“And then the evil Svengali became triumphant. Trilby’s soul belonged to him. His thoughts were her thoughts, his wishes her wishes…”
Director: Maurice Tourneur
Starring: Clara Kimball Young, Wilton Lackaye, Chester Barnett, James Young, D. J. Flanagan, Paul McAllister
Screenplay: E. Magnus Ingleton, based upon the novel by George du Maurier and the play by Paul M. Potter
Synopsis: Three British friends, Taffy (James Young), the Laird (D. J. Flanagan) and Billie (Chester Barnett), share a studio on the Left Bank in Paris where they work at their art. Another friend of a sort is the musician Svengali (Wilton Lackaye), who sometimes drops into the studio to play the piano—and to borrow money wherever he can. One day the music attracts Trilby O’Ferral (Clara Kimball Young), an artist’s model posing for a sculptor in a studio above. The three painters are charmed by the friendly girl, who makes herself at home in their studio; although her attempt to join in the concert proves painful: her voice is strong, but she is completely tone-deaf. Nevertheless, her powerful singing attracts the interest of Svengali, to whom Trilby takes a frightened dislike. Trilby spends more and more time with the three artists; she poses for Billie, and the two of them fall in love. During this time Billie learns that Trilby is subject to painful attacks of neuralgia. Svengali claims that he can help her, if she will let him. Reluctantly, Trilby allows the musician to hypnotise her. He does make her pain go away, but that is not all he does: as he gloats to his assistant, Gecko (Paul McAllister), now that he has once hypnotised Trilby, he may re-exert his influence over her at any time. The relationship between Billie and Trilby reaches a crisis when the artist walks in on her posing nude for a group of students. In his immediate shock, he sends a letter breaking things off between them—but he cannot go through with it. Instead, he and Trilby become engaged. Their friends throw them a rowdy betrothal party. While the distracting preparations are underway, Svengali seizes his chance. He hypnotises Trilby into writing a letter of farewell to Billie and, later, manages to carry her away altogether. Once she is wholly in his power, Svengali puts into effect his plan to win a fortune by using Trilby as a vehicle for his music…
Comments: It could be fairly said, I think, that George du Maurier’s 1894 novel, Trilby, was the first modern pop-culture sensation. Not only was the book a runaway best-seller, but the story swiftly broke literary bounds. It was almost immediately adapted for the stage on both sides of the Atlantic, and reached the screen in due course; while its heroine became the basis of all sorts of commercial exploitation, with a wide range of Trilby-related items – including the Trilby hat for men, and the Trilby haircut for women – becoming the fashion.
At this distance, it can be seen that there were two main reasons for the novel’s enormous success. One is the way – rather distasteful to the modern reader – that the story allowed its late-Victorian readers to have their cake and eat it. The novel’s contemporary audience was able to revel in the implied wickedness of the artistic life (though truthfully, these particular Latin Quarter residents are absurdly chaste), and be pleasantly scandalised by a heroine who was neither a lady nor a virgin, without having its social prejudices challenged in any serious way. In fact, it is difficult to take any other moral away from Trilby than, “Better death and disaster than marriage with a girl who isn’t quite quite.”
However, in the long-term the persistence of the story of Trilby – rather than of the novel itself, whose star has faded – is due almost entirely to the disturbing relationship between Trilby and Svengali. Above all else, it was this that captured and held the imagination of the public. In the novel, Svengali is a surprisingly minor presence. His musical ability is acknowledged and on this basis he is admitted into the impromptu concerts held by the artists and their friends, but as an individual he is barely tolerated; not surprisingly, given that he is consistently described as dishonest, dishevelled and dirty. (And, sigh, Jewish—with a nasty implication of cause-and-effect.)
However, from the time that Trilby was first adapted for the stage, the role of Svengali was given much greater emphasis, with the focus of the story switching from the romantic travails of Trilby and Little Billee to the machinations of the musician-hypnotist. Different versions of the play were known according to who played Svengali; while by the time the most famous film version of the story hit the screen, it was actually called “Svengali”. The name itself has become a signifier, even amongst people who have never heard of Trilby O’Ferrall.
While Trilby was swiftly adapted into a play, the story reached the screen almost as rapidly as it did the stage. In the early days of cinema, when one-reelers were the standard, famous literary works were popular sources of material because it wasn’t necessary to explain the audience what they were watching. From 1895 onwards, at least half a dozen short films depicting scenes from Trilby were produced; while the first feature-length adaptation appeared in 1914, with the London stage version of Trilby featuring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Svengali being transferred to the screen. Hollywood’s first real attempt to film the novel came a year later.
Trilby is a good example of a rather exasperating trend in early film-making. It was not uncommon at the time with literary adaptations to assume that everyone had read the book (granted, probably a fair assumption with regard to Trilby), and for the film on one hand to be annoying under-subtitled – because everyone knows what’s going on, right? – and on the other to consist of a series of set-pieces lacking internal context, rather than a offering a coherent narrative. This version of the story suffers from both of these tendencies. An obvious example of the latter is a bit of business concerning Trilby’s foot. In the novel, Little Billee’s sketch on the woodwork of perhaps the most perfect of all of Trilby’s physical perfections becomes an important recurring detail; in this film, it’s just there, meaningless.
Otherwise, Trilby does pretty much what we would expect: it gives Wilton Lackaye as Svengali second-billing – not yet first – to Clara Kimball Young’s Trilby, and it makes him a more consistent presence, even if by merely showing him eavesdropping and spying on the main action. The opening credits, presumably in a spirit of getting to “the good bit” without loss of time, show him hypnotising Trilby. (He is also introduced as emanating from “the mysterious east”, by which I’m guessing they meant Poland.) An immediate connection is established between Svengali and Trilby within the film by having it Svengali’s “strange music” that draws her to the studio; whereas in the novel, it is simply the sound of someone singing in English that attracts the lonely Irish girl.
Trilby was directed by Maurice Tourneur early in his American career, when he was just graduating from shorts to feature-films, so perhaps it is not surprising that it lacks the visual mastery that we associate with the director’s best work. There are a few touches that hint at what Tourneur could do, however, including a lively party set-piece. Another memorable moment is the scene that introduces the three British friends, in which Tourneur pans across the studio, showing us the Laird and one of his landscapes (commercial, but not brilliant), Taffy more intent upon exercise than art, and a focused Billie, obviously the genuine artist of the three. It was uncommon at the time to find this sort of moving shot, let alone one that conveyed so much information so economically.
The next moment introduces Svengali—and his violinist-pupil, Gecko, whose loyalty to his master is accounted for by a mention of Svengali’s “mysterious power”. The two come to the studio to play their music, the sound of which penetrates to the workroom of a sculptor on the floor above.
Here we meet Trilby. Rather daringly, though not so daring as the scene it foreshadows, Trilby is first seen adjusting her clothing while framed in front of a nude statue, in a way that clearly suggests what we have just missed. Rushing away to discover the source of the music, she mistakenly dons a military-style coat—thus giving us another of those moments, meaningless within the film but widely recognised without—an invocation of George du Maurier’s famous illustrations of his heroine.
Trilby introduces herself to the three artists, who are immediately charmed by her. She makes herself at home, munching on a sandwich, appraising Billie’s painting (it is implied she knows what she’s talking about), and choosing the piano for her seat. This companionable scene is interrupted, however, when Trilby insists on singing “Ben Bolt”, a sentimental favourite of her late father’s.
The sensitive Billie, acutely embarrassed by her terrible performance, at least has the grace to stop Taffy and the Laird making fun of Trilby behind her back; while Svengali, at the piano, is less interested in the deficiencies of Trilby’s voice than in its peculiar strength. She takes his sarcasm for genuine praise, and rewards him by permitting him a glimpse into her mouth and throat.
Trilby departs soon afterwards, pleased at having made some new friends. Billie is rather thoughtful, and so, for a very different reason, is Svengali. Already a strange plan is taking shape in the musician’s mind…
In the days that follow, Trilby becomes almost a fixture in the studio. She poses for Billie and, inevitably, the two begin to fall in love. We get one of the film’s most thoughtful touches here, as for his painting Billie drapes Trilby in virginal white robes and has her clasp a spray of white lilies in her arms; we understand that a process of idealisation – at odds with Trilby’s prosaic and rather shabby reality – is underway.
While posing, Trilby is afflicted by sharp pains in her head. She explains that she is subject to neuralgia and tries to continue, but her pain increases until she all but collapses. At this moment Svengali wanders in – looking to borrow money, as usual – and insists that he can help. Neither Trilby nor the artists are comfortable with the proposal, but finally Trilby allows herself to be hypnotised. The implications of the situation are immediately apparent to the artists – “He can make his victims lie, steal, even murder!” – and when Trilby cannot respond to their voices they grow angry, threatening Svengali with violence if he does not release her. After a little physical persuasion, he does so—and, as it turns out, Trilby’s pain is gone.
Back at his rooms, Svengali gloats to Gecko about his control over Trilby—and how he can now use the girl to achieve fame and fortune…
Trilby’s most cleverly constructed scene follows – as well as its most philosophically infuriating – when Billie walks in on Trilby posing nude for a group of student artists. This sequence opens with Billie regarding his own portrait of Trilby; it closes with one of early cinema’s most subtle nude scenes. We are not shown Clara Kimball Young in the altogether; we see only her bare shoulders, and one bare leg, as a plethora of easels blocks our view. We can, however, see what the young artists are putting on their canvases…
Billie recoils from the scene in the studio in an agony of shattered ideals. The hypocrisy of it is just marvellous. Billie knows what Trilby does for a living, and it didn’t stop him falling in love with her. What’s more, given his devotion to his career, he has presumably painted from life himself. Yet a glimpse of Trilby doing for some other students exactly what some other girl has done for his benefit is enough to induce a complete revulsion in his feelings towards her. High artistic principles and an adopted Bohemian lifestyle fall by the wayside in the face of a powerful upsurge of middle-class morality.
All beauty is sexless in the eyes of the artist, but not in the eyes of the lover, an intertitle tells us solemnly, and the purity of Billie’s heart pleads with him to leave before it is too late. He does, leaving behind a letter – to his friends, not to Trilby – in which he announces that he is going home: I cannot bear to see her posing that way, so I am leaving to forget it all! It falls to Taffy and the Laird to break the news to Trilby…
If this piece of bastardry is “purity of heart”, I’ll take impurity with a dash of kindness any day.
(Mind you— While I sneer at Billie, this scene caused a ruckus in reality. Clara Kimball Young’s husband, James Young, an actor-director, appears in this film as Taffy. He was, by all accounts, a very controlling man, and he was not at all pleased about Clara being directed by another man, still less about what she was being directed to do, and he made the filming of the nude scene as difficult as possible for all concerned. Curiously, James Young himself directed the next version of Trilby, released in 1923, although by then he and Clara had gone their separate ways.)
At the last, however, Billie finds that he can’t go through with it. Trilby is still reeling from the initial shock of his departure when Billie reappears—preening himself on not being able to leave her, if you please. Sadly, instead of crowning him with that idealised portrait of herself, Trilby flings herself into his arms.
Now, Svengali has been lurking on the sidelines through all this, and he turns what he has learned to his own advantage. Having made up, Billie and Trilby become engaged. Their friends throw them a party, which is a roaring success. Trilby herself is a little late: she is waylaid by Svengali in her rooms, hypnotised, and forced to write a letter… Late in the evening, Billie and Trilby slip away for some time alone together, leaving their friends to dance. (The contrast between the quiet content of the lovers and the noisy energy of their friends downstairs is nicely captured by Tourneur.) Trilby finds herself feeling chilly, and sends Billie to get her wrap. This gives Svengali the opportunity he has been waiting for. When Billie returns, there is no sign of Trilby. There is only a letter:
You were right. I must not be your wife…
I could almost like Svengali for that.
(Interestingly, in the letter it is spelled “Billee”, as per the novel, a nickname taken from the poem Little Billee by William Makepeace Thackeray.)
And so Svengali is able to pursue his plan of using Trilby as a vehicle to express his music. Under his control, she is transformed into the most celebrated contralto in Europe, winning great acclaim – and great fortune – wherever she goes. However, the strain of keeping Trilby under his power is enormous, and it begins to have a deleterious effect on Svengali’s health. He suffers a series of attacks and, while he is incapacitated by pain, Trilby is briefly herself again. But her recovery is only temporary…
Though he was prepared to leave her, Trilby leaving him is too much for Billie, and he returns to England in a state of collapse, to be nursed and fussed over by his mother and sister. His cure is completed by the arrival of Taffy and the Laird. The three friends go travelling together, and finally hear word of the sensational new singer—who to their bemusement is called “La Svengali”. Wondering who on earth could have married the sneaking, disreputable musician, the three takes tickets for the concert purely out of curiosity.
Needless to say, their curiosity is more than satisfied. They stare, stunned beyond disbelief, as the long-missing Trilby – the tone-deaf Trilby – takes the stage to sing with an orchestra conducted by her husband. (She is, in a wickedly ironic touch, dressed in white drapery and carrying lilies, just like in Billie’s portrait.) Though strangely still and unemotional in herself, “La Svengali” holds her audience enthralled with her magnificent voice…
As soon as the first shock wears off, Taffy and the Laird hustle Billie out the audience and into the lobby, since he is clearly on the verge of making an appalling scene. After the curtain drops for intermission, admirers swarm to the dressing-room of La Svengali, who takes no notice of their praise and flattery. She remains silent and disinterested even when confronted by her former fiancé and his companions, driving Billie into a frenzy of distress with her blank disregard of him.
And then, just at the last, something changes. La Svengali staggers a little. She presses a hand to her forehead; her expression changes… But then her husband appears beside her, and all is as it was. Her face blank, her eyes empty, she turns back towards the stage…
The three friends are left with Svengali. There is a confrontation – a scuffle – the musician is knocked down. When he climbs to his feet his face is contorted with pain. He clutches his chest, and collapses…
Out on the stage, La Svengali – Trilby – comes confusedly to herself. She is unsure where she is, or why she is there, but she is happy enough to respond to the audience’s demand for a song. Naturally, she gives them “Ben Bolt”…
Trilby – and Trilby – originally fell victim to a particularly pernicious piece of Victorian morality, which dictated disaster for any girl straying from a rigidly narrow path, be she ever so much the victim of her circumstances. In the full context of her story, Trilby’s fate is both heartbreaking and enraging in its unfairness.
However, from the artistic standpoint, I’m not sure that what Trilby serves up isn’t even worse: the most artificial of tacked-on happy endings. This derives from the stage version by Paul Potter, though it was not the play’s original ending, which ended more or less as the novel does. It was altered to a perfunctory clinch-and-fade when it was realised that the play’s natural ending was the death of Svengali – a scene offering any leading man worth his salt the opportunity for a tour de force exit – and that after that, audiences just didn’t care what happened next. And so began the evolutionary process by which poor Trilby O’Ferrall was reduced to a supporting act in her own story.
Curiously, and disappointingly, Trilby botches Svengali’s death-scene; we are left to assume that Wilton Lackaye, who was much celebrated for his interpretation of the character, did better on the stage. In fact, between that anticlimax and the inappropriate tone of the actual ending, you tend to come away from this film feeling that you’ve sat through a fairly unchallenging romantic melodrama.
However, in spite of all this tampering, when all is said and done the control and manipulation of Trilby by Svengali remains—and so do the deeper implications of the situation. That alone allows this film to be classified as “horror”.
Want a second opinion of Trilby? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours And Counting.