The Mad Genius (1931)

Emphasis on the Word Mad

I feel like no other decade seems to have as many obscure gems lost to time as the 1930’s; case in point, The Mad Genius. Coming out in the same year as the iconic adaptations of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; but in my humble opinion, The Mad Genius is a better and more intriguing film than any of those.

The opening of The Mad Genius does a superb job at setting a time and place; central Europe in the early 20th century. There is an impeccable level of detail in creating the world of a traveling performer; with the falling of the rain, the wind and the sound of horse and carriage taking full advantage of sound technology to create a world. Equally as impressive is Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov’s (John Barrymore) Berlin theatre and the large-scale stage set with hints of German expressionism throughout and the widespread use of music in the soundtrack, unlike other early talkies.

John Barrymore is (unsurprisingly) mesmerising as Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov (quite a name), one of the most repulsive characters he ever played as he spends the movie spewing pompous and at times mad scientist like dialogue. He has a misogynistic attitude towards women and is even seen ogling up the skirts of his dancers, in one of the film’s very pre-code elements. He is even a drug dealer, although the word drug is never used in the film nor is it identified what substances appear in the film. In one scene in which he refuses to deal drugs with the stage director played by Luis Alberni, I love his summary on drugs when he throws them into the fire; “If I drop this, you will be free, but you will suffer of course, but in the end, you will be happier than you could ever dream”. Likewise In one of the movie’s comic highlights, there is an early use of profanity in the film; “It’s unbelievable that there’s any human being living, who should be such a stupid ass”.

One of the many interesting observations in The Mad Genius is the combination of elements from other movies. The plot itself is derivative of Barrymore’s previous horror outing Svengali, while Tsarakov’s desire to create a great ballet dancer out of a young boy is a variation on Dr. Frankenstein (which the movie itself alludes to). When Tsarakov is wearing on overcoat he is bent over like Quasimodo; Barrymore’s facial appearance is very similar to that of Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, likewise, his voice is reminiscent of Lugosi’s Dracula. The theatre setting has vibes of The Phantom of the Opera and perhaps most interestingly are the elements of The Red Shoes with the film’s inclusion of ballet and the themes of going to extremes for one’s art. Could Powell and Pressburger have taken inspiration from The Mad Genius?


3 thoughts on “The Mad Genius (1931)”

  1. A Film that would have stolen thr praise over all of these films is a title you may know, “Trick for Trick” 1933. My papa, Luis Alberni set the Egyptian theater on fire with his over the top antics as, literally, the most insane Mad Scientist on screen. Sitting on the balcony level, when he appeared in a flash like volt he electrified the screen touching electric lightbulbs mumbling and talking to his left side and forward simultaneously going crosseyed then hands wiggling like something he learned from his early teenage days after running away to work as a clown in a traveling circus in France at 16. I could see it. The clown in him. I sat there in tears hearing the roar of the audience. I have never seen a man come to life on the screen like he did in that moment. I couldn’t believe it, I was witnessing the role my papa was born to play. For a second, thinking wow, how blessed I could be so fortunate to call the greatest ethnic pioneer my papa, that he raised the little girl who raised me the oil grandson of his “Kiki” Wanda. and there he was a true Tour de force like I first witnessed with him. There really is nothing greater of all the 1930s I have seen than that of him as Metzger. Ive seen so many great films. My whole life has been watching flicks. But this one. Cinecon said it was the most requested film in the 50 years of the festival. The audience went crazy. One review I saw online had a man say it was the most unusual characterization he has ever seen be portrayed. They always call to Luis, the stand out. Genius talent.


      1. There was so many typos with my comment. Yes, Luis Alberni started having an affair with Wanda Wilson – my great great grandma in the late 1930s. He was still married to his first wife charlotte, the mother of his 3 sons. But they grew apart. His affair with my great great grandma was all over the tabloids. She was a bootlegger and Horse owner and trainer for the races. She always had a bar or cocktail lounge. She even had a cantina in Juarez during the prohibition. Her sister Willie or aka Billie Wilson also ran a restaurant and bar. In North hollywood, echo park, SILVERLAKE. They Charlotte Hall complained In the L.A. times that Luis Built my grandma a home in Laguna Hills but that it was seized for criminal activity. Likely the truth as it was the tail end of the prohibition and its likely they had some parties and most certainly liquor and speakeasy. Luis and “the other woman” my great great grandma married and then later got one divorce, got back with one another then got another. That was early 1940s. My Nana who was born in 47′ isn’t biologically Luis’ granddaughter, but even after divorcing twice with my great great grandma they stayed together for the last nearly 30 years of his life. Wanda Wilson had only one daughter when she was 16 to a man long out of the picture by the time she met Luis, that one daughter is my great grandma Mary, and her one daughter is Wanda Ward – my Nana. Wanda Ward was raised by her grandma Wanda And Luis. He taught my nana to paint, play the piano, draw, speak some French. She was his lil Kiki. She has very fond and priceless memories of Luis and her momma Wanda.


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