The perfect blast from the past on a gloomy January afternoon--TCM showing the 1930 adaptation of George DuMaurier's weird romance, Trilby
.(1894) John Barrymore starred as Svengali
, and nineweaving
will understand me when I say that now I know what the cartoon was parodying. Why in the world our high school English teacher thought this was an appropriate book to give her, who knows?
Barrymore's attempt at a Jewish accent made me wish this were a silent film, which it otherwise resembled, especially in the la vie boheme scenes
in Paris attics that looked more like German Expressionist sets. Though his nationality is referred to only once as "Polish, or something," the camera lingers over every anti-Semitic cliche, as he paws and drools over the beautiful Aryan Trilby.
The hero, "Little Billee," is just as white and curiously unmasculine as in DuMaurier's original: Notice the "small hands" In the following, from the first chapter:
Little Billee was small and slender, about twenty or
twenty-one, and had a straight white forehead veined
with blue, large dark-blue eyes, delicate, regular feat-
ures, and coal-black hair. He was also very graceful
and well built, with very small hands and feet,
In the film, Svengali, too, looks exactly as DuMaurier wrote him, complete with a putty nose to match the most anti-Semitic caricature ever painted:
a tall bony individual of any age between
thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well-featured
but sinister. He was very shabby and dirty, and wore
a red beret and a large velveteen cloak, with a big
metal clasp at the collar. His thick, heavy, languid,
lustreless black hair fell down behind his ears on to his
shoulders, in that musicianlike way that is so offensive
to the normal Englishman.
The adaptation hewed fairly close to the novel at times, but re-reading the text, I find that the majority of the words are devoted to the antics of the three Englishmen and the other Bohemians, with homoeroticism barely a subtext. Here's a Christmas scene, a revel to which no ladies were invited--none of this in the film, of course.
Then they played at " cock-fighting," with their
wrists tied across their shins, and a broomstick thrust
in between; thus manacled, you are placed opposite
your antagonist, and try to upset him with your feet,
and he you. It is a very good game.
Altogether a strange cultural icon.