John Barrymore plays a crippled Russian dancer turned puppeteer, who raises a young boy to achieve the success that escaped him.
Lest the puppeteer analogy prove too subtle, Barrymore verbalizes his intent to orchestrate the boy’s life during the film’s opening sequence. Boris Karloff appears uncredited as the boy’s abusive father. The film glosses over the moral gray area of Barrymore abducting the child.
Cut to twenty-or-so years later. The boy stands on the cusp of super-stardom. But he’s fallen for a troupe dancer, played by Marian Marsh 1. Barrymore can’t have that, so he pulls assorted strings to keep them apart.
Barrymore’s Russian accent slips in and out. When it’s in, he sounds like Bela Lugosi. Not ideal, but better than brother Lionel mustered in The Yellow Ticket. There’s also a sub-plot involving Barrymore playing coke-dealer to his stage manager. This sets up an absurd ending that, combined with the relentless pacing and Barrymore’s robust performance, makes for a passable watch.