Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Svengali

1. Svengali US movie (1931). Warner. Dir Archie Mayo. Screenplay J Grubb Alexander. Based on Trilby (1894) by George du Maurier (1834-1896). Starring John Barrymore (Svengali), Marian Marsh (Trilby). 81 mins. B/w.

This first movie version of du Maurier's classic (the plot is as in 2) gives Barrymore plenty of opportunities to ham things up, much as Wolfit would; the movie is less vital when he is absent from the screen. The sets are excellent, and deft use is made of camera angles to create fantastication. Hollywood rarely paid much attention to what the European moviemakers were up to; this is an exception. Marsh is suitably distracting. [JG]

2. Svengali UK movie (1954). Renown/Alderdale. Pr George Minter. Dir Noel Langley. Screenplay Langley. Starring Derek Bond (Sandy, The Laird), Hubert Gregg (Durien), David Kossoff (Gecko), Terence Morgan (Billy), Hildegarde Neff (Trilby), Paul Rogers (Taffy), Harry Secombe (Barizel), Donald Wolfit (Svengali). Voice actor Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (Trilby singing). 82 mins. Colour.

17-year-old Trilby becomes a model for the sculptor Durien, and makes friends with the three young English artists in the adjacent studio, falling in love with one of them, Billy; through them she also meets the street musicians Svengali and Gecko. Billy's family refuse to let him marry Trilby; in grief he hits Svengali, who pronounces a gypsy Curse on him, and sure enough soon after Billy is crippled in a street accident. Svengali, who has hypnotized (> Mesmerism) Trilby once before to cure a headache, now assumes total dominance over her, telling her she shall become a great singer because, in effect, he will be doing the singing though the voice will come from her throat. As La Svengali she has a triumphant operatic career, but when she comes to London to sing at Covent Garden he has a heart attack mid-performance, and her operatic powers vanish abruptly. As he had before promised her, Svengali's death means that she too shall die – but Billy arrives on the scene just in time to lure her back to life with his love.

This imbalanced movie concentrates too much on the romance between Billy and Trilby at the expense of the story proper, and is also constrained by sexual primness. Wolfit hams his role to the rafters in an attempt to enliven to the proceedings, but Neff is so vapid that it is impossible to credit her as a heartbreaker. [JG]

3. Svengali US movie (1983 tvm). Viacom. Pr Robert Halmi. Dir Anthony Harvey. Screenplay Frank Cucci. Based on a story by Sue Grafton, itself based loosely on du Maurier. Starring Jodie Foster (Zoe Alexander), Peter O'Toole (1932-2013) (Anton J Bosnyak). 100 mins. Colour.

An updating of the tale which ruthlessly defantasticates the original. Plucked from obscurity, singer Alexander achieves superstardom thanks to vocal coach Bosnyak, in whose absence she finds it impossible to sing. They become lovers but, when he cracks her obsession by deceiving her into thinking he was at a concert when he was not, she storms out. She attempts to return, but he explains his task is done: he has taught her to be an "intact" (i.e., autonomous) human being. The movie is affecting, but somewhat lacking in narrative impetus. [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.