“Do you want to be a great dancer?”
Following yesterday’s rewatch of old favourite Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) I chose another Michael Curtiz-directed Pre-Code horror, one that I’ve never seen, The Mad Genius (1931).
John Barrymore is the titular figure putting on his marionette show for an almost empty house, save for one enthralled boy (Frankie Darro) who’s snuck in on this stormy night to see the puppets dance. Barrymore and his partner Charles Butterworth hardly even notice the boy is there until his furious father (Boris Karloff) shows up to beat him senseless, and as the boy flees, he demonstrates an awesome ability to run and leap. Barrymore has been obsessed with dancing since childhood, when an affliction crippled him and caused his mother, a famous dancer, to abandon him. Barrymore has the will, the ideas and the drive to conceive the most beautiful ballets, but his body fails him. Now Barrymore resolves to make Fedor his project, to create the greatest dancer of all time, so he takes the boy and drives away in a scene much like Pinocchio being kidnapped by the puppetmaster Stromboli, right down to the caravan weaving as it trundles off in the night.
When we meet Fedor fifteen years later, he’s played by Donald Cook and is a skilled ballet dancer, the big star of Barrymore’s ballet. Barrymore now has life-sized marionettes and he pulls their strings to make them dance to his will. When Cook and his co star Marian Marsh fall in love, and Cook asserts his independence from his “Creator,” an infuriated and threatened Barrymore tries to break them up and then tries to break Cook’s will.
Like Lionel Atwill in Mystery of the Wax Museum, Barrymore is cursed with a body unable to convert genius into reality, and both characters believe nobody can appreciate their talent. But where Atwill works with dead bodies, Barrymore must have living ones to dance for him, which means he’ll have to deal with that thing he despises most: weakness. When one of his marionettes malfunctions he tears it apart. It’s useless and disobedient, much like the junkie stage manager he hates and chastises for his addiction to “filthy” drugs, and like Cook who’s addicted to love. As an admittedly “jealous God,” Barrymore won’t tolerate being second best, which he repeats in many variations of the “I made you, I can destroy you” speech. Barrymore’s recurring dream of flying, and being suddenly pulled down by a claw into a swamp, foretells his dramatic end.
Curtiz uses shadows to show us a graphic part of that end, shadows to show us the stage manager wiping his nose after consuming Barrymore’s entire stash of drugs, to make Barrymore look monstrous as he plots to destroy Cook’s career, or to make the couple’s previously idyllic studio apartment look like a passage to the underworld when Barrymore comes to reclaim Cook. Eerie touches include large empty rooms, weirdly angled walls and impossibly high ceilings, and in Barrymore’s cabinet full of marionettes, one bears such resemblance to Cook that I expected it to be used as a voodoo doll. The ballet scenes look great, with some original costume design and a grand and most fitting set for Barrymore’s last appearance.
Cook is sensitive, emotional and attractive, sometimes struggles to work up rage, passion, bitterness and jealousy, but serves as a young object of attraction, a playful boyfriend and a puppet finding his own desire and voice. Marian Marsh was a big discovery for me last year in Beauty and the Boss (1932) where she was delightfully sweet and funny. In this film she plays the ideal “doll face” and you believe she’s worth all Cook’s losses and sacrifices. She blames herself for his loss of stardom, and for the sting he feels watching his name papered over on the new ballet ads. After seeing him reduced to working in a cabaret act, and seeing him slowly turn sullen and more into someone like Barrymore, she would do anything to help him do what he was meant for, even if it means sending him back to his evil master.
This was an interesting hybrid of disturbing folk tale and backstage musical, a romance and a scary battle between a puppet master and a marionette asserting its humanity and heart.