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: In spite of its theme of hypnotic control, Svengali isn’t so much a horror film as it is a romantic tragedy. Billee is made to believe the woman he loves has killed herself, thanks to the work of an unprincipled cad, and we sympathize with him. Trilby is victim to a much crueler form of manipulation, and she evokes our pity as well. But curiously, the one we really wind up feeling sorry for is Svengali himself. He is a monster in his way, but like King Kong or the Creature From the Black Lagoon he is a tragic one. He only wants the love of one woman, and he seems to know he is fated never to have it.
Like all fools for love, he keeps on trying even when he knows how things are going to end. His method of controlling Trilby may be exotic, but it’s not so different than those used by jealous lovers down through the ages: separate her from friends and family, keep her close at hand, and force her to regard him as the center of her universe.
What’s tragic about the character of Svengali is that for all his power, he can’t control the one thing he wants. Everything he does in the movie — making her a famous singer, touring Europe with her in tow, becoming rich and famous and respected — was all in hopes of winning her love.
John Barrymore’s performance does a lot to sell the character as a human being rather than merely a villain (a stereotypically Jewish one, it should be noted). It’s a hammy performance, of course (Barrymore was a ham of the first magnitude) but he is able to add touches of humor and tragedy to the role that make the character memorable. This was a high note in a film career that had enjoyed many high notes, but it also meant Barrymore had a long way to fall. By 1940 the studios would be trading on his famous name while casting him in increasingly meager and humiliating parts. It can’t be said that his talent was being wasted, though, since his long years of heavy drinking had rendered him incapable of memorizing dialogue anyway.
The beautiful Marian Marsh, still a teenager when she starred in this film, is the perfect Trilby. She so perfectly conveys Trilby’s innocence and playfulness that it’s easy to imagine anyone — even the creepy Svengali — falling head over heels for her. She effortlessly conveys both the woman who loves Billee and the one who stares at him coldly when Svengali works his hypnotic hoodoo on her.
Devil Bat’s Daughter (1946)
Synopsis: A young woman (Rosemary LaPlanche) is found lying facedown on the highway late at night, and a passing good Samaritan stops and takes her to the Sheriff’s office. She is conscious but in a catatonic state. A local cabbie identifies her as the fare he picked up earlier that evening. She’d wanted to go to the “old Carruthers place”. When the cabbie told her the place has been deserted for years, she reacted with a shocked expression. Nevertheless it is at the Carruthers place that the cabbie leaves her.
Surmising that the woman’s missing bag must still be at the house, the county Sheriff (Ed Cassidy) and local physician Dr. Eliot (Nolan Leary) go there in hopes of finding a clue to the woman’s identity. In the woman’s bag they discover papers that identify her as Nina MacCarron, the daughter of the late mad scientist Paul Carruthers, who had terrorized many people with his giant mutated bats some years earlier.
Believing that Nina is suffering from some sort of psychological shock, Dr. Eliot places Nina under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Clifton Morris (Michael Hale). Over a number of weeks, Dr. Morris helps Nina reconstruct her broken memory: she had been living in England for most of her life. Dr. Carruthers had left her family when Nina was only four years old. Traumatized by the recent death of her mother and by the stress of the London blitz, she travels to America to find her father, only to find that he had died under the accusation of terrible crimes.
During this intensive therapy Nina stays at the Morris household, and we get a view of the respected psychiatrist’s home. There is growing friction between Morris and his wife, the wealthy Ellen Masters Morris. Ellen has a weak heart, and a son from a previous marriage, who is expected home soon from the war. For his part, Morris is keeping a mistress on the side named Myra (Monica Mars), who wants a commitment. Even though Morris explains that he would lose out financially if he divorced Ellen, Myra won’t relent. Don’t call me, Myra warns Morris, until you’re ready to get Ellen out of your life.
Soon Ted Masters arrives home from the war; he and Nina quickly fall in love. But Nina is troubled by strange dreams — of giant bats that are trying to control her. One night Nina awakens from one such dream to discover that she has killed the Morris family dog with a pair of scissors. Dr. Morris suggests she be moved to a sanitarium for the family’s safety, but the kind-hearted Ellen disagrees, and Nina stays.
But a few nights later, after another disturbing dream, Nina awakens to find herself standing in the hallway holding a pair of bloody scissors. And nearby lies the body of Ellen Masters Morris….
Comments: This meager PRC offering was ostensibly a sequel to the 1940 Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat. That film was an archetypal Lugosi mad scientist picture, featuring a method of execution that has a zany greatness about it: the victim receives the gift of a special shaving lotion; when applied to the neck, the lotion attracts giant mutated bats that — quite literally — go for the jugular.
The Devil Bat was silly and lurid, but it made money, so it was only natural for PRC to greenlight a sequel. But it turned out to be a sequel in name only. What they really did was to make a low-budget knockoff of two popular films of the era, Cat People (1942) and Gaslight (1944). From Cat People comes the family curse and the conniving psychiatrist; from Gaslight comes the device of a powerful man convincing a vulnerable young woman that she’s going mad.
As we previously noted, Cat People and Gaslight also clearly inspired She Wolf of London, a Universal thriller also released in 1946 — and a movie with a very similar plot to this one.
So was Devil Bat’s Daughter a rip-off of She-Wolf of London, which was a rip-off of Cat People and Gaslight? Or was She-Wolf of London a rip-off of Devil Bat’s daughter, which was a rip-off of Cat People and Gaslight?
Well, we don’t know. Devil Bat’s Daughter and She-Wolf of London were released within a month of each other. It’s possible that one was influenced by the other, perhaps by news that appeared in the trades. On the other hand, they both might independent rip-offs of other movies.
Oddly enough, the screenwriters felt it necessary to rehabilitate Dr. Carruthers’ reputation at the end of this movie. We’re told in the final minutes that Carruthers was actually a wonderful man whose important experiments with giant bats were misunderstood by a fearful and superstitious public. This seems extremely unlikely, since we all remember Lugosi chuckling with glee as he sent his devil bats off to rip innocent people’s throats out in the first movie. Audiences had no doubt forgotten some of the plot points from The Devil Bat by the time the sequel arrived. But the presence of a homicidal bat-obsessed maniac probably wasn’t one of them.