Now on demand from Warner Archive are two chances to evaluate John Barrymore, once hailed as a great actor if sometimes a problematic professional. He was called “the Great Profile” for his acquiline proboscis, and continually posed himself in a manner to not let the audience forget it.
In the pre-code drama The Mad Genius, Barrymore’s style is what today looks like high camp as he stumps around the space, raising his caped shoulders and snarling with a single raised eyebrow. It’s a type of “great acting” that hasn’t worn well (except that it looks fun). This vehicle directly followed Svengali and exploits similar themes of an overbearing impressario who controls every aspect of his apprentice’s artistic and sexual life. In the previous film, he mentored a female singer. In The Mad Genius, it’s a male dancer, now allowing a displaced bisexual triangle in which he encourages the boy to sleep around and tell him the details.