The Mad Genius
the mad genius | michael curtiz | j. grubb alexander | harvey f. thew | john barrymore | marian marsh | charles butterworth | based on | play | martin brown | drama | romance | united states | donald cook | luis alberini | carmel myers | andre luguet | boris karloff
Film: The Mad Genius
Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: J. Grubb Alexander and Harvey F. Thew
Starring: John Barrymore, Marian Marsh and Charles Butterworth
Here is another movie that I never heard of until I was looking through Letterboxd for all of the horror movies released in the year of 1931. This one intrigued me when I saw that it starred John Barrymore as well as Marian Marsh, as they starred together in another horror film from this year of Svengali. So aside from that information, I came into this one blind with just having read the synopsis right before starting it. That synopsis is a crippled man finds a boy and vows to make him a great dancer.
The prologue here is Central Europe and 15 years in the past. Vladimar Ivan Tasarakov (Barrymore) is a puppeteer and he works with Karimsky (Charles Butterworth). He’s quite mean to him as well. Watching them is a boy by the name of Fedor (Frankie Darro) as they practice. Their puppet show is part of a traveling group. They’re interrupted when Fedor’s father shows up, scolding and whipping him. His father is played by an uncredited role of Boris Karloff. Fedor gets away and Ivan is impressed with how graceful he is. He ends up hiding the boy and when they leave, he comes with them.
We then shift to the present in Berlin. Ivan’s mother was a famous Russian ballet dancer, but he was born crippled, making him unable to dance. This upset her and she ended up leaving him while he was a child. This is quite scarring. Ivan saw the potential in Fedor (Donald Cook) and trained him to be the best. He is now one of the greatest dancers in Europe. Fedor is interested in Nana Carlova (Marsh). Ivan is fine with them being together as long as Fedor doesn’t fall in love. He needs his release, but falling for her will ruin his career according to Ivan. He even rebuffs the advances of Count Robert Renaud (André Luguet) who is interesting in Nana, wanting to ensure that Fedor is always happy.
When Ivan learns that his prized pupil has fallen for Nana, he wants her to leave the production and marry Count Renaud though. He believes love will make people do bad things, at least to what he wants. This upsets Fedor who threatens to quit dancing if she is sent away. He has to make a decision, leave the only thing he knows how to do for the love of his life where he will be black-balled by his father figure or play pawn to this mastermind in Ivan.
That is where I’m going to leave my recap as that is really the main story of this movie. There are some deep seeded things with characters under this and that is where I’m going to start. The character of Ivan is interesting. He always wanted to be a dancer and part of this is the fact that his mother was bothered by his affliction. He’s been harboring that and sees his chance to live through Fedor. Ivan’s mother abandoning him is bad and kidnapping Fedor is as well. Aside from that, wanting to give Fedor a good life is a good thing. It is when he is manipulating those around him to continue to be successful is where this becomes an issue.
Seeing the title of this movie, I figured this would be a mad scientist film. I was pleasantly surprised that we are dealing with someone being very intelligent, but in a different sort of way. Ivan manipulates everyone he encounters to an extent. Nana he tries to send away multiple times. He is mean to Karimsky and bosses him around. Fedor is a character he doesn’t necessarily do anything toward directly, but tries to remove obstacles without his knowledge. Sergei Bankieff (Luis Alberini) is the stage manager for his productions and he actually uses drugs to control him. I’m assuming it is opium from the paper it is kept in. He also lies to Sonya Preskoya (Carmel Myers) and Olga Chekova (Mae Madison), who are both dancers that want to be famous. There is also a bit with Count Renaud as well. It is interesting how his conduct leads to his downfall in the end.
Since there isn’t much to the story and more to the interactions, I’ll go to the acting next. Barrymore is really good as Ivan. I like how he plays the character and I believe he could be this mastermind. Marsh is cute and I feel bad for what she has to decide to do for the betterment of Fedor’s life. Butterworth adds some levity. I feel bad for him though. Cook is solid as Fedor who has people being used around him to influence his decisions. I’d say from there that Alberini, Myers, Luguet and the rest round this out for what was needed.
Then really the last thing to bring up here would be the cinematography, effects and the musical selections. I would say that the cinematography is fine. We are getting some interesting looks at the ballet as they are rehearsing. I’m glad they didn’t focus on this too much though. It would have felt like filler if they did. This really isn’t a movie that has much in the way of effects and the soundtrack also fits for what was needed. It just doesn’t necessarily stand out to me.
In conclusion here, this is going to be a bit shorter of a review, but that is mostly due to a simple story. That isn’t to say it is bad though. This movie is really focused on the acting which I think is good across the board. It is interesting to see this concept of a mad genius like Ivan who is living through his protégé and seeing what he does to keep this golden goose working for him. I’d say that the technique here of filmmaking is fine. This is quite light in the horror elements, but it makes sense for the era. I would say though that this is movie is over average for me. It is lacking though to go any higher than that personally.
My Rating: 6 out of 10