate again next year!

Theatrical poster for Svengali (1931).

When I found out that this blogathon concept would be brought back again for the third year in a row, I knew that I simply couldn’t resist joining, and while I’ll admit that I didn’t have a particular film in mind to write about, I knew exactly which Barrymore I would be saluting: the marvelous, ever-so-talented grandfather of Drew Barrymore, Mr. John Barrymore himself. John has always been my favorite Barrymore and I’m fairly certain that he always will be; ever since I saw his stellar performance in Twentieth Century (1934) I was entranced by him, so much so that I wrote this little post on my Tumblr after discovering his films that to this day never fails to make me laugh. So as you can imagine, it was more of a question of which film of John Barrymore’s I would be writing about rather than which member of his illustrious family I would be writing about. After a little bit of research into the films of his that I had not yet seen, I found that Svengali (1931) fit the bill nicely with a compelling plot and some intriguing background information that I feel fortunate to share with you all. The film was based on the iconic novel Trilby (1894) by George du Maurier, who was actually the grandfather of another famous writer involved in classic films, Daphne du Maurier. Daphne went on to become a dame and penned countless stories that were eventually adapted into films made during the golden age of Hollywood like The Birds, Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, and My Cousin Rachel. But first there was Trilby, which was a resounding success and inspired everything from Trilby hats, the city of Trilby in Florida, countless stage and film adaptations (including one made for television in 1983 starring Peter O’Toole and Jodi Foster), and an even more iconic novel written by Gaston Leroux called The Phantom of the Opera in 1910.

Marian Marsh, Bramwell Fletcher, and John Barrymore in a scene from Svengali (1931).

The 1931 adaptation in particular puts the focus on Maestro Svengali (John Barrymore), a pianist and singing teacher who, along with his assistant Gecko (Luis Alberni), struggles to make ends meet by giving lessons in Paris. From the start Svengali uses devious measures in order to get his next meal and to pay the rent, including stealing money from his acquaintances and seducing his female students by using his hypnotic powers, only to discard them when they are no longer of monetary value to him. His whole life changes, however, when he meets the youthful but tone-deaf model Trilby O’Farrell (Marian Marsh). He instantly becomes infatuated with her, while she in turn falls in love with Billee (Bramwell Fletcher), a painter who lives nearby with some of Svengali’s friends. Trilby and Billee are smitten with each other and all goes well for the lovers until he finds out that she has been modeling nude for other male painters for money. An argument ensues, which leads Trilby right into Svengali’s arms, and he convinces her to pretend to take her own life so that their painter friends will forget about her, which will lead her into marrying him. With the help of his commanding hypnosis she does as he asks, and her feigned suicide works like a charm on Billee and the rest of Svengali’s cronies. Slowly but surely Tribly falls deeper and deeper under Svengali’s spell, the two wed, and Svengali transforms Trilby into a singing sensation under the name La Svengali across all of Europe by using his supernatural powers. In fact, we learn that Trilby cannot perform without his assistance as conductor, and that the use of Svengali’s abilities for every single one of her performances is taking quite the toll on his health. Five years after Trilby supposedly killed herself by drowning in the Seine, we see her and Svengali as wealthy and revered performers, and once again Billee enters the picture. Of course he instantly recognizes his lost love, uncovers Svengali’s evil plot, and vows to undo his scorcery, but will he succeed? Will the maestro or his protégée succumb to the black magic that controls each of their lives?

John Barrymore in a publicity still taken in 1931 (L), compared to a publicity still of John Barrymore in full makeup for Svengali (1931) the same year (R).

Svengali (1931) was made at a high point during the lives and careers of both of its stars. At only 17 years old, Trilby O’Farrell was Marian Marsh’s first starring role, and despite her young age it would go on to become the part that gave her the most acclaim as well as the part that audiences would associate with the actress until her death in 2006. John Barrymore was 49 while filming Svengali (1931), and happily married for the third time to former costar Dolores Costello, which according to Marian Marsh (who was affectionately called “Maid Marian” by Barrymore) led to him not drinking at all on or offscreen, a rare feat for the actor who was usually closely linked with his alcoholism. Barrymore received high praise for his portrayal of the title character in the picture, with critic Martin Dickstein of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle writing that Barrymore “registers a personal triumph in the role” while also calling his performance “Brilliant… one of the best of his movie career”. Barrymore did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Svengali (1931) or any other film for that matter, but the film itself was nominated for two Oscars, one for Best Art Direction by Anton Grot and another for Best Cinematography by Barney McGill. In 2003, the character of Svengali was nominated for a spot on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Heroes and Villains list of the last hundred years. In my opinion Barrymore’s characterization was spot on, right down to the white contacts that he wore during the scenes in which Svengali hypnotizes Trilby. The contacts are actually considered to be the first ever worn onscreen, but despite John Barrymore complaining that they were clumsy and uncomfortable for him to wear, I feel just as he did that they also improved his performance. In fact, my only complaint is the painfully slow delivery of his lines. If he spoke at a normal pace, the running time of Svengali (1931) could have easily been cut in half. Marian Marsh was absolutely stunning to look at too, and I found myself unable to take my eyes off of her or her strikingly modern blonde locks during most of the film’s duration. It’s easy to say that the enjoyable parts of this film carry it from start to finish, and I would wholeheartedly recommend Svengali (1931) to any fan of horror or troubled relationships between a maestro and protégée like the one displayed in Phantom of the Opera, and especially to any fan of John Barrymore.


31 Days of Oscar Blogathon: Luise Rainer’s Back-to-Back Oscar Wins


After a long time away from this blog, I’m finally back with my first post of the year! Today I’ll be talking about legendary actress Luise Rainer and how becoming the first back-to-back Oscar winner changed the course of her life and career. I’d like to start by thanking the three lovely hosts of this blogathon, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen for hosting, and I wish this wonderful blogathon all the success possible! And so, without further ado, on with the post!

Luise Rainer the year of her American film debut, c. 1935

If you have ever seen a film of Luise Rainer’s before, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that she got her first big break in Europe. In fact, she was discovered in Vienna by legendary theater director Max Reinhardt (who went on to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)) and garnered widespread acclaim as part of his theatre company before even turning eighteen. At first Rainer had no interest in films, but in after appearing in several German films in the early 1930s, she was seen performing in a play by MGM talent scout Phil Berg. Immediately he offered Rainer a three-year contract with high hopes that she would move to Hollywood and make a useful backup for finicky Swedish MGM player Greta Garbo. Rainer accepted the offer, and got her second lucky break as soon as she arrived in sunny California, as Myrna Loy had just dropped out of her newest Powell and Loy vehicle halfway through filimg and MGM was in dire need of a star. At the tender age of twenty-five she made her American debut in the film, titled Escapade (1935).

Costar William Powell served as a mentor to her on the picture, teaching her how to act in front of the camera. Rainer remembered him always as “a dear man” and “a very fine person”, and after the film’s completion Powell reportedly told MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, “You’ve got to star this girl or I’ll look like an idiot.” And star her he did, in what would be her first Oscar-winning performance and her second film with William Powell, The Great Ziegfeld (1936). It was a film that chronicled the life of entertainment mogul and founder of the Ziegfeld Follies, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., and also served as MGM’s attempt to ride on the coattails of other successful biographical pictures of the 1930s, like Mata Hari (1931), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), and Cleopatra (1934). In it, Rainer portrayed Ziegfeld’s first wife, French actress and singer Anna Held. A lavish budget of just over $2 million was given to the picture, and in return it received raving critical and box office success, earning back its budget and almost a million more in total profits and nabbing seven Academy Award nominations, for Original Screenplay, Art and Dance Direction, Film Editing, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Actress for Luise Rainer.

Luise Rainer shown with her first Academy Award for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), shown with Paul Muni (left) and Frank Capra (right).

When Oscar night drew near, however, everyone believed that she would lose to one of her more experienced and respected competitors. That year, Carole Lombard received her first and only nomination for My Man Godfrey (1936), Norma Shearer recieved her fifth nomination for Romeo and Juliet (1936), and Irene Dunne received her second of five unsuccessful nominations for Theodora Goes Wild (1936). Even Luise Rainer herself remained at home, not expecting to win, but when Mayer learned that she had indeed won in what many consider to be a shocking upset, he hurriedly sent MGM publicity head Howard Strickling to her home to fetch her. After much commotion Rainer took home the golden man, and since that date many theories have been presented as to why. One states that MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer had more influence over the Academy than anyone else, and he believed that an Oscar for Rainer would give her some much needed publicity. Another believes that the Academy was blinded by the glitter and glamour of The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and wanted to award the film with as many accolades as possible. Most historians believe, however, that her heartfelt performance in what is now called the famous “telephone scene” earned her the Oscar, a scene in which the broken-hearted Held congratulates Ziegfeld over the telephone on his upcoming second marriage to Billie Burke in a prideful attempt to maintain her composure and her dignity.

Her performance in the film led her to recieve the coveted part of O-Lan in her next picture, The Good Earth (1937), an adaptation of the bestselling 1931 novel by Pearl S. Buck about the trials of Chinese farmer Wang Lung. O-Lan is a servant who becomes Wang Lung’s faithful and hardworking wife, and the two of them lead a life that brings both prosperity and destitution. The role required a stellar actress despite the character not having many lines, and Rainer nabbed the part after censors forbid the use of Asian actress Anna May Wong after hearing that white actor Paul Muni had already received the role of Wang Lung. Like many other films, the production of The Good Earth (1937) was riddled with complications as soon as Rainer was cast. Louis B. Mayer did not approve of such a realistic and plain picture for Luise Rainer, who he had just built up as a beautiful star. “He was horrified at Irving Thalberg’s insistence for me to play O-Lan, the poor uncomely little Chinese peasant,” she recalled in a later interview. “I myself, with the meager dialogue given to me, feared to be a hilarious bore.” Rainer also remembered hearing Mayer’s comments to Thalberg, producer of the film. “She has to be a dismal-looking slave and grow old; but Luise is a young girl; we just have made her glamorous — what are you doing?”

Nevertheless, Rainer considered the film and her part in it among her “greatest achievements”, stating that she was finally able to express realism, even refusing to wear the “rubber mask Chinese look” suggested by the makeup department, and she fondly remembered being allowed to act “genuine, honest, and down-to-earth”. Other serious problems arose when director George W. Hill, who had already spent several months on location in China filming esablishing and background scenes, committed suicide soon after returning to Hollywood. The filming was postponed until Sidney Franklin could take over as director. Months later, producer Irving Thalberg also died suddenly at the age of thirty-seven. Rainer commented years later, “His dying was a terrible shock to us. He was young and ever so able. Had it not been that he died, I think I may have stayed much longer in films.” The opening credits of The Good Earth (1937) include a dedication to Thalberg: “To the Memory of Irving Grant Thalberg — his last greatest achievement – we dedicate this picture.” His hard work and that of the rest of the cast and crew paid off, however, as the film received overwhelmingly positive reviews and was nominated for five Academy Awards, for Film Editing, Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Actress, giving Luise Rainer her second nomination in a row.

Luise Rainer Holding an Academy Award
Luise Rainer shown with her second Academy Award for The Good Earth (1937).

Again not much faith was put into Rainer’s ability to win the Oscar and her competition was very steep, as in 1937 Irene Dunne received her third nomination for The Awful Truth (1937), Greta Garbo received her second of three unsuccessful nominations for Camille (1937), Janet Gaynor received her second nomination for the original production of A Star is Born (1937), and Barbara Stanwyck received her first of four unsuccessful nominations for Stella Dallas (1937). Once more Luise Rainer surprised everyone by becoming the world’s first back-to-back winner of the Academy Award, male or female. The feat would not be duplicated again until 1968, when Katharine Hepburn won Best Actress for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Lion in Winter (1968). This time Rainer made sure to attend the ceremony, appearing in person and accepting her Oscar for the world to see. Critics overwhelmingly did not agree with the decision, favoring Greta Garbo’s performance in Camille (1937) and still believing that she deserved the Oscar, and unfortunately for Rainer, the award proved to be the beginning of the end for her career in films.

Rainer went on to fulfill her contract with MGM, making three more pictures in 1937 alone. Her next (and most consider her last) hit was The Great Waltz (1938), another musical biographical film in which Rainer played the part of Poldi Vogelhuber, wife of Johann Strauss. The film was nominated for three Oscars and won one for best cinematography, but Luise Rainer did not receive another nomination. Later she became one of the many actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), and rallied unsuccessfully for the part of Belinda McDonald in Johnny Belinda (1948). The role eventually went to Jane Wyman and earned her her only Oscar for Best Actress. In 1938 Rainer left MGM, arriving at the office of studio head Louis B. Mayer and reportedly telling him, “Mr. Mayer, I must stop making films. My source has dried up. I work from the inside out, and there is nothing inside to give.”

Luise Rainer in her later years, shown with both of her Academy Awards.

Despite her grievances, she was not released from her contract and was still bound to make one more film for the studio, which she did in 1943 with the film Hostages (1943). Rainer later said about her departure: “I was very young. There were a lot of things I was unprepared for. I was too honest, I talked serious instead of with my eyelashes and Hollywood thought I was cuckoo. I worked in seven big pictures in three years. I have to be inspired to give a good performance. I complained to a studio executive that the source was dried up. The executive told me, ‘Why worry about the source? Let the director worry about that.’ I didn’t run away from anybody in Hollywood. I ran away from myself.” She later attributed her the end of her career to her back-to-back Academy Awards, saying that “For my second and third pictures I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me. When I got two Oscars, they thought ‘Oh, they can throw me into anything’. I was a machine, practically a tool in a big, big factory, and I could not do anything. And so I left. I just went away. I fled. Yes, I fled.” Despite other offers in the meantime, Luise Rainer did not return to films until she was eighty-six years old, with one small role in The Gambler (1997), after which she did not work again.