When I think of Michael Curtiz, I automatically associate him with Casablanca (1942.) I forget the number of classic horror films he directed, starting with this one, The Mad Genius (1931.) With nearly 179 credits (according to IMDb) in his 50+-year career, it’s not surprising that he made movies of all genres. I forget this, though, and when I see his name in the credits of something like Doctor X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), or The Walking Dead (1936), I’m reminded of his versatility.
Other than a tilted camera angle as a carriage drives past it on the street of a peasant village in central Europe, The Mad Genius isn’t particularly stylish. However, Curtiz takes a movie based on a play and makes it feel not like a play. Tod Browning couldn’t even do that with Dracula (1931.) The locations aren’t lavish or special, but they’re numerous enough that the movie doesn’t feel like it’s standing still. It may also help that many scenes take place on a stage, which is kind of meta if you think about it.
Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov (John Barrymore) was born with a disability that prevents him from performing as anything other than a puppeteer. When young Fedor Ivanoff (Frankie Darro) seeks refuge from his abusive father (none other than an uncredited Boris Karloff), Tsarakov takes him under his wing, vowing to turn him into what he should have been: “the greatest dancer of all time.” Mentioning legends like the golem or homunculus to his companion, Karmisky (Charles Butterworth), Tsarakov says he will create his own being…
I will mold mold him, I will pour into him my genius, my soul. In all my dreams, all my ambitions will be fulfilled...
Fifteen years later, he doesn’t count on a woman coming between him and his dreams. However, the adult Fedor (Donald Cook) and fellow dancer Nana Carlova (Marian Marsh) have become close. Telling his “son” that he should never place a woman too high (“it always saves so much fuss when things grow stale”) and claiming he doesn’t want to pry into his affairs, Tsarakov nevertheless asks about their relationship. When Fedor says they’re just friends, Tsarakov tells him that if she’s above temptation, there’s no worry.
Oh, but there is. The two are in love. Tsarakov, the titular mad genius, spends the rest of the film hatching schemes to keep them apart. When he can’t tempt Fedor with another woman, he orchestrates Nana’s dismissal from the troupe. Sergei Bankieff (Luis Alberni) calls him “the devil.” Indeed, he looks like Satan in close-up with dim lighting, sporting a goatee and arching his eyebrow. He replies that he may instead be an angel, giving Sergei a chance to redeem himself. (He’s an addict that Tsarakov manipulates by controlling his supply of pills.)
Despite the Frankenstein/God complex and references to Satan, The Mad Genius isn’t really a horror movie. Nevertheless, be prepared for an ending that’s surprisingly graphic for 1931. The action takes place as shadows against the wall, but (SPOILER ALERT) when Tsarakov gets what’s coming to him, nothing is left to the imagination. Because he’s so despicable, the scene is well-earned and satisfying. It causes Fedor to be momentarily stunned, but he soon snaps out of it as his true love kisses him.
With the exception of Cook as Fedor, whom I didn’t particularly like, this movie has a terrific cast. Barrymore exercises restraint and never appears too over-the-top. As Sergei, Alberni is as sympathetic as he is pathetic. As Nana, Marsh delivers a heartbreaking performance. Without a doubt, though, my favorite character was Karinsky. Butterworth delivers subtle comic relief naturally strictly through his words and facial expressions. I don’t recognize any other genre films on his list of credits, but he’s worth investigating in any type of role.
One of the writers, J. Grubb Alexander, is also credited for The Man Who Laughs (1928) and Svengali (1931.) You’ll probably notice similarities. Not remembering this ahead of time, The Mad Genius did at times evoke the former. (I haven’t seen the latter, but it also features Barrymore and Marsh.) Warner Brothers was apparently so happy with the success of their first talking horror film, The Terror (1928) and Svengali, that it rushed this one into production. I couldn’t tell that it was anything but a terrific standalone thriller; I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Written by J. Grubb Alexander & Harvey F. Thew
From the play by Martin Brown (The Idol)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Starring John Barrymore, Marian Marsh, Charles Butterworth, Donald Cook, Luis Laberni, Andre Luguet
RT 81 min.
Released Nov. 7, 1931
Recorded on May 19, 2020 on TCM
Rating 7 Frankenstein Monsters (out of 10)
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