Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saturday, February 26, 1972 (Noon): Svengali (1932) / Mysterious Doctor (1943)

Synopsis: The eccentric musician Svengali (John Barrymore) ekes out a living as a music tutor in Paris. He lives a decidedly bohemian lifestyle: he rarely bathes, his clothes are worn and unkempt, and he owes money to just about everyone he knows.

Svengali is acquainted with a group of English expat artists who live nearby, and it is through them that he first sees the lovely young model  Trilby (Marian Marsh).  Like most men he is thoroughly taken with her, drawn to her beauty, innocence and playfulness, but she is in love with an Englishman named Billee (Bramwell Fletcher).

Among Svengali's talents is a knack for hypnotism, and he offers to help Trilby with her persistent headaches by putting her under his spell and eliminating the pain through the power of suggestion. Before long, the amoral mentalist decides that he can do more than this, and under his power Trilby sends a note to Billee rejecting him, and leading him to believe she has committed suicide.  But in fact she has fled Paris with Svengali, starting a new life not only as his musical protege but as his bride.

Under Svengali's tutelage, Trilby becomes a famous singer, performing across Europe as Mdme. Svengali.  Svengali himself becomes wealthy and powerful, with the most important figures in the music world begging for a moment of his time.  Yet Svengali is not happy.  In spite of his control over Trilby, he knows that she doesn't really love him.

Soon enough, Svengali makes a triumphant return to Paris. Billee is astonished to see that Trillby is not only alive, but is Svengali's wife.  When Trilby sees Billee, she is momentarily ecstatic to see him, and Svengali must struggle to bring her back under his control....

Comments: The hypnotic power wielded by the title character is the only thing that pushes this film into the realm of fantasy. It's really more of a romantic tragedy, as Trilby is cruelly manipulated by Svengali for his own purposes, while Svengali finds his life with her empty because while he controls every aspect of her life, he cannot win her heart.  He is a monster in his way, but a tragic one, and he somewhat resembles The Phantom of the Opera, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and the other creatures of filmdom, who want to win the love of a woman but find that she is forever outside his reach. 

John Barrymore does a great deal to make the character interesting and sympathetic. His Svengali isn't just a manipulative crank, he is a talented musician and surprisingly likable fellow who for all his foibles is someone for whom we are able to understand and empathize with. In fact, Barrymore's portrayal really saves the movie from being an anti-Semitic smear, as the story could easily be interpreted as a cautionary tale about allowing the greedy and manipulative Jews near your women.  That would, of course, require the luckless sad-sack Billee to be the protagonist. If that were the case, no one would remember the movie at all.  Luckily, Svengali is front and center at all times, an anti-hero and antagonist rolled into one.

Seeing this one again I was struck by the expressionist sets director Archie Mayo employs, especially in the early scenes. They help to establish a dreamlike feel that underlines the plot elements. Trilby, Billee and Svengali are all living in a world that isn't real, but for different reasons: Trilby is literally sleepwalking through her life, Billee believes that Trilby is dead when she is actually alive, and Svengali himself, that master of illusion, has fooled himself into thinking that Trilby will somehow come to love him when it's clear to us that she never will.

Mysterious Doctor

Synopsis: In England during World War II, a man calling himself Dr. Holmes walks into a small Cornish village.  He is surprised to find that the innkeeper wears a black hood, supposedly to hide terrible scars he sustained in a mining accident.   

Dr. Holmes rents a room, buying a round for everyone in the inn and telling those gathered that he is taking a walking tour of Cornwall; but this only raises the suspicion of Sir John Leland and some of the other natives of the village.  There's a war on, Leland says.  What are you doing going on walking tours?  Holmes replies a little sheepishly that he tried to enlist, but the army wouldn't take him.  Leland is suspicious of Holmes, but the villagers eventually accept his story.  

The natives tell Holmes of a terrible curse that has befallen the town: the local tin mine is haunted by a headless ghost.  The ghost is known to have killed a number of people in the mine, and now none of the local miners will set foot within it.  Late that evening Dr. Holmes goes to visit the mine; his decapitated body is later found.

Lt. Christopher "Kit" Hilton (Bruce Lester) soon arrives in town.  He tells the townspeople that tin is desperately needed for the war effort.   Hilton implores the miners to disregard their superstitions and return to work.  But to a man they refuse.  This earns the contempt of Letty Carstairs (Eleanor Parker), the local kind-hearted beauty, who calls them a bunch of frightened old women and volunteers to go to the mine herself to prove it is safe.  The miners squirm under her blistering gaze but don't budge.

The town simpleton Bart Redmond (Matt Willis) is accused of murdering Dr. Holmes, and knowing an angry mob is preparing to storm the town jail where he is held and exact an American-style lynching, Letty arranges Bart's escape, and she tells him to hide in the mine.  He does so, but soon returns to town secretly.  He tells Letty that he has discovered a secret passage inside the mine -- that leads to a room which contains the costume worn by the headless ghost....

Comments:  This enjoyable programmer from Warner doesn't offer much in the way of suspense, as the Scooby Doo ending is telegraphed so early that it doesn't even feel like a cheat. It's pounded into our heads repeatedly that tin is desperately needed for the war effort, and -- in case that was too subtle for you -- no one is going to set foot in the tin mine as long as there's a headless ghost running around. The real mystery -- such as it is -- is who is behind this hoax.  We get several suspects and it's possible to choose the wrong person as the real Headless Ghost. Possible, but not likely. Nevertheless, the movie sports an able cast and the Cornish village sets have an agreeably spooky atmosphere reminiscent of umpteen Universal efforts.  

This is one of those movies where thinking too much spoils the fun.  Don't bother asking why gruff Cornish miners would be scared off by rumors of a ghost, when they already work in a job where being buried alive is a real and constant possibility; and don't bother asking what miners who don't work are supposed to do for money.  It's pretty obvious that the headless ghost is a costume because the arms are clearly too low on the body, and wisely the ghost isn't kept on the screen for very long. 

I really liked the cast in this one. Lester Matthews (Werewolf of London) makes a great Dr. Holmes, the stranger who is clearly up to something; Jon Loder (The Invisible Man's Revenge, The Brighton Strangler)  is a welcome presence as the suave Sir John Leland, and Matt Willis, whom you may remember as Andreas from The Return of the Vampire, plays the same sort of character here.


kochillt said...

SVENGALI popped up on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater very early on, even before the 1931 DRACULA or FRANKENSTEIN. Just gazing at the beautiful Marian Marsh once again recalls how just four years later, Karloff was her leading man in THE BLACK ROOM. Never saw MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR, the cast looks as dull as the plot.

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