Breening Thursday #42: “Svengali” from 1931; “Hypnotism and High Notes” for The Gothic Horror Blogathon


Today is Thursday, so it’s time for another Breening Thursday article! Since today is October 31, this will be our last article this month. This year, Hallowe’en happens to be on a Thursday, so today’s article is also our Hallowe’en post. As soon as I realized that Hallowe’en is on Thursday, I decided to breen a movie with a theme which would be appropriate for the holiday. My family has never celebrated Halloween because we don’t like the dark, ghoulish themes, but I have recently become interested in the historic roots of this day, such as All Hallows’ Eve. I wrote about these less pagan origins two years ago in a post titled A Day of Death and Recollections.

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When thinking of a film to breen, I immediately thought of Svengali from 1931. This pre-Code film is free with Prime Video, so it has been on our watchlist for a long time. I have been curious about this film because of the Svengali story’s ties to The Phantom of the Opera, which you will remember we love from our blogathon this September. This story was debuted in a French novel published in 1895, Trilby by George du Maurier. It was very popular and inspired a host of other works of various forms which were inspired by, imitated, or parodied Trilby. These works are collectively known as Trilbyana, and Le Fantome de l’Opera by Gaston Leroux is part of this group. Thus, I was interested to see the most famous film adaption, especially since it stars the great John Barrymore.

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As I planned to combine my weekly breening article with a Hallowe’en feature, I remembered that Gabriela of Pale Writer is hosting The Gothic Horror Blogathon around the holiday. I wanted to join her blogathon when I first heard about it, since she has been very supportive of our endeavors. Although horror is probably my least favorite genre, I like Gothic horror better than any other kinds, since it is more classic and is used in many iconic novels. I couldn’t really think of any appropriate topic, so I postponed joining. When I decided to breen Svengali, I knew that I had a great topic for participating! Thus, this is my entry to her Dark and Deep blogathon.

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Rather than give an overview of this film’s plot before I breen it, I will mention necessary plot points as I breen. Thus, it will make the breening more part of the story. Although one might think that this movie was made by Universal, since it was a horror film, it was actually made by Warner Bros. It was directed by Archie Mayo, who directed The Doorway to Hell the year earlier, the first gangster film. You can see that it is a Warner rather than a Universal film in many ways. It focuses more on the control element than the horrific or frightening elements. With no further ado, let the breening begin!


At the beginning of the film, we see Svengali receive a visitor to his apartment. His caller is a very eager female singing student, Madame Honori (Carmel Myers). Although she is a married woman, it is obvious that she is very infatuated with Svengali. No doubt this feeling comes from the fact that he has told her that her voice is exquisite, although she obviously is quite bad. It quickly becomes obvious that they are having an affair. Although Madame Honori is not very beautiful, she is quite young, and few women would be interested in the eccentric musician. This implication is unacceptable. It should be clear that, as in the existing film, he has encouraged her singing and convinced her that she has great talent. She admires his musical genius and responds to his admiration. Perhaps he has romantically flattered her, leading her to believe that he loves her. However, there should be no implication that they are having or have had an affair.

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In this scene, Madame Honori’s neckline is too low. It must be raised to a decent level. Not only will this make her costume more modest, it will make her character seem more wholesome.

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In general, the behavior of Madame Honori toward Svengali should not be so flirtatious and familiar, and vice versa. However, some specific lines add the flavor of an illicit relationship. Firstly, the lady jealously refers to the other students he must have had since the last time he saw her. Svengali responds that he has had “no one who responds like you.” The use of the word responds is very suggestive. Instead, he should say, “no one whom I enjoyed teaching as much as you.”

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As they go over to the piano, Svengali asks aloud, “What did we do last?” Looking hurt, Madame Honori says, “Don’t you remember?” With a wry look, Svengali says, “I am speaking about music.” This is the most suggestive line in this scenario. This exchange should be removed.

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In this scene, Svengali and Madame Honori sit on his little cot as she tells him that she has left her husband to be with him. Firstly, they should be sitting on a couch rather than a bed. No bed should be visible in the room. Secondly, she never mentions marriage. She just says that she has left her brutish husband and is offering herself to Svengali. Instead of just asking, “Don’t you want me?” she should say, “I’ll get a divorce, and we can get married!” Although divorce and remarriage is not condoned by the Code, it would be more decent for this woman to propose marriage to her beloved maestro. Ultimately, it is a moot point, since Svengali is not interested in her once he learns that she has received no settlement from her husband.

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Soon after this, Svengali’s friend and roommate, Gecko (Luis Alberni), tells him that Madame Honori’s body was found in the Seine. Not seeming very moved, Svengali replies that it is a pity, since “she was very, very sweet.” The way he says this adds to the now-removed implication of an affair between them. One of the verys should be removed.

Later that day, Svengali and Gecko visit the apartment of two acquaintances of theirs who live in the same building, Taffy (Lumsden Hare) and the Laird (Donald Crisp), whom they call two Englishmen, although the second is Scottish. When the two visitors enter, the resident artists are in the other room, and Taffy is taking a bath. Svengali begins playing “God Save the Queen,” so they must both stand at attention. This proves rather difficult for the Laird, since he is still in the tub. Eventually, he grabs a towel and wraps it around himself as he stands up. This is fairly indecent. The scenario may remain if certain revisions are made. Firstly, the towel which the Laird grabs should be bigger. Secondly, he shouldn’t be shown contemplating it for long. He should quickly grab the towel and then be shown securing it around his waist. He shouldn’t be shown just wrapping it.

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Svengali, who thinks little of bathing himself, mocks the Englishmen’s frequent washing. As a joke, they manage to grab him and get him into the tub. This very properly happens behind a curtain, so he is never shown without his clothing. They leave him in the tub and take his clothes so that he can’t leave until they return with friends to see that he is finally bathing. As they leave, they warn him, “Don’t walk around here in the nude.” The italicized phrase is too pointed. It should be replaced with without any clothes.

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The rascally Svengali spoils the Englishmen’s jokes by donning Taffy’s Sunday suit while they are gone. As he and Gecko prepare to make their exit, they meet Trilby O’Farrell (Marian Marsh). She is a pretty young model who is coming to pose for the two artists. As she leans in the doorway, waiting for them, she smokes. In the 1930s, it was considered very scandalous for women to smoke. For precisely that reason, women in pre-Code films smoked like fiends. Although the Code did not expressly forbid female tobacco use and the PCA did not entirely curtail women’s smoking, actresses smoked a lot less onscreen when the Code was enforced. This smoking seems out of place, since Trilby is a very nice young lady. She should not be shown smoking here. A nice woman would not have smoked in the late nineteenth century, when this film is set. Although she is a “bohemian,” this characterization is not emphasized, as in the book, so the smoking is out of place.

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Trilby tells Svengali that she is a model, thinking that he is an artist. He is extremely interested in the beautiful young blonde, so he shoos Gecko away. Trilby frankly says, “All the artists say I have a very classic figure,” eventually adding, “Shall I show you?” You say, she is wearing a heavy military coat for a particular modeling job. Svengali eagerly accepts this offer, and Trilby goes into the other room to change. Just what she plans to wear to show him her “classic figure” is never revealed, since he has to leave before she comes out again. However, there is an implication that she intended to take off most or all of her clothes. Instead of vaguely saying, “Shall I show you?” she should say, “I can put on a little frock I have here that will show you better than this coat!”

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Hoping to get another modeling job, Trilby innocently says, “Perhaps you can use me some time.” Svengali suggestively replies, “Well, that’s what I had in mind.” Although she was talking about art, it is obvious that Svengali was talking about something else entirely. However, Trilby clearly does not perceive his implication. Instead of his reply, Svengali should just nod thoughtfully and say, “Perhaps.”


Now we come to the Halloween-related part of this film, the horror element. The only thing that is really horrific about this movie is the way Svengali’s eyes glow when he is hypnotizing Trilby. This eerie effect was achieved through the use of glowing hard contacts, one of the first time that contacts were used in film. They make John Barrymore look terrifying. Although I know that this movie is a horror film, the idea of a Code film is that it is acceptable for all audiences. Although horror films may have some chilling or frightening elements of moments, they couldn’t be too disturbing during the Breen Era. The image of Svengali’s glowing, pupil-less eyes is one which could remain in young or sensitive individuals’ minds for days afterwards. I hate to deprive this movie of its most interesting special effect, but I think that the glowing eyes will have to be deleted. Instead, a different effect which is used in another scene could be used in every hypnotism sequence. When Trilby comes to Svengali’s apartment in the middle of the night after he telepathically summons her, he begins to hypnotize her again. This time, rather than using the contacts which cover his pupils, lights are just shone on his eyes. The effect is still creepy and very chilling, but it is not as disturbing or nightmare-inducing. This effect should replace every use of the glowing contacts.

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Trilby falls in love with a young English artist named Billee (Bramwell Fletcher). He loves her very much, too. One day, he sees her posing nude for a group of art student in the nude. This scene was quite controversial when the film was first released, especially because Marian Marsh was only seventeen years old at the time of filming. When she is shown in far shots, it’s hard to tell exactly what she is or isn’t wearing. When she is shown up close, she is only seen from the shoulders up. I read that she wore a body stocking when this was filmed. After she sees that Billee has seen her, she turns and runs away. She is then seen from the back, and she doesn’t appear to be wearing anything. In this shot, a body double was used. This scene is the only thing that is explicitly unacceptable in this movie. Although it is important for the plot, it is entirely unacceptable. Instead, she should be wearing her undergarments, such as a camisole and bloomers with a corset. Billee is a very moral young Englishman, so he would be shocked to see his beloved in just her underpinnings. At the time, it was considered very indecent for a young lady to be seen by men in her undergarments. That would be enough to make Billee question whether Trilby is the wholesome girl he thought she was.

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Trilby tearfully tells Svengali about what happened, and he implies that Billee doesn’t know all about Trilby. He refers to her relationships with other artists. Trilby strongly protests that she was anything more than kind and friendly to them, insisting that she is good. Svengali agrees but questions whether she is good enough to face Billee’s English mother as his wife. She sobs as he lists all the artists about whom she wouldn’t want her mother-in-law to know. This convinces the young lady to leave Paris and never see Billee again. This situation is a little confusing. Although Trilby initially denies Svengali’s accusations strongly, he manages to convince her that she is not moral enough for Billee after all. This ties into something which I noticed earlier. When Billee first told Trilby about introducing her to his mother, she had a strange look on her face. He gushed about how proud of her his mother would be, but her expression makes us wonder if she has done anything which his mother might not think is respectable. This implication is unacceptable and must be removed.

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Instead of referring to her illicit relationships with the artists for which she modeled, Svengali should say that being a model is hardly something which respectable English mothers think is decent. It is a very bohemian career, and Billee’s mother would doubtless disapprove of it. She could protest that she is not like the other girls and that she is good, as she does in the existing film. Then, Svengali could ask her if she could face her mother-in-law, knowing that she has posed as a nymph, a mermaid, a goddess, and a ballerina. Would she want a daughter-in-law who posed in her lingerie? That would be enough to convince her to leave.

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Svengali convinces Billee that Trilby has drowned herself by leaving a suicide note and her clothes on the bank. Then, as Billee mourns his lost love, we see the evil genius and the young girl riding in a carriage together at night. She appears to be naked, although she is covered by a large blanket. Obviously, this is because her clothes were used to make her death convincing. However, she surely could have brought some other clothes. She should not be undressed.

Five years later, La Svengali is a brilliant soprano who sings with her maestro, the great Svengali. She is Trilby, who has been hypnotized by the evil genius. Under his spell, she is a magnificent singer. We see a performance which they give in Paris. At this show, Svengali wears white for the first time in the film. Throughout this movie, John Barrymore wears rather tight pants to make him look tall and thin. However, in this scene, his white pants are just too tight. They look like tights! They need to be loosened a bit so that they do not cling to his legs indecently.

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At this same concert, Trilby wears a lovely white dress. However, its neckline is too low. The neckline should be raised to a decent level.

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In the next scene, Svengali visits Trilby in her bedroom. Although she is called Madame Svengali or La Svengali, which implies that she is the hypnotist’s wife, it is never clearly stated that they are married. Since they are traveling together for years, it should be stated that Svengali forced the hypnotized Trilby to wed him, although, as we learn in this scene, he could never make her love him except through his own mind control.

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In this scene, she is wearing a negligee with a very low neckline. It should be raised to a decent level, which would remove the suggestive flavor from this scene.

Eventually, Svengali cancels so many concerts because of Billee’s presence in the audience that he and La Svengali can only get a booking in Cairo, Egypt. At the cafe where they are going to perform, the act before is a troupe of belly dancers. They are wearing costumes which expose their navels. The skirts should be higher so that less of the midriffs is exposed.

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The dress which Trilby wears in Cairo has too low a neckline. It should be raised to a decent level.

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As soon as Svengali begins hypnotizing Trilby, he starts having chest pains. His heart condition continues to worsen as time passes, and I believe that it is connected to his control of the young woman. By the time they perform in Cairo, he knows that he is going to die that night. During the performance, he collapses. He dies with his eyes open. It is disturbing for a dead man to have his eyes open. They should be closed.

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With his dying breath, Svengali prays that he may have in death what he was denied in life, the woman he loves. As he gives up the ghost, Trilby, who is collapsed in Billee’s arms, dies as well. It seems that his wish has been granted. This is an unacceptable ending. It seems very unlikely that God would grant any prayer of a fiendish manipulator like Svengali. Also, it is in complete violation of the Code for an evil and selfish man like him to triumph in the end by dying with his beloved. In the original novel, Trilby developed a nervous disorder after Svengali’s death and died a few weeks later, looking at a painting of him. However, her health had been weakened by his hypnotism, so her death was more logical. In the film, she is perfectly healthy and thus seems to die as a direct result of his deathbed prayer. Having the woman he loved, even in death, is more than was ever granted to the much-kinder Phantom. Instead of dying, Trilby should suddenly break out of her trance as soon as Svengali expires. She should then recognize Billee and happily embrace him, implying that they are now going to wed as the film ends.

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That concludes my breening of this film! It was not a hard job, and I found it very enjoyable. The problems were all quite surface. I was very entertained by this movie. I thought that the acting was excellent. I was especially impressed by John Barrymore’s unusual and sinister appearance, as well as the Polish accent which he affected throughout the film. The young Marian Marsh was sweet and lovely as Trilby. The rest of the cast was excellent, as well. With the subtle breening changes I suggested, this movie would have been entirely acceptable. It really didn’t need cheap additions like low necklines and nude scenes to make it entertaining!

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By the way, my second article for The Epoch Times is being published today. It is coming out in the national edition in honor of Hallowe’en! This article is entitled “‘Joker:’ No Laughing Matter.” It is about the recent Warner Bros. film. I described the controversy surrounding this film’s potential for inspiring violence, the history of concern about film violence, and the dangers of empathy for anti-heroes. It has been in the online edition since October 26! You can read it here.

Click the above image to buy this movie on DVD at Amazon and support PEPS through the Amazon Affiliate program!

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This year, on November 8-10, we of PEPS will be hosting The Second Annual Claude Rains Blogathon, the thrilling sequel to last year’s gala! Our previous blogathon honoring this beloved actor proved to be our most successful ever, so how could we help but reprise it? Join us for three thrilling days as we celebrate all the brilliant performances of this illustrious star of the cinema!

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This year, PEPS is celebrating the holidays with a blogathon! It is called The Happy Holidays Blogathon, and it will run December 6-8. It is all about films which feature the winter holidays. Eligible holidays include Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, News Years, The Twelve Days of Christmas, The Epiphany, Russian Christmas, and Russian New Years! Whether it is just one scene or the whole film, this is your chance to write about your favorite holiday movies!

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4 thoughts on “Breening Thursday #42: “Svengali” from 1931; “Hypnotism and High Notes” for The Gothic Horror Blogathon

  1. It’s really interesting to read the changes that would have been made to the film by the Breen office. I really enjoyed this film when I watched it, but I did recognise that it was distinctly pre code. Especially, as you pointed out, the many sexual innuendos. The effects used for Svengali’s Eyes really reminded me of those used for Karloff’s in The Mummy. Thanks so much for contributing such an unique article to my Blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I’m glad that you enjoyed my article. It is an interesting film, and it was a fascinating movie to breen. I looked at some pictures from “The Mummy,” and I see what you mean about the similarities! Fascinating. I really enjoyed joining your blogathon! It was a lot of fun.

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Something Gothic This Way Comes: The Gothic Blogathon Begins – Pale Writer

  3. Pingback: Breening Thursdays | pure entertainment preservation society

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