When talking of her beloved late husband, Blake Edwards, Julie often likes to underscore his professional versatility and boundless creative energy. He “was somewhat of a Renaissance man,” she proclaims, “a triple-threat really…consider[ing himself a writer first, then a director, editor and producer.” Artistically, she states, Blake would have at least “six ideas a day”, and, at any given point in time, it would not be uncommon for him to be working simultaneously on several projects at once, all in various stages of development. Whether this hyperactive approach to creative labour was ultimately a wise strategy or not—fostering an impressive diversity of output, as Julie and others suggest, or leading to the equally oft-noted inchoate unevenness of Blake’s oeuvre—is a matter for debate. What is certain is that Blake’s penchant for vigorous multitasking meant that, almost inevitably, his career was littered with a long line of projects that were ultimately incomplete or otherwise unrealised. From embryonic concepts and rudimentary script outlines through to final draft screenplays and even some works advanced to the point of preproduction, Blake left behind a host of artistic ventures that, for various reasons, never saw the final light of day.
Given Blake’s corresponding propensity for working repeatedly with the same small coterie of professional intimates, including most famously his wife, it’s not surprising that Julie was slated to feature in many of these unfulfilled endeavours. Here in the Parallel Julie-verse we have already considered a number of Blake’s unrealised Julie-oriented projects—including She Loves Me, Rachel, and Major Barbara—and there will surely be others in future. For this post, we turn our attention to another ‘lost’ Julie-Blake project that was in the pipelines for quite a long period of time and that offers a number of intriguing echoes with Julie and Blake’s own off-screen professional relationship, as well as other aspects of Julie’s star persona more broadly.
When George du Maurier's novel, Trilby came out in the mid-1890s, it hit the fin-de-siècle world with what one commentator describes as “the force of an avalanche” (Berman, 113). First published serially in Harper’s Monthly in 1894 and then released in book-form later the next year, this short fictional account of life amongst the artistic demi-monde of bohemian Paris sparked a frenzy on both sides of the Atlantic, selling an estimated 200,000 copies in its first year of release in America alone and requiring multiple reprints to keep up with demand (Showalter, vii). Trilby mania intensified when, soon after publication, the novel was adapted for the stage. In 1896, no less than twenty-four ‘licensed’ theatrical productions of Trilby were running concurrently in the US, and the play became an even bigger hit in London where it enjoyed a record-breaking run and annual revivals for the next fourteen years thereafter (Olwell, 101). So intense was the excitement around Trilby that medical experts and other moral guardians worried that it had unleashed a form of mass hysteria, popularly dubbed "Trilbyismus" (Berman, 114). An 1895 New York Tribune editorial published at the height of the craze described the country as ”beset by a veritable epidemic of Trilby fads,” such as “Trilby accents of speech and Trilby poses of person, Trilby tableaus, teas and dances … Trilby clubs and reading classes and prize examinations, Trilby nomenclature for everybody and everything” (cited in Berman, 114).
Essentially a loose narrative of character-based vignettes designed more than anything to evoke the hedonistic spirit of “la vie de boheme,” Trilby's most enthralling plot strand, and the source of much of its popularity, is the bizarre relationship between the eponymous heroine, Trilby O'Farrell, and the manipulative musical impresario, Svengali. A comely but guileless young Irish lass working in Paris as a laundress and part-time “life model”, Trilby is a source of fascination for many of the young male students in the Left Bank ateliers where she “poses”. Following a failed cross-class romance that takes up much of the first half of the novel, Trilby meets and falls under the spell, literally, of the sinister music teacher and expert mesmerist, Svengali. Using his powers of hypnosis, Svengali is able to get Trilby, who has hitherto suffered from crippling tone-deafness, to sing with ‘the voice of an angel.’ Taking control of her life and soul, he turns Trilby into a celebrated opera diva, ‘La Svengali’ and tours her across the great cities of Europe to a rapturous reception. The novel climaxes with Trilby’s much-heralded premiere performance in London. Just as she takes to the stage, Svengali who is hypnotically controlling her from a side loge, has a heart attack and dies; at which point, Trilby awakens from her long trance but, bereft of her spellbinding master, she is unable to sing and is hounded off the stage with derisive laughter, before dying in the kind of redemptive moralistic coda beloved of nineteenth century novelists.
Victorians thrilled to the erotically perverse relationship between Trilby and Svengali, made all the more socially transgressive by the latter’s Jewishness which, in concert with the abiding anti-semitism of the time (the most discomfiting aspect of the novel for modern readers), is laden with markers of forbidding otherness and libidinal excess (Rosenberg 1960, Pick 2000). Indeed, more than one critic has noted the strong similarities between Svengali and the sensual malevolence of that other great fin-de-siècle pop cultural icon, Dracula (Auerbach 1984). In response to public fascination, the Trilby-Svengali liaison was amplified to become the central focus in the novel’s many popular theatrical adaptations. By the time the story reached the screen with the 1914 silent film, Trilby, the character of Svengali had effectively become the protagonist; a shift that was formally explicated in the celebrated 1931 sound version from Warner Bros where the tale was summarily retitled, Svengali.
Over ensuing years, Trilby inspired an on-going raft of adaptations and spin-offs: several further big screen films, a number of TV versions including a high-profile 1983 production with Peter O’Toole and Jodie Foster, an opera by Alexander Yurasovsky, a 1955 TV musical with Carol Channing and a later stage musical by composer Frank Wildhorn, and even a recent ballet. More indirectly, Trilby is widely acknowledged to have been a key inspiration for Gaston Leroux’s popular 1910 Gothic horror tale, The Phantom of the Opera (Hall 2009, 19), whilst it is also regarded as an important precursor to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (indeed, Shaw was a friend of du Maurier, and, in a further parallel, the legendary British actor, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, played the roles of both Svengali and Professor Henry Higgins in the premiere London productions of Trilby and Pygmalion respectively).
Beyond these multiple textual reworkings, the melodramatic saga of Trilby and Svengali has percolated into popular consciousness at large, becoming a veritable pop cultural archetype and potent figural shorthand with which to signify almost any relationship between a strong mentor and a younger impressionable protege (Pick 2000). Loosened from, though not entirely shorn of, its original negative connotations, the term “Svengali” has even entered the popular lexicon, defined by Webster’s as “a person who manipulates or exerts excessive control over another”. The Trilby-Svengali myth has become especially resonant in film history where it is frequently used to describe, however inaccurately, a range of professional collaborations between male directors and female stars: von Sternberg and Dietrich, Hitchcock and his blondes, Roger Vadim and Bardot/Deneuve/Fonda, Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann…or Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews.
As hinted with the reference to Pygmalion, even prior to her collaborations with Blake, Julie already had a significant history of association with Trilby-esque scenarios. In the all-important case of My Fair Lady, such a scenario informs not only on-stage action, where an ofttimes borderline sadistic but enthralling Professor Higgins assumes absolute control over Eliza in order to elicit from her an entirely new voice, but off-stage, as well. In one of the most widely known stories about the production of My Fair Lady, retold so frequently that it has become part of musical theatre folklore, Julie, who was a young and inexperienced twenty year old at the time, was struggling during rehearsals with the enormously challenging role of Eliza when director Moss Hart stepped in and took charge (Lees, 126). Closing down rehearsals for 48 hours, he worked one-on-one with Julie in what she later termed “the days of terror” and “the now famous, dreaded weekend”, going through the play line-by-line, pushing, cajoling, bullying Julie and “pasting the part” of Eliza onto her, so that come Monday morning, or so the legend claims, Julie returned “a changed woman”. As Julie herself succinctly puts it, laying bare the overt Trilby parallels, “Moss was my Svengali!” (Lees, 126).
It was almost inevitable therefore that Julie’s subsequent marriage to and long history of professional collaborations with Blake would also be frequently relayed through a Trilby-Svengali lens. Indeed, critic Sam Wasson (2009) discerns a Trilby-esque dynamic not only in “the meta-cinematic reading of Blake and Julie” as a professional couple, but also as a textual sub-theme in many of their films, notably Victor/Victoria where he suggests a Trilby-Svengali liaison is “mirrored in the Toddy and Victoria relationship” and where Victoria “even wears what is known as a ‘Trilby’ hat in the film” (Wasson, 243).
It’s doubly interesting then to learn that in the years leading up to Victor/Victoria, Blake had been developing an adaptation of Trilby as a potential star vehicle for Julie. It’s not clear exactly when plans for the Blake-Julie Trilby project first took shape but the earliest mention of it in the press was in 1971 when it was announced as part of a suite of three films to be made under a newly formed, trans-Atlantic EMI-MGM production consortium. Reports described the film, which in this early period had the working title of Trilby and Svengali, as a comedy version of the classic story with Julie as star and Jack Lemmon as possible co-star. The fact that these reports list an actual date (October 1) for commencement of filming suggests that plans for the project must have been quite advanced but, amidst the intense industrial disorganization of these years, Trilby and Svengali got shelved; though the two other films announced under the EMI-MGM agreement, The Boy Friend and Trader Horn, did in fact make it to the screen, albeit with tepid box office results.
Blake’s version of Trilby didn’t disappear however. It resurfaced again in the mid-seventies when, following the success of the resurrected Pink Panther franchise and Blake’s return to commercial bankability, the film was officially announced as the first in a four picture deal that Blake signed with Universal. Press reports at this time described the revised film as “a Dickensian comedy” and, even more tantalisingly, as “Julie’s first musical since [Darling] Lili”. The film was still being mooted as a goer a year later in 1976 but, as far as can be ascertained and for reasons unknown, neither Trilby nor anything else ever came out of Blake’s deal with Universal.
Yet still, Trilby lingered. In the early-eighties, on the heels of Victor/Victoria (1982) and the renewed industrial clout it brought both Blake and Julie, plans resurfaced one last time for Blake’s long-gestating version of Trilby. Blake had already established an independent production company, ‘Blake Edwards Entertainment,’ a year or two prior, which was committed principally to film and TV, but with a sideline in other media ventures including theatre—it was at this point that plans for the Broadway version of Victor/Victoria were initiated—and even a recording label, Runaway Records, which released the first and only musical effort from President Ronald Reagan’s youngest daughter, Patti Davis (and, no, I am not making this stuff up). In 1983, ‘Blake Edwards Entertainment’ announced plans to produce three new films based on scripts by Blake: an undercover spy film, The Ferret; a children’s fantasy film based on Julie’s own best-selling novel, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (which is bound to be the topic of a future Parallel Julie-verse post); and, last but not least, a reactivated version of Trilby.
By the time these plans for Trilby were revived in 1983, Julie was getting into her late-forties and, understandably, there were murmurs in the press asking if she might not be “a bit long in the tooth to play the adolescent Trilby,” suggesting that “she ought to say no and make a film for someone else” (Taylor 1983, 7). It’s a fair point and possibly even fairer advice, though there’s nothing to say of course that the age of the Trilby character couldn’t have been changed for Blake’s adaptation. Moreover, the fact that the project was being billed as a ‘musical comedy’—with a central emphasis, no doubt, on comedy—suggests that the age issue could have been accommodated without too much difficulty and might even have worked as a source of humour. Either way, speculation was in vain because contextual circumstances quickly intervened to scupper the renewed plans for Trilby. Not only did Blake became embroiled in another round of acrimonious legal disputes with Hollywood execs, but, even more adversely, he was felled by a bout of chronic mononucleosis, later rediagnosed as Epstein-Barr syndrome, that effectively saw him bed-ridden for a couple of years. In the end, of the three films planned by ‘Blake Edwards Entertainment’, only The Ferret ever made it to the screen, and even then it was done by another director from Blake’s script as a scaled-down sixty minute telemovie. Trilby, by contrast, was dropped once and for all, disappearing into the dustbin of history. So, in a wistful, possibly fitting, melodramatic finale, the almost decade and a half-long serpentine struggle to bring Blake’s musical version of du Maurier’s Gothic classic to the screen ended on an anguished note with Blake’s Svengali devitalized and Julie’s Trilby silenced forever…
Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Berman, Avis. “George du Maurier’s Trilby Whipped Up a Worldwide Storm,” Smithsonian 24, no. 9 (December 1993): 110–116.
Hall, Ann C. Phantom Variations: The Adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, 1925 to the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co, 2009.
Lees, Gene. The Musical Worlds of Lerner and Loewe. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Taylor, John Russell. “Minotaur.” Films and Filming. 348, September 1983: 7-8.
Olwell, Victoria. The Genius of Democracy: Fictions of Gender and Citizenship in the United States, 1860-1945. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Pick, Daniel. Svengali’s Web: The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Rosenberg, Edgar. From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960.
Showalter, Elaine. “Introduction.” Trilby. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Wasson, Sam. A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.
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