The Mad Genius (1931) is an all-talking pre-code horror drama film produced and distributed by Warner Bros. and directed by Michael Curtiz. The film stars John Barrymore, Marian Marsh, Donald Cook, Charles Butterworth, and in small roles, Boris Karloff and Frankie Darro. The film is based on the play The Idol (1929) by Martin Brown, which opened in Great Neck, New York but never opened on Broadway.
In the exotic, rainy Eastern Europe of the early 20th century, two puppeteers perform to exactly no-one and are distracted by the surprisingly wicked beating of a young boy by a brutal father (a blink slowly and you’ll miss him Boris Karloff). Observing the young lad vault over fences away from his persecutor, club-footed Vladimar Tsarakov (John Barrymore, 1920’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and one of early cinema’s biggest stars) sees a dazzling career for him, vicariously living the life of dance, women and debauchery always denied him. The young chap is duly hidden from his father and spirited away.
Dashing forward in time, the young boy, Feodor (Donald Cook from 1933’s similarly rum Babyface) is now embedded in the world of dance and theatre. Tsarakov is also present, literally draped on his casting couch, lining up nubile, starry-eyed young girls to visit him in his office later with the finer details of how they can become famous. Whilst he is happy relieving the young ladies of their innocence, he is dismayed to see his young apprentice falling in love with one of the dancers, Nana (Marian Marsh, also seen with Barrymore in what is in many ways this film’s companion piece, Svenglai).
We watch as Tsarakov acts as puppeteer to those around him; the young girls, Feodor, his secretary and dogsbody, Karimsky (Charles Butterworth, seemingly channelling Stan Laurel) and the manager of the dance troupe, Sergei (Luis Alberni in a brilliantly wide-eyed performance) whom he is feeding a steady diet of class A drugs to keep in check.
In a twisted sequence of events, Nana is fired but elopes with her beloved to a series on European theatres with the dastardly Tsarakov in pursuit. With the young lovers determined to live their lives in blissful happiness, a strung-out Sergei frothing at the mouth for his next fix and Karimsky desperate to tell his boss of his brilliantly silly idea for a ballet, it’s a typically 1930’s Smokey and the Bandit race to the finish line.
If you thought ‘pre-code’ was simply a statement or a general term for the misty period of early cinema, then you could do a lot worse to take in this occasionally eye-popping film. From the early scene of Karloff whacking the living Hell out of his son to the seedy and rather disturbing drug dealing (and taking) to the extremely sexual portrayal of the young dancers and their elderly deflowerer, there would be uproar if a film so gloomy and comparatively realistic were released by a major studio today.
Though there is barely anything between the release dates, Karloff was essentially an unknown at the time of release, Frankenstein still yet to sweep all before it (hardly his first role, however). Ironically, Tsarakov lectures his young student early in the film of ‘The Golem’ (interesting that audiences would be expected to have seen this or be aware), ‘a homunculus or creation of Frankenstein’. The film may not yet have hit the big time but clearly the novel upon which it is based was very much part of popular culture and not an obscure reference.
Barrymore, best known for his romantic and light-dramatic leads, is sensational as Tsarakov, perhaps not a traditional horror villain but one who develops from an innocent-looking benefactor to cruel deviant in barely perceptible speed. Director Michael Curtiz slummed it somewhat after this picture, directing White Christmas, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca. As you may expect, the sets are drenched with art deco, the ballet-themed setting being a perfect excuse for costume designers to run riot – not riotous enough to prevent significant leg and cleavage to be aired.
Warner Bros. was so pleased by the box office returns for Svengali (1931) and their first talking feature The Terror (1928), also starring Barrymore and Marsh, that they rushed The Mad Genius into production, and released it on 7 November 1931.