Tod Browning, 1936
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Rafaela Ottiano
Though this was director Tod Browning’s (Dracula, Freaks) second to last film, after his career was basically ruined by Freaks, it has the same undeniable weirdness as many of his films. The premise is so insane it hardly seems like it can be real. After being framed for murder, a man disguising himself as an old woman and uses scientifically altered miniature humans to get revenge on his enemies. Despite or maybe because of this, The Devil-Doll is one of Browning’s most enjoyable films.
Paul Lavond and Marcel escape from the infamous Devil’s Island prison. Many years ago, Paul was wrongly convicted for murder and robbery and wants to get revenge on his three associated that framed him. Marcel is a scientist on the verge of figuring how to turn humans and animals into miniatures one-sixth their size. He believes this will solve the problem of limited resources in the ever-expanding world. Lavond meets Marcel’s wife, Malita, who has been continuing his experiments while he is in prison, and the results of the experiments themselves: a number of tiny dogs who can be controlled by human will.
Lavond is appalled to discover that Marcel has miniaturized his servant, Lachna. The transformation has damaged her brain and, like the animals, she can be controlled. Deeply upset, Marcel has a heart attack and dies. Malita agrees to help Lavond with his plans for revenge and they take the equipment, as well as the tiny Lachna, and return to Paris. There they open a toy store and Lavond takes the disguise of Madame Mandelip, a kindly old woman, because a reward is out for his arrest. Here Lavond attempts to use Lachna to wipe out the three men that framed him and reunite with his bitter daughter, Lorraine, who lives a poor and degraded life because of his alleged crimes and notoriety. And how will Malita respond when Lavond’s quest for vengeance is complete?
Part drama, part sci-fi horror, and part revenge film, The Devil Doll’s script is a little all over the place, but it somehow works very well. It’s a little unbelievable that this movie is as good as it is with a premise so completely absurd. Though this is very loosed based by Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn, Witch Burn, it borrows far more from Browning’s earlier film with Lon Chaney, The Unholy Three, which also includes a revenge plot and a main character that cross-dresses as an old woman. The script was written by Browning and such notables as author Guy Endor (The Werewolf of Paris) and influential filmmaker Erich von Stroheim (Greed).
The effects are enjoyable and though some of them are unforgivably cheesy by today’s standards, other hold up quite well. It’s a shame that the miniature people and other sci-fi elements weren’t given a bigger role in the film and were essentially pushed aside to make room for more melodrama. The miniature people here are certainly more convincing than the miniatures James Whale included briefly in The Bride of Frankenstein.
The film only really suffers from the unnecessary saccharine, melodramatic elements, namely the multiple scenes with Lavond and his daughter, and her romance with Toto, a cab driver. The script also skims over a number of elements: Lavond may now be declared innocent, but he ruined several lives to get there. It also ignores the nature of his relationship with Malita. She follows along seemingly because her husband is dead and she will be able to continue with his experiments, but they don’t make any progress and only use the miniature people for revenge. Finally, the film doesn’t really raise any moral issues about the little people in general and Lavond only has a small bit of dialogue about how he doesn’t know what to do with them now that his revenge is complete.
Despite the flimsy plot, The Devil-Doll is engaging and very entertaining, mostly thanks to the very weird premise and Lionel Barrymore. While I’ve enjoyed Barrymore in a number of other films, he’s delightful as Lavond. Though he is somewhat restrained in the beginning and end of the film, where he actually appears his Lavond, his drag portrayal of Madame Mandelip is amazingly over the top and must be seen. There are some moments where he is incredibly sinister and seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. It is a shame that the film didn’t take advantage of the toy store set to the fullest, though it certainly adds an extra element of the weird.
Rafaela Ottiano is also excellent as Malita, which marks the rare appearance of a female mad scientist in classic horror. She even has a Bride of Frankenstein-like white streak in her hair. Ottiano is given far too little screen time and often yanks the rug out from under Barrymore by seemingly doing very little, but looking very over the top whatever she does. There are also appearances from a number of classic horror actors, such as Lavond’s enemies, played by Arthur Hohl (Island of Lost Souls), Robert Grieg (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Pedro de Cordoba (The Beast with Five Fingers), and his daughter’s boyfriend, played by Frank Lawton (The Invisible Ray).
Though this won’t appeal to everyone, it comes highly recommended and is worthy of watching at least once for sheer weirdness. The Devil-Doll is available in the Hollywood Legends of Horror collection, which also includes Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (another Lionel Barrymore vehicle), Doctor X, The Return of Doctor X, Mad Love, and The Mask of Fu Manchu.