Svengali (John Barrymore) is a struggling composer who nevertheless has a commanding presence. When one of his clients, a rich wife who is suffering marital problems, comes to see him she again demonstrates her singing for him, whether he wants her to or not, and informs him she has left her husband. However, she has rejected any settlement and when he hears this, Svengali implements his hypnotic powers to be rid of her. She cowers and backs out of the door; later, Svengali's assistant Gecko (Luis Alberni) tells him she has been found dead in the river. Now the mesmerist needs to find a new pupil...
George Du Maurier's novel Trilby has proved a popular choice for screen adaptations, and he offered the world a new word to describe every music mentor who arose since his book was published. Barrymore's performance here is considered the definitive one, as his Svengali is conniving, hairy, sly but lovelorn: his need to control women is shown to be an expression of his yearning for true romance he can never find. J. Grubb Alexander's adaptation is a slow moving one - the film is halfway over before the villain's plan is put into practice - yet Barrymore is interesting.
Consistently so, and luckily too as the film never achieves a satisfying tone. Barrymore holds it together through comedy, drama, horror and finally, tragedy, but it's a bumpy ride through those wavering moods. The woman who becomes the object of his desire is discovered in a building rented by artists for their studios, a model named Trilby O'Farrell. She is played by Marian Marsh in a winning style, though unfortunately she is more entertaining in the early scenes than later on when she is under Svengali's spell.
Svengali happens to overhear Trilby singing and is immediately enchanted, thinking of the money he can make with such a voice. However, he has a rival in idealistic Brit Billee (Bramwell Fletcher) who is enamoured of the heroine, or at least he is until he sees her posing nude, which he apparently considers one step up from prostitution, which is a little ridiculous, even for Victorian times. While all this is going on, Svengali is practicing his hypnotism on Trilby, at first claiming it will cure her headaches, but gradually to sculpt her into a singing star such as Europe has never seen.
Although this is a film with horror elements, it's better approached as a romantic drama. The supernatural bits are chiefly confined to Barrymore's eyes glowing eerily when he's putting Trilby under, and there's a terrific shot which pulls back from his darkened features to show us the roofs of Paris, eventually finding Trilby in her trance. The unspoken theme is that any performer needs a strong hand behind the scenes, although not many mentors go to the lengths that Svengali does. It's not clear how we should react to his machinations: should we find him sinister, pathetic or comical? Perhaps all three? Svengali doesn't have the higher reputation of certain other fright films of the decade, but it's worth seeing for Barrymore.