In a new release from Warner Archive, Marian Marsh and John Barrymore follow up their partnership in Svengali (1931) with The Mad Genius (1931). This unusual drama is not quite as bizarre as the previous film, but is just as full of pre-code antics and Barrymore eccentricities.
Barrymore is Ivan Tsarakov, a crippled puppeteer living with the frustrated ambition to have a brilliant dance career as his mother did. One night he marvels at the graceful leaps of young Fedor Ivanoff as the boy tries to escape a beating from his brutal father (Boris Karloff in a brief part before Frankenstein made him famous). Tsarakov snatches the boy, who doesn't seem to mind the opportunity to escape, and leaves town. Later, in a long monologue about his desire to somehow live his passion for dance, he tells his work partner, "I will create my own being."
Fifteen years later Fedor (Donald Cook) is a successful dancer. He's been tutored carefully by Tsarakov, who molds him and controls his life as if the young man is a possession. This includes his love life, which the maestro encourages and stage manages just like his career, always with the goal that nothing get too serious.
Fedor does get serious though. He falls in love with dancer Nana Carlova (Marian Marsh). They are perfectly in sync with each other both on and off the stage. When Ivan realizes the extent of their devotion, he manipulates his drug-addicted dance director (for whom he provides his fixes) into firing Nana. Rather than separating the couple, the act drives them to leave the company. Fedor accepts lower-paying dance work so that he can live in unmarried bliss with Nana.
Barrymore is his typical pre-code self here: bizarre, lecherous and always a bit menacing. He leers at the young dancers in the troupe, always sitting a bit too close, with a hand on the shoulder to draw his object of lust a bit closer. Seemingly incapable of making a subtle gesture, he bugs his eyes and speaks in dramatic tones, overemphasizing his eastern European accent. He should be obnoxious, and frightening, but there's always something amusing about Barrymore, especially in this period. With his pointy beard and slippery ways, he's creepy, but always lively and amusing, partly because he seems so entertained by his work.
Donald Cook and Marian Marsh are not entirely convincing as lovers, but they are an attractive couple. I've never paid much attention to Cook, he's always come off as stiff and a bit dull in his many pre-code roles, but he has a little fire in him here and even some sex appeal. If he is still a bit bland, it suits the role of a boy who has been programmed by his caretaker, and never been allowed to live his own life. Marsh doesn't seem capable of being boring. She exudes a surreal brightness, accentuated by her unusual doll-like beauty, which always makes her seem otherworldly, like a fairy trying to decipher the mortal world.
A couple of wonderfully strange Avant garde dance performances serve as the backdrop for the trio's dramas. The costumes are meticulously structured, sci-fi nonsense, and absolutely beautiful, as is the feverishly performed choreography. As the action becomes increasingly intense, the bizarre stage sets provide a perfect feeling of menace and doom.
For most of its running time, The Mad Genius seems like a mildly familiar entertainment, but it leads up to a surprising moment of violence and chaos, becoming more horrific as it builds steam. It reveals madness far beyond the puppet master at its center.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.