The Mad Genius (1931)

“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.



8 thoughts on “The Mad Genius (1931)”

  1. TCM aired another precode similar to this film, also starred John Barrymore and Marian Marsh, 1931’s Svengali. I dvred it and watched it and it was a fascinating little film, mainly due to Barrymore’s performance of another teacher with a god complex. He’s a voice, or operatic singing teacher and falls in love with new student Marion Marsh, who has fallen in love with a young sculptor. Barrymore steals her away, with his hypnotic inducing gaze. If you haven’t seen it, find it!

    1. I saw SVENGALI a really long time ago and want to rewatch it. Svengali was so hot they rushed this one out soon after, but TCMdb says it wasn’t a hit and hurt Barrymore’s career. He does a good job with this very similar part though, and the movies would make a neat double feature. Thanks!

  2. I remember seeing this years ago because I knew Karloff was in it. Kind of disappointed at the time but then I was hoping for plenty of Boris as I was quite young and checking of titles in my citadel book on The Films of Boris……

    1. Yeah he’s such a small part and I had to look twice to be sure it was him, it was so dark! His voice was the giveaway though

  3. I was not impressed with “Svengali” and almost gave “The Mad Genius” a miss because of their similarities. Boris’ presence drew me back to “The Mad Genius” and I thought it was heads and tails above “Svengali”. A real winner.

    Barrymore’s character seemed to me to have much in common with Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) in “The Red Shoes”.

    1. I like to hear that because I’ve made a point of finally watching THE RED SHOES this year. Also good to hear you liked this one so much, love the ending, the way Barrymore gets his 🙂 Thanks!

    1. Curtiz is one of my favourite directors but I haven’t seen many of his early films so this is a fun trip, a few more to go still 🙂 thanks for reading.

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