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First time on DVD! Famed director Noel Langley exercises unusual artistry in his shadowy Svengali, played by Donald Wolfit (Lawrence of Arabia) unveiling an unwashed alley minstrel whose latent, diabolical genius finally emerges out of an uncontrollable passion for beautiful Trilby O'Ferral, played by the German bombshell Hildegarde Neff. Digitally Restored from the 35mm Negative
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Most of the criticism regarding this version has been leveled at Hildegard Neff (actually Knef) who makes no attempt to hide her German origins when Trilby is supposed to be Irish. Although it can be disconcerting at first, the further you get into the movie the more she seems like Trilby especially after she embarks on her singing career. BTW that's Elizabeth Schwarzkopf singing for Neff in the opera scenes. Donald Wolfit, no stranger to over the top performances, actually manages to somewhat underplay his role as Svengali. The role was intended for Robert Newton who would have been WAY over the top but his drinking got him dismissed and Wolfit stepped in. Praise should be given to VCI for making this rare film available as part of their British film series. The source print is a little soft and the colors occasionally fade at the reel changes but overall it looks very good for a public domain copy. In the end it may not measure up to the John Barrymore film but it's way better than the modern update from 1983 with Peter O'Toole and Jodie Foster. Just so you can make your own comparisons, VCI has also included a pristine version of the 1931 Barrymore version (incorrectly listed as 1934) on this DVD.
The movie is set in Paris in the late Victorian age ;Trilby is a young woman orphaned by the death of her father and she takes work as an artists model and quickly becomes a popular member of the Bohemian crowd in the city ,She particularly is drawn to Billy Bagot a young and crippled English painter who shares lodgings with two other struggling artists ,The Laird ( Derek Bond) and Taffy (Paul Rodgers).Svengali is a hanger on who insists he can transform Trilby into a great singer by mesmerism or mind control .A great bear of a man -roughly bearded and of pungent aroma -he is ate best tolerated but when pressure from Billys parents causes her to end her engagement to him she is tempted by Svengali's wiles .Under his influence she becomes putty in his hands and a great singer ,When Billy hears of her sacrifice he sets out to win her back .
The art direction is pur 50's kitsch and the acting variable .Wolfit is suitably melodramatic in a role where underplaying would be inappropriate but I was uneasy about his makeup -and the conception of the role borders on the anti-semitic .Hildegarde Neff ,a German ,is miscast as the Anglo-Irish Trilby and is too pallid to be convincing .The other players are competent but no more .The score ,by William Alwyn is excellent and merits a CD re-issue
The movie is an intersting curiousity , a decent spin on a semi-classic novel ,but the definitive movie based on the book has yet to be made