The Mad Genius (1931)

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • The film’s villain, Tsarakov (John Barrymore), detests women, and uses them only for pleasure. He carries on numerous simultaneous affairs with young ballerinas (using the casting couch approach to great effect), and even has several bastards running around that he cheerily ignores. His motivation and general philosophy: “Haven’t I told you that there isn’t a woman on this earth who doesn’t have a price?”
  • Plenty of upskirt shots for Tasarakov to ogle while he’s lurking around.
  • Tsarakov’s genius plan for his young ward: “I’ve arranged for him to have any other beautiful woman he wanted. An artist must have many different inspirations.”

    Some good old free wheelin’ drug dealing…
  • When his assistant Karimsky (Charles Butterworth) explains that he’s taking pills to help with his head, Tsarakov retorts, “Maybe you’re not putting them in the right place.” Perhaps the first version of a ‘shove it up your ass’ joke in cinema history.
  • Speaking of, this is a rare Pre-Code with swearing. After Karimsky suggests a massive ballet involving portly ballerinas and hundreds of Spanish scarves, Tsarakov can only say back, in bemused terror, “It’s unbelievable that there’s any human being living who should be such a stupid ass.”
  • Tsarakov (what a name) has plenty of delusions of grandeur, a bit along the lines of Dr. Moreau a few films back: “I made that boy you see there just as sure as God made this world.”
  • In case you weren’t sure he was villainous, Barrymore also deals drugs. The film never specifies what drugs, but they go up your nose and make you hyper. I’m not being coy here, I really just know jack shit about illegal substances.
  • We get “Let’s Misbehave” on in the background. I think I’m just going to note whenever I hear it from now on– it certainly gets around.
  • Oh, and our villain gets violently chopped to death. That’s always fun.
Yes, I’m quoting Glenn or Glenda in the title there. If you heard Barrymore’s accent here, you’d think of nothing else.

Pull the strings! Pull the strings!

We begin in a muddy puddle of Eastern European farmland on a drenched night. Two men work a marionette show to an empty tent, only to have a young boy stumble in. He takes in a show and laughs heartily, only to have his brusque father (Boris Karloff) run in and start beating him for ignoring his chores. Considering it’s the middle of the night and pouring down rain, we can only imagine either the depressing state of this child’s life or the filmmaker’s views on Eastern Europe.

The puppeteers, Tsarakov and Karimsky, at first watch with hoary amusement but that soon melts into awe. The boy can jump.

Tsarakov’s mind races. He’s always had a dream of being a great dancer, but a bum leg has led him towards the next best thing, which is, uh, apparently puppeteer. Regardless, that career transitions him perfectly into the next one– kidnapping this child and forcing him to live the life he’s always wanted. Full of dance, women, and dance.

Threatening to cut a drug addict off unless he signs a note firing a dancer and likely throwing her into a life of prostitution? Oh, Pre-Code.

The kidnapping goes pretty smoothly (“Eastern Europe: We Let Kidnapping Go Pretty Smoothly”), and the narrative hurries ahead 15 years. We’ve moved onto Berlin, where Tsarakov, in coat and tails, is lording over a ballet rehearsal.

At the front is the boy, all grown up. He’s Feodor (Donald Cook). He’s sweet and gentle, playful but rugged, and the star of the ballet. The only problem that Tsarakov sees is that he’s developed an unfortunate fondness for the leading lady, Nana (Marian Marsh, also seen in Beauty and the Boss).

Tsarakov isn’t a big fan of monogamous relationships, and insists that Feodor settling down would be a disaster for his career. His vigilant crusade against this compromises the bulk of his motivation, and his reasons for doing so are deeply oedipal.

You see, Tsarakov’s mother abandoned him at a young age. She was a ballerina, and once she saw that her son had a deformed leg, she realized he would never achieve the greatness she had, and ran off. His father was a wealthy baron who didn’t give a crap about the boy, leading him to the sick, sad world of marionettes.

Tsarakov’s manipulations are blatantly mirrored in his use of the marionettes, as he manipulates all around him, from the pretty ballerinas who go for his casting couch routine, to the sheepish Karimsky, to the stage manager, Sergei (Luis Alberni), to whom Tsarakov keeps hooked on a steady diet of illegal drugs.

It’s Sergei he blackmails into firing Nana after his attempts to send other women Feodor’s way fails, and, to his chagrin, Feodor isn’t long to wising up to his tricks. He and Nana run off to Paris, only to be faced with an injunction from Tsarakov, threatening to ruin any theater that dares let the boy dance their until his contract is up in seven years.

Nana loves Feodor too much to let him forsake his art, and at Tsarakov’s calculating hands, she soon fakes running away with an amorous count to leave the path open again to Tsarakov’s embrace. Feodor takes it, but he’s turned cold; women are his bane now, too.

I’m going to go ahead and finish up the film; skip ahead if you want to be spared the ending.

The film converges on the three reunited in Berlin, where Feodor realizes the extent of Tsarakov’s madness. and is only saved from a life of servitude when a drug addled Sergei snaps at takes to Tsarakov with an axe.

Like all of the film’s most proverbially dark moments, we only see this in shadow. Sergei goes the extra mile by placing Tsarakov’s body onto the giant idol at the center of the ballet, leading Tsarakov to be revealed by Feodor during a climactic dance, and sending the audience running from the theater.

Nana and Feodor embrace, free at last. The only person with a tinge of regret is Karimsky, who gives the body one silent, sad grimace.

Twisted Mister

The story for The Mad Genius is fairly derivative of the film Svengali , which came out earlier in the year and also starred John Barrymore. The film was a hit, and the studio rushed this, what can be generously described as a similar story, into production. I haven’t seen Svengali, but my impression of it makes it sound like its roots are more in psychotic horror than the creepy melodramatics on display here.

The piano frames Marsh here, about to be entrapped by Barrymore’s plotting.

The Mad Genius is highlighted by the direction of Michael Curtiz, who, of course, is most famous for Casablanca, but whose work I’ve also seen during this project with Private Detective 62, Jimmy the Gent, and Female.

While I wasn’t a huge fan of any of those films (except Casablanca, natch), they’ve all been well made, and looked fairly good, especially Female with its monstrously garish mansions.

The production design on The Mad Genius really flourishes with the ballet numbers. They’re not extensive, but undeniably encroached in the art deco phase of design at the time. Everything from the costume design to the sets contain hard lines in contrasting, industrial patterns. Very interesting.

I also found the film’s shifting of locales interesting; the film is extensively cosmopolitan for what was a film obviously filmed entirely in Southern California, shifting West across Europe through its run, with Paris being the pinnacle of the young couple’s joy until Tsarakov drags Feodor back to Berlin through his treachery. A small bit of post-Great War Allied snob-ism? Wouldn’t surprise me too much.

One last interesting note: during one Tsarakov’s early (and frequent) speeches about his desire to control Feodor and make him the star he’d always wanted to be, he name drops the Frankenstein monster. Funny, of course, since Borris Karloff was on the screen momentarily and would go onto star as the titular monster of Frankensteinless than a year later.

Here’s some of that art deco I was going on about above. Lovely!

You can’t make this crap up.

“How can you wipe out love?”
“Women have found a way.”

What really fascinated me about Mad Genius isn’t its obvious derivation from the Svengali story, but the ways our protagonist and antagonist view women. It’s appalling for most of the film, and drives the action moreso than Tsarakov’s vicarious dealings and manipulations. It’s his belief in the inferiority of women that cause all of the plot’s tension.

And the crazy part is that he almost gets away with it. His eventually end is, at best, inconsequential. He overreaches with his desire to control everything and that makes him sloppy, leading him to the bad end of that axe.

Here’s our comic relief, getting called ‘ass’ for good measure.

But in his demise, who’s shown to be the real victor? The women Tsarakov beds throughout the movie (and there are many) are all young vital women who want a piece of his money and success– all playing to his assertion above that “All women have a price.” Even Nana is found to have hers, though its less to do with money or success than giving the man she loves what she thinks to be what he wants.

It isn’t, of course– he doesn’t want to just dance, he wants to be rid of Tsarakov’s influence– but there’s little way she could know this. Her relationship with Feodor, though troubled, is finally realized when they’re rid of the man who embodies a rampant sort of misogyny, one that only exists because the sexual freedoms of the 1920’s and 30’s allowed it to be so. It’s a condemnation of Tsarakov’s use of women, and of the women allowing themselves to be used in this manner.

His demise, from the brutality of it to the placement upon the idol, represent him as a martyr of German/Eastern European morality, a villain whose crimes are both against decency and nature. Tsarakov is a hell of a villain, and Barrymore, as you’d expect, plays him with such an incontrovertible charming menace that he arouses the audience’s sympathies while he’s earning the film’s condemnations.

This makes the ending fairly typical to something we’d say today. I guess what I enjoy about it is that it’s a condemnation of the exact morality it exploits to be an entertaining film. I’ve noticed that Pre-Code does this a lot, and while it can be more than a little hypocritical, usually there’s a couple of winks along the way to indicate that the filmmaker’s don’t think it’s really as bad as all that.

The Mad Genius toes the line between sensationalism and old fashioned moralizing, and that makes it a fascinating watch.


  • Science fiction site Moria does a breakdown of the differences between this movie and the Svengali story, and their origins in an 1894 novel called Trilby.
  • The New York Times review by Mordaunt Hall is fairly dismissive of the film outside of Curtiz’s direction and Barrymore’s performance. Can’t say I wholly disagree with that. Also, he spoils the hell out of the movie, making me feel less bad for doing so as well.


Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

2 thoughts on “The Mad Genius (1931)

  1. SVENGALI didn’t come out two years before THE MAD GENIUS. It was released in April 1931 and production started on THE MAD GENIUS in March 1931 before SVENGALI was even released. SVENGALI wasn’t a big box office hit; it was a loser. It took until 1944 for the picture to make $5000 above its negative cost. As for “idolizing Old Testament morality”, I’ll let you own that observation.

    1. You’re right about the two years (I have no idea where that came from considering they’re the same release year), but TCMDB notes that it was a success. Where did you get the information on the box office from?

      And you’re right, that that last part is dumb. I was thinking of Cecil B. Demille/D.W. Griffith morality (I think I’d just watched Way Down East around the time I wrote this), less the jazz baby/Fitzgerald stuff. I updated the review to make this more clear. 🙂 Thanks for your feedback!

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