Director Maurice Tourneur, who charmed us in 1914 with “The Wishing Ring” and thrilled us in February with “Alias Jimmy Valentine” returns in September, 1915 with this very different movie. No doubt Tourneur, influenced by the success of “The Birth of a Nation” in attracting a higher class of filmgoer to theaters, was wanted to try more upscale source material in hope of the same result. For this, he chose George du Maurier’s most famous gothic novel, about a bohemian model under the spell of a diabolical hypnotist.
The story begins with Trilby, played by Clara Kimball Young (who had been in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Hearts in Exile”), who is young, carefree, and the center of the artist’s scene in Paris. She hangs out with a group of bachelor-artists and meets Svengali, a musician who plays weirdly entrancing music, played by Wilton Lackaye, who had played the role famously on stage. She sings an old folk tune for them and demonstrates her tone-deafness, but Svengali sees something in her, and all the boys are in love with her. Especially Billie, who now undertakes to paint her, and with time the two of them fall in love. Billie has a momentary fit when he sees her posing nude for an art class (we don’t see anything, but we get the idea), but then he comes back and begs forgiveness. Their wedding is on. But, the evil Svengali has already gotten his hooks into Trilby; one day when she was suffering from “neuralgia,” he hypnotized the pain away and now she is under his power. He makes her write a note breaking things off with Billie, but then lets her go to the wedding party anyway. He sneaks in to her room while Billie and the others are celebrating, and hypnotizes her into coming with him and leaving the note. Much later, Billie and his friends hear about a famous “Mrs. Svengali” who is coming to town to sing. Apparently she has taken the world by storm. They go to the theater, and of course it is Trilby! Billie swoons and stumbles out of the theater. Trilby’s singing is perfect, but her personality is suppressed. Then, Svengali has a heart attack while she is on stage and the spell is broken. Trilby is booed off the stage, having lost her voice, but rushes back to the arms of Billie.
The print I watched of this movie was not perfect, but it was still possible to make out some of Tourneur’s famous lighting effects, particularly in the love scenes with Trilby and Billie. The camera is static and the pacing is slower than a lot of the movies of this period, but there is still good use of editing within scenes and cross-cutting to build drama, as in the scene where the identity of Madame Svengali is exposed. We get a few close-ups, mostly of Trilby early in the film.
Although Svengali is the character that gets talked about, I thought Clara Kimball Young’s depiction of Trilby was more critical to the picture. She starts out vivacious and seemingly blasé – when she comes into the room with the painters and Svengali, she declines a chair and climbs onto the piano, a close-up reveals that she is only wearing one shoe (horrors! a visible ankle!). In these scenes, she is often wearing a man’s jacket or other masculine clothing, suggesting that she just threw something on to cover up before going out. She’s not by any means a flapper, though, the style remains decidedly 19th-Century bohemian. Then, as she falls in love with Billie, we see a more tender, serious side of her come out. She isn’t playing all the time, although she sometimes still shows her wild side. Her clothing becomes more feminine. Finally, as Svengali’s slave, she seems to lose her personality altogether. She wears what he wants her to wear – generally flowy gowns like something from ancient Greece. Kimball Young handles all three roles excellently.
As a final note, yes, the role of Svengali is inevitably linked with anti-Semitism. Lackaye plays him with an obviously fake crooked nose and an unruly black beard, evoking traditional Jewish caricatures. I won’t excuse this, but it appears to me that Tourneur’s interest here was not in perpetrating anti-Semitic propaganda. Svengali is presented here as an evil Jew, but not necessarily a representative of all Jews. Of course, an audience with a predisposition toward anti-Semitism might well take it that way, showing that what you bring with you to the movies always influences what you take away as well.
Director: Maurice Tourneur
Cast: Clara Kimball Young, Wilton Lackaye, Chester Barnett
Run Time: 1 hr
I have been unable to find this for free on the Internet. If you know where it can be seen, please comment below.