The Sunday Intertitle: Swarthy Opponent

Maurice Tourneur’s version of TRILBY (1915) foregrounds his renowned lighting effects right from the get-go, and though he doesn’t move the camera at all, he breaks up his tableaux staging with lively montages of close-ups, especially when the heroine sings. Our juvenile lead (31-year-old Chester Barnett) is introduced beside a shadow which looks like it should be his, except that he’s standing still while it rocks with laughter.

In the title role is Clara Kimball Young, whose name I knew but whom I’d never seen act. From her name I expected a plump Victorian matron, even though that wouldn’t fit the role created by George DuMaurier at all. That never stopped the Victorians. But CKY is young, spry and ebullient — she dominates the room, which makes her transformation under Svengali’s influence all the more affecting. CKY may play it big a lot of the time, but she’s never broad — the quicksilver transmutations of her expression draw the eye and keep it fixed upon her. She’s certainly more boisterous than Marian Marsh, the only other actress I’ve seen in the part.

Though set in London and Paris, with a few stock shots of the City of Light, the movie is a product of that other magical place, Fort Lee, New Jersey, the predecessor of Hollywood as America’s movie capital.

It’s slightly surprising that there were so many silent versions of this (full adaptations and even sample scenes — the story was so well-known early audiences could simply fill in the rest themselves), since the plot revolves around singing, but it’s also surprising to me that there haven’t been more recent versions. The character names and set-up are familiar even if the novel isn’t much read, so there’s an exploitable framework. I think the problem may lie in the somewhat semitic nature of Svengali, played here by the corpulent Wilton Lackaye as a sort of telepod fusion of Rasputin and Fagin. The Brits allow this evil Eastern European wanderer into their circle, he borrows their money and he steals their woman. It’s also about how women should choose marriage over a career. Virginal artist Billie is shocked that his sweetheart poses nude for artists, and then he tears her away from her successful stage act. Woman, know your place!

Plus, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA stole the best bits of the story and added deformity, masks, an underground lair and fifty more thicknesses of melodramatic excess. How do you go back to the stolid British original after Lon Chaney?

Fiona named her cat after Trilby because her purr turned to a trill in moments of extreme happiness. Here is the late Trilby ~

Like her namesake, she had a fine singing voice, as you can see.

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6 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Swarthy Opponent”

  1. John Barrymore made a teriffic Svengali in the version directed by Archie Mayo that owes a lot to Murnau. I especially love the moment when he gets Marian Marsh to say “I love you’ to him only to sigh and say “No, it is just Svengali talking to himself.”

    The character’s influence of Connie Veidt in The Thief of Baghdad is pretty obvious.

    Meanwhile. . .

    Off-topic but of interest to all, I hope.

  2. Beautiful piece! I met Lopate in NYC. He was very nice. But the idea of him floundering through a gay party is strangely hilarious.

    By the time of the Barrymore movie, it feels like everybody’s decided this stuff is camp. Kind of a shame, as I’d love a proper thirties horror take on the tale. The long-distance mind control scenes with the camera, as Svengali’s astral self, soaring over a model city, is staggering.

  3. Merci!

    Barrymore could camp it up with the best of them, but his Svengali, I feel, manages to resist that somehow. He was an expert at the tragically haunted.

  4. I was the Tourneur version was available on a better DVD than Alpha has to offer. The title cards are great!

  5. Yeah. The piano score is skillfully done though.

  6. I wish, that is.

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