The Mad Genius (1931)

Article #751 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-5-2003
Posting Date: 9-2-2003
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Featuring John Barrymore, Marian Marsh, Donald Cook

A puppeteer with a clubfoot has dreams of becoming a dancer, and decides to experience it vicariously by taking a young man under his wings and making him a great dancer.

A basic rule of movie-making in Hollywood is that if it worked once, it will work twice. This is why the above plot has more than just a little resemblance to SVENGALI, in which Barrymore also played a mad genius trying to make a woman a great singer. It’s less of a horror movie this time, as the hypnotism angle of that movie plays no role here, and the main character’s clubfoot is used less for horror effect and more for plot development; it is his deformity that made the Barrymore character unable to become a dancer himself. Boris Karloff is also on hand in a small role, but you would be excused if you didn’t notice him; not only is he speaking with an accent, but the camera never gives us a close look at him. In fact, I found it curious that Barrymore talks about Frankenstein at one point in the proceedings.

Barrymore does a great job, but the movie is stolen by Charles Butterworth as Barrymore’s comic sidekick; his dialogue is absolutely priceless, particularly when he narrates the story of the ballet he’s written. I also thought it was odd that whereas Barrymore’s role in SVENGALI made me think of Bela Lugosi in DRACULA, his role here reminds me of Lionel Atwill’s in THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM; seeing as how both this movie and THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM were directed by Michael Curtiz, this may be more than just a coincidence.

Sadly, the movie is marred by a contrived ending; it comes out of left field, and though it does add one real horror element to the mix, it’s also a deus ex machina of the worst kind. This is a shame; despite the fact that it’s largely a retread of SVENGALI, it was a very good movie up to that point.


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