Christina Wehner and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies are our hosts for En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon running on August 4th, 5th and 6th. Film and dance were made for each other. Click HERE to enter the rehearsal and concert halls.
Charles Butterworth, John Barrymore
Karimsky, Vladimir Ivan Tsarakov
We meet our mad genius on a rainy night in a circus tent in the European countryside. Our mad genius is a puppet master, literally and figuratively. While John Barrymore as Ivan Tsarakov and his assistant Karimsky played by Charles Butterworth manipulate the marionettes in their ballet, they play to an audience of one.
Young Fedor played by Frankie Darro, looking younger than his 14 years, is an abused youngster finding solace in the pretty dancing puppets. His reverie is interrupted by the arrival of his father with a whip. The boy's dexterity at running and leaping to avoid punishment intrigues Tsarakov, so he hides the boy from the brutish father played by Boris Karloff. The club-footed Tsarakov takes the boy under his wing as an adopted son. Himself, the son of a premiere ballerina, Tsarakov was blessed with a genius for dance, a desire to dance, and the inability to do so because of his disability. He will pour his ambition and knowledge into the youngster and live his dreams through Fedor.
Luis Alberni, Donald Cook, Marian Marsh
Sergei Bankieff, Fedor, Nana Carlova
The passage of time has brought the Tsarakov ballet company and its acclaimed lead dancer, Fedor success in Berlin. Karimsky still dutifully plays the role of Tsarakov's assistant. Fedor, now played by Donald Cook, idolizes his father/mentor and unquestionably follows all of his orders. The only crack in the relationship is Fedor's growing love for the sweet dancer Nana Carlova played by Marian Marsh. Nana has also caught the eye of the ballet's wealthy patron Count Renaud played by Andre Luguet. Nonetheless her heart belongs to Fedor. Life could not be more perfect for the young leading man of the company.
Tsarakov, however, can see his control of Fedor slipping away. Tsarakov is of the firm, and somewhat maniacal, opinion that love has no place in the life of the true artist. If he is to be the greatest dancer the world has ever seen, Fedor's whole heart and soul must be devoted to his art. Tsarakov sees nothing wrong with flings. He enjoys working his way through the women in the corps de ballet, and sees no reason Fedor cannot emulate that attitude.
Tsarakov slyly appeals to Fedor's vanity and obligation:
Tsarakov slyly appeals to Fedor's vanity and obligation:
"You can be one of the greatest artistes in the world. What more could anyone ask?"
Tsarakov controls his dance master Sergei played by Luis Alberni through encouraging and using Sergei's cocaine addiction. Threatening to withhold the necessities, he forces Sergei to sign a scathing rebuke of Nana's dance abilities to coerce her resignation from the company. Tsarakov suggests a change in career as the mistress of Count Renaud. Fedor overhears Tsarakov's manipulation of Nana and his cruel words:
"If you love him at all you will go way and not murder the career of a genius."
Tsarakov's attitude is not dissimilar to that of Lermontov, the taskmaster of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes played by Anton Walbrook. His advice to ballerina Victoria Page played by Moira Shearer in that film:
"You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never"
Donald Cook, Marian Marsh
Fedor and Nana
Fedor and Nana walk out on Tsarakov and are happy for a time in Paris. However, every job as a dancer is closed to Fedor when Tsarakov advises various managements of the exclusivity of their contract. When Fedor at last has come to working in a waterfront dive, Tsarakov takes advantage of Nana's depth of feeling to free Fedor and have him return to the fold.
Once more under Tsarakov's influence, the kindly Fedor takes on the gruff manners of his mentor. Nana, who has moved on with Count Renaud finds him a more kindly "employer" than expected. He understands the plight of the young lovers and takes her to the company's opening night back in Berlin. It is at the successful premiere of a new ballet that everything comes to a violent conclusion.
The Tsarakov Company's triumphant return to Berlin.
The massive set includes a demon idol which sends Sergei over the edge in a drug fueled frenzy causing him to take an ax to the set. Tsarakov is as maddened as the dance master because Fedor has seen Nana in the audience and knows nothing, not even dance, is worth the loss of true love.
A shadowy showdown between Sergei and Tsarkov leads to the death of the mad genius. The curtain opens on his lifeless corpse causing panic throughout the audience. Through the uproar, Fedor and Nana find each other, and the always loyal Karmisky sits disconsolate beside the body of his friend.
Tsarakov meets his fate.
The Mad Genius was based on a play called The Idol by Canadian born Martin Brown. Brown was a successful Broadway playwright and lyricist, and a one time dancer. This melodrama was not one of his stage successes. Nonetheless, it made a fine Barrymore vehicle as a follow-up to the successful Svengali. The screenplay is by J. Grubb Alexander (Svengali, The Hatchet Man) and Harvey F. Thew (The Public Enemy, She Done Him Wrong).
Michael Curtiz directed his only collaboration with Barrymore. Typical of Curtiz's work, the movie is well paced with many interesting shots of characters which silently comment on their relationships.
Art direction is from multiple Oscar nominee Anton Grot (The Sea Hawk, Anthony Adverse, etc.) and he gives us an eyeful of over-the-top theatrical sets and apartments from the lavish to the simple. Earl Luick (Springtime in the Rockies, Union Depot) is credited with designing the gowns, so I assume Grot may have been behind the ballet costumes, at least the headdresses which disguise the dance doubles for Donald Cook (Charles Weidman) and Marian Marsh.
Adolph Bolm, born in St. Petersburgh and a graduate of the Russian Imperial Ballet School became a choreographer after an injury ended his dancing career during a tour of the United States. His work on this film, and others like The Affairs of Cellini and The Corsican Brothers combined with his work for ballet and opera companies.
Like his Svengali, only better dressed, Barrymore is mesmerizing as the single-minded Tsarakov. If the co-stars can bring themselves to his level of commitment, they have plenty of room to do so. Charles Butterworth's hesitant characterization works to almost humanize the mad genius. Luis Alberni, a lifelong second banana in second features, shows his mettle as the broken Sergei.
For me, The Mad Genius is a must-see for John Barrymore fans and a fine complement to the earlier Barrymore/Marsh film Svengali. Perhaps, like me, you will find this even more to your taste than the famous earlier film.