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The Mad Genius

The Mad Genius(1931)

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teaser The Mad Genius (1931)

Seeking to capitalize on the success of Svengali (1931), Warner Brothers quickly put together The Mad Genius (1931) in the same year. Svengali's two stars, John Barrymore and pretty newcomer Marian Marsh, returned for what was meant to be a similar type of story. Barrymore here plays a crippled puppeteer who raises an orphan (Donald Cook) to adulthood and dancing fame, only to lose him to a young ballerina (Marian Marsh).

The picture received lavish production values, and Michael Curtiz was assigned to direct. (Svengali had been directed by Archie Mayo.) Working with art director Anton Grot and cameraman Barney McGill, Curtiz infused The Mad Genius with expressionistic angles and design that turned the film into a fascinating near-horror film, possibly inspired by the recent success of Dracula (1931) and other macabre thrillers. According to historian James C. Robertson (The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz), "the undisciplined Barrymore loathed Curtiz's strict direction and later reportedly compared it to participation in a marathon dance contest. In fact, he turned in one of his best sound performances amidst Anton Grot's fabulous, revolutionary theatre sets - tilted ceilings and floors, out of proportion doors and windows, and unusual staircases." It's worth noting, too, that The Mad Genius shows ceilings ten years before Citizen Kane (1941) was lauded for the same thing.

Still, the picture lost money at the box office (approximately $50,000), and with movie attendance way down in these early years of the Depression and most of Barrymore's previous films also money losers, Warner Brothers decided it could no longer justify the star's high salary - not to mention his refusal to properly publicize his films. Jack Warner terminated his contract and Barrymore left the studio after nearly ten years there, soon signing with MGM. (According to Barrymore family biographer James Kotsilibas-Davis, a story Jack Warner liked to tell around this time was how, when he was honored in Vienna, he was introduced as "the man who produces John Barrymore's movies," and the audience was silent. Then the toastmaster added, "Mr. Warner also produces the pictures of Rin Tin Tin," and the audience broke into applause.)

As for Curtiz, he was punished for distorting the studio's intentions with The Mad Genius by being assigned three inconsequential films with lesser studio stars: The Woman from Monte Carlo (1932), Alias the Doctor (1932) and The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932). Nonetheless, Curtiz made even these pictures quite stylish visually.

In one of his last roles before Frankenstein (1931), Boris Karloff has a small role in the opening scene as a child-abusing Russian father. He almost didn't get the part. When Karloff arrived at Curtiz's office after being summoned for an interview, Curtiz hesitated before saying, "Well, I called you over, so I suppose I'll have to use you." A few years later, when the star and director were working together again, Curtiz explained that he had asked to see Karloff because "I thought you actually were Russian. Your name certainly sounded Russian. When you came in, you seemed so anxious to get the job I decided to let you have it."

Variety praised Barrymore's performance as "a brilliant piece of acting, but the story lacks the quality that makes for wide human appeal... It is the actor's acting that takes the center of the screen, and not the human identity he plays, and that has been true of many of Barrymore's recent creations."

Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: J. Grubb Alexander and Harvey Thew; Martin Brown (play "The Idol")
Cinematography: Barney McGill
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Film Editing: Ralph Dawson
Cast: John Barrymore (Vladimir Ivan Tsarakov), Marian Marsh (Nana Carlova), Charles Butterworth (Karimsky), Donald Cook (Fedor Ivanoff), Luis Alberni (Sergei Bankieff).

by Jeremy Arnold

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