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Trilby (1915)

Trilby (1915) Equitable Motion Pictures Corp. Distributor: World Film Corporation. Director: Maurice Tourneur. Assistant Director: Clarence L. Brown. Scenario, E.M. Ingleton. Editor, Clarence L. Brown. Art direction, Ben Carre. Cast: Clara Kimball Young, Wilton Lackaye, Paul McAllister, Chester Barnett, D.J. Flanagan. 5 reels.

This was Clara Kimball Young's first feature under the direction of someone other than husband James Young (who, coincidentally, directed the lost 1923 version of the film). This time the director was the already highly-regarded Maurice Tourneur, and she co-starred with Wilton Lackaye, who had made his name on the stage in this part. The film is available on video. A 35 mm. print the shortened and reedited 1917 reissue is held by the George Eastman House, and prints are also held by the Nederlands Filmmuseum (unconfirmed) and by the Cineteca del Friuli (unconfirmed).

cover An unsuspecting Trilby is eyed by Svengali, played by the noted actor who created the role on stage, Wilton Lackaye.
An allegorical scene of Trilby in Svengali's net. This scene is not in the video release, and may not be in any surviving prints.
Thanks to Bill Rabe for these pictures.
Click thumbnails for a larger images.

Review from Variety
Reviews from Moving Picture World
Notice and review from the New York Dramatic Mirror
Review from Photoplay
Video review

Review from Variety, September 10, 1915

Trilby Clara Kimball Young
Svengali Wilton Lackaye
Gecko Paul McAllister
Little Billy Chester Barnett

There are a number of faults to be found with the five-reel screen adaptation of the famous DuMaurier novel "Trilby." It is not an adaptation of the play, following more closely the story as laid out in the book. For instance, in showing Little Billee, Taffy and the Laird walking through a street in the Latin quarter of Paris, they passed an English "bobby" or policeman. Then again in the scene showing the lobby of the opera house where Trilby sings for the last time, the camera has caught a studio wall. Once more, some of the titles were hard to read. One expected much more of Wilton Lackaye, who gave a most intelligent and not exaggerated conception of Svengali; but this was a distinct disappointment. He might have disregarded a modicum of consistency and contributed a bit of sensationalism. Clara Kimball Young as Trilby, the "wise" folks agreed gave a most convincing characterization. Chester Barnett was excellent as little Billee, Paul McAllister was first rate as Gecko and Taffy and the Laird were played by two unprogramed actors who should have been given credit on the program for their parts. There were several "big" scenes intelligently directed and the photography throughout was fine. One might continue indefinitely recounting the pros and cons of this feature, saying a lot which meant little or nothing. The one thing that counts and means anything is that, taking it as a whole,, the picture is a good one and worthy of being played in the best picture houses throughout the world. Nothing else matters.


Review from Moving Picture World, Sept. 18, 1915

A Skillfully Constructed Screen Version of Du Maurier's Story Opened at the Forth-fourth Street Theater, New York, on Labor Day--Clara Kimball Young and Wilton Lackaye Are in the Cast.
Reviewed by Edward Weitzel

Monday evening Sept. 6th, another of New York City's leading theaters entered the moving picture field, a five reel version of "Trilby," produced by the Equitable Motion Picture Corporation, opening for a run at the Forty-fourth Street theater. In addition to the Du Maurier story, a series of war pictures entitled "With the Fighting Forces in Europe," taken by C.H. Murray, and embracing views of military life and incidents in Serbia, Austria, Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, England, Japan, Turkey and Italy are on the program; also a well-selected orchestra of fifty members, led by Dr. Hugo Reisenfeld, contribute a specially composed overture and the incidental music, the entire performance being under the direction of S.L. Rothapfel. The theater was filled with an audience that expressed hearty approbation for the war pictures, and followed the fortunes of Trilby O'Farrell with every manifestation of interest and delight.

Any one at all familiar with the George Du Maurier novel might easily have foreseen that it would make an excellent photoplay. The result obtained by Maurice Tourneur and the cast under his direction place this motion-drama among the finest examples of its kind. To start with, the scenario displays keen appreciation of what was required. The character of the Rev. Thomas Bagot has been dispensed with, and "Zou-Zou," "Dodor," and Madam Vinard, and, to a lesser degree, "Taffy," "The Laird" and Gecko have been kept in the background and Trilby and Svengali given the center of the stage, such an arrangement being necessary in order to compress the novel into five reels. The almost entire absence of "cutbacks" puts "Trilby" in the true drama class, where the human will be shown in action and tells its own story--not by the use of the narrative form. This makes for a firmer grip on the emotions, a stronger response from the hearts in the audience. While all the scenes in which the characters of the play appear were taken in this country, the atmosphere of the Latin Quarter in Paris is reproduced most convincingly. One slight blemish mars the artistic worth of the picture--the introduction of the vision of Death in the quarrel between Svengali and Gecko. The figure is not impressive. To offset this, there are countless scenes thrown on the screen that are worthy the highest praise: the picture will not quickly be forgotten.

[Photo omitted: man standing in the street outside a hotel]

The acting of the cast, in which the names of Clara Kimball Young and Wilton Lackaye come first, is on a par with the most exacting demands of screen histrionism. Mr. Lackaye's impersonation of Svengali has long been recognized as a work of great merit. The triumph that he won for it in the spoken drama, he more than repeats on the screen. Clara Kimball Young makes an ideal Trilby. Her beauty of face, perfection of form and power as an actress fit the part splendidly, and accurately exemplified by Phyllis Neilson-Terry, the soul which animates her creation is the soul of Trilby O'Farrell. Her posing in the "all-together" is without offense. The Gecko of Paul McAllister, Chester Barnett's Little Billee, and the efforts of the remaining members of the cast are all in harmony with the performance, and responsive to every mood of the director's conception.

Review from the New York Dramatic Mirror, September 15, 1915

Five-Part Screen Adaptation of Du Maurier's novel. Presented by the Equitable Film Corporation, and Released Through World Film. Produced under the Direction of Maurice Tourneur.


Trilby Clara Kimball Young
Svengali Wilton Lackaye
Gecko Paul McAllister
Little Billy Chester Barnett

Another screen production lifts its head above the common level. "Trilby," the initial offering of the Equitable Film Corporation, may enter without apology--though not swaggeringly--into the select company that includes such pictures as "The Christian" and "An Alien." Maurice Tourneur has again proven that he deserves ranking among the best of the screen producers. In "Trilby" he has displayed a strong grasp of his subject and the screen possibilities, a wealth of imagination, and an amazing knack of injecting "atmosphere." The Latin Quarter and its lovable characters as presented in "Trilby" is one of the most charming phases of the Equitable production.

"Trilby" follows more closely the story of the play than the novel, and wisdom is shown in eliminating characters that might have produced a diversity of interest on the screen. Our interest is centered throughout on Trilby, Svengali, and Billee and with such players as Clara Kimball Young, Wilton Lackaye, and Chester Barnett in the roles it is readily apparent that the the result is delightful. Mr. Lackaye probably reaps the greatest honors, his interpretation of Svengali reaching great heights. Miss Young does some of the best work of her career as Trilby, though it is a somewhat "different" Trilby. Chester Barnett entered strongly into the spirit of Billee. Paul McAllister is all that could be asked as Gecko.

Studio-built exteriors, and occasional panoramas of Paris aid to heighten the atmosphere. Following these glimpses of the Latin Quarter comes Svengali's wanderings with Trilby, a period in the lives of the characters shown by means of flashes and dissolves that are of value in strengthening the illusion.

The concert scenes, when Trilby, under the influence of Svengali, has become the sensation of Europe, are well handled, though it would seem that the tempo of the accion at the climax might have been speeded up to advantage.


Review from Julian Johnson in Photoplay, December 1915

Trilby was a masterpiece of atmospheric achievement. Why the programme did not list the director, I don't know. It had the artistry, the infinite detail, that intangible feeling of situation that only Jimmy Young seems able to throw into a screen story of alien life.

Here was Paris! Not only the quiet banks of the Seine, and the majestic Church of Our Lady--actual views--but the Paris of the Quartier made in the World Film studio, the street taken in New York's MacDougal Alley, the Quartier ball, and the ateliers.

Wilton Lackaye's Svengali is such a stage classic that even to screen audiences his impersonation seems a repetition. He lived the bearded life, and died the stagey old 'Cross-table" death that he has died, on and off, these fifteen years.

I was disappointed in Clara Kimball Young's Trilby. The characterization seemed insincere. She was pert rather than innocent and childish; there was little variation between Trilby O'Ferral and La Svengali; and when she died it seemed not because the vitality of her demoniac master had passed from her, but because she fell down and bumped her pretty little head.

The dramatic ending to Trilby has never been satisfactory, in that it is inexplicable to those who have not read DuMaurier's novel. But this cannot be changed.

Video review

Update, April 2010: I'm happy to report that the ReelClassicsDVD version of Trilby is an improvement over the Grapevine VHS. The picture, while still worn, issomewhat sharper and more detailed with better contrast. This works greatly to Young's advantage, clarifying her facial expression and making her seem much more animated and charming. The piano score by Stuart Oderman is much better, and also makes use of the song "Ben Bolt," which is referenced several times within the film. I quite enjoyed watching this, and felt much more positive about the film than before. The film appears to be from the same source material, a reissue by "Republic Pictures," but lacks the Blackhawk-style introduction. The only down side is that the ReelClassicsDVD version had a black spot in the gate or on the lens that appears in the middle of the left side for the last half at least of the film, which can be distracting.

Grapevine VHS review: It's a tribute to the talents involved in this picture that it still manages to be involving and entertaining despite some severe handicaps. The Grapevine video of the film is soft and the print was worn and scratched. Tourneur was known for the beauty of his compositions, but the condition of the print makes it difficult to appreciate. Worse, it has also been severely cut, losing the special effects and dissolves mentioned in the reviews above, but also cutting the unhappy ending. The film was reissued twice, perhaps the video comes from a recut reissue. Young is unbecomingly coiffed, gowned, and photographed. At first she seems overshadowed by the quaintly florid performance of Wilton Lackaye, a famous stage Svengali, but that is pretty much inevitable in this story. On second viewing, she makes more of an impression. She clearly differentiates between her natural and her hypnotic state--the latter is pretty much an automaton. But away from Svengali's spell Young is able to indulge her natural playfulness and she and the rest of the cast seem to be having a good time. The scene where she reverts to her natural self on stage at Svengali's death is well acted, and done with a rare sense of humor. All in all, a worthwhile film, despite the drawbacks of the existing material. I do not know if the archival prints other than the George Eastman House print are more complete. The film is now available from in DVD format. It is also available from Movies Unlimited, Facets, PicPal, Nostalgia Family Video, Foothill, and other public domain video dealers, and was formerly available from Grapevine Video with a perfunctory organ score and a Blackhawk-style introductory text.

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Last revised April 10, 2010