lizanim.gif (10346 bytes)

Home | Index

THE DEVIL DOLL (1936)

"I may not look it, Madame, but I was once a very successful banker. Three men – my partners – lied and tricked me into prison. Three lives are going to pay for that…."

devil dollDirector: Tod Browning

Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Rafaela Ottiano, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Greig, Arthur Hohl, Pedro de Cordoba, Lucy Beaumont

Screenplay: Guy Endore, Garrett Fort and Erich von Stroheim, based upon the novel "Burn, Witch, Burn" by Abraham Merritt

translittler.GIF (807 bytes)
Synopsis: Two men make a daring escape from Devil’s Island. One is Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore), a former banker wrongly convicted of murder and embezzlement; the other is an obsessed scientist named Marcel (Henry B. Walthall). After weeks on the run, the two succeed in evading the authorities, and reach an isolated house occupied by Marcel’s crippled wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). Marcel is thrilled to find that Malita has been continuing with their work, telling her that he has thought of a way of solving the problem that has been hampering the experiments. Lavond follows Marcel and Malita to their laboratory. There, Malita displays a number of tiny dogs that Lavond assumes are toys. He is shocked when Marcel insists that they are real dogs, shrunk to one sixth of their normal size. Unfortunately, the shrinking process damages the brain of the animals: they cannot think for themselves, but they can be controlled by the will of others, something Marcel demonstrates for the astonished Lavond. Marcel tells Malita that he has thought of a way of preserving the brain during the shrinking process, and goes on to explain his plan of shrinking people, so that their food needs will be similarly reduced, thus combating world hunger. Malita invites Lavond to stay with them, but he reveals his plan of revenge against the three men who framed him, saying he must leave soon. That night, Lavond is woken by noises downstairs. He enters the laboratory to find that Marcel has reduced the house servant, Lachna (Grace Ford). Like the dogs, she may be controlled by the will of another. Lavond and Marcel clash, with the latter suffering a heart attack. Distraught by Marcel’s death, Malita begs Lavond to stay and help her carry on the work. A plan begins to take shape in Lavond’s mind…. In Paris, Coulvet (Robert Greig), Radin (Arthur Hohl) and Matin (Pedro de Cordoba), Lavond’s former partners, meet to discuss Lavond’s escape from prison. They agree to offer a large reward for his capture. The police search is in vain, however, as Lavond has assumed another identity: that of "Madame Mandelip", a dollmaker with a shop in the Parisian backstreets. In this guise, Lavond visits Radin, demonstrating a "toy" horse and asking him to invest in "her" business. Radin visits the shop, where Lavond shows him Lachna, now dressed as an Apache. Pointing out the detail in the "doll’s" costume, Lavond shows Radin a tiny stiletto – then stabs him in the thigh with it. The knife was dipped in a substance that paralyses its victim. As Malita gleefully contemplates shrinking Radin, Lavond – as Madame Mandelip - goes to see his daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan), who is working in a laundry in order to support herself and her grandmother. Although she is in love with Toto (Frank Lawton), Lorraine has refused to marry him because of her father’s disgrace, and her mother’s suicide. Lavond visits his mother (Lucy Beaumont), to whom he has already revealed himself. He tells her that he plans to tell Lorraine who he is, but when Lorraine arrives she speaks of him so bitterly that he changes his mind. Instead, Lavond begins the next phase of his revenge, visiting the home of M. Coulvet, to sell his wife a "doll"….

Comments: An interesting if not entirely successful mixing of genres, Tod Browning’s The Devil-Doll ends up being more of a hoot than a shiver-fest. Science fiction, horror, revenge drama and sickly sentimentality jostle each other throughout; and unfortunately for genre fans, it is the latter two that finally win out. The film opens promisingly enough with Paul Lavond and his fellow escapee slogging through the swamps with bloodhounds in close pursuit. From here the story plunges into the bizarre tale of Marcel and Malita. Explaining life on Devil’s Island, Lavond tells Malita that to survive, a man must have something to focus upon. For himself, it was his revenge, while for Marcel it was "science". Indeed. You’ve gotta love a man whose first words to his wife after escaping from prison are "The work! The work!" A quick embrace later, and the two are back in the lab, ranting about "perfect brains" and "no more failures". Yeah, right. We’ve all heard that before, haven’t we? Marcel’s plan is to shrink all living things on Earth, in order to cure world hunger. (All things, Marcel? Oh, dear….) However, up until now the shrinking process has left the subjects blank-minded, with no memory and no will. Just to demonstrate what a pair of humanitarians they are, Marcel and Malita test out Marcel’s new theory on Lachna, the "inbred peasant half-wit" unfortunate enough to be employed as their servant. We never do see the actual shrinking process, but it seems to involve a chemical "mist", plus a great deal of cotton wool. Similarly, Marcel’s scheme for maintaining normal brain function after reduction is undisclosed, although we are told that he has "repaired" Lachna’s brain. The fact that Lachna, like the dogs, is incapable of independent action is therefore somewhat confusing; and tragically, before we can get an explanation one way or the other, Marcel keels over with a heart attack. Malita immediately devotes herself to fulfilling Marcel’s plan for "making the whole world small", and tries to recruit Lavond to the cause. Although repulsed, in your typically narrow-minded layperson way, by what he has observed, Lavond begins to see possibilities in Malita’s ability to shrink and control human beings; and he lures her to Paris by promising that he will help her once his revenge on his former partners is complete.

Once the story moves to Paris, The Devil-Doll loses much of its appeal – or perhaps that’s just me. In place of our loony scientists’ endless ranting, we get Paul Lavond in drag, doing a "sweet little old lady" routine for the benefit of his chosen victims, the police, and even his own family. Things really lose steam when the film’s focus shifts from Lavond’s revenge plot to his attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Lorraine. Given The Devil-Doll’s brief running time, far too long is spent detailing the repercussions of Lavond’s imprisonment on his family, particularly since this involves the clumsy cinematic convention of having characters tell each other in detail what they must already know. (Our only relief from this is the occasional reappearance of Malita, who stops by from time to time to do a bit more ranting before, as you’d expect, blowing her lab and herself up with what I can only assume was an Atomic Grenade.) Things pick up when Mme Mandelip’s "dolls" swing into action. The first of Lavond’s three victims is lured to the shop, immobilised, and shrunk, finally becoming one of the tools of revenge himself. The attack upon the second involves the film’s most lengthy and elaborate sequence of special effects as Lachna, following Lavond’s mental orders, empties out Mme Coulvet’s jewellery box before attacking Coulvet himself with her poisoned stiletto. These events not surprisingly unnerve the final victim, Matin, who receives a cryptic anonymous note telling him at what time his own fate will be decided. Matin surrounds himself with guards, but to no avail. In one of the film’s cleverest ideas, we see that the miniaturised Radin has already been smuggled into Matin’s house – and is hanging from his Christmas tree amongst the other ornaments. As the hour named in the note approaches, so does Radin; but as he raises his tiny knife to strike the fatal blow, Matin snaps, denouncing himself and the others, and declaring Lavond innocent of the crimes of which he was convicted. At this point, everything looks set for a more than usually predictable happy ending – except that it doesn’t quite work out that way. Unexpectedly, Paul Lavond turns out to be a man with an unusually developed sense of justice. Although not guilty of the crimes for which he served his prison term, he is guilty of destroying the lives of both Radin and Coulvet, and for this condemns himself to never rejoining his family. In this day and age, when any action film "hero" can blow away half a city in an attempt to clear his name, then simply shrug off the body count and resume his normal life, this attitude is as refreshing as it is startling. More startling still, in 1936, is Lavond’s ultimate fate. Having reassured himself that Lorraine’s future is secure, Lavond makes a speech that implies, without spelling out, his intention of killing himself. Given the Legion of Decency’s absolute ban on "suicide in plot resolution", it is quite amazing that the final scenes were allowed to stand. Perhaps suicide is only suicide if it happens onscreen.

The Devil-Doll was Tod Browning’s penultimate film, and feels like it. After Freaks, Browning was clearly being kept on a short leash: despite the bizarre storyline, the film lacks that feeling of pleasure in the macabre that informed all of Browning’s earlier works. Similarly, there is no sense at all of the presence of Erich von Stroheim – another MGM casualty. In short, the film is never what you feel it should have been; and its pleasures are incidental. In full Mrs Doubtfire mode, Lionel Barrymore hams it up shamelessly in his dual role. Whether or not you enjoy The Devil-Doll may well depend upon how much of "Madame Mandelip" you can stomach. Speaking personally, I find a little of "her" goes a long way. For me, the real fun of this movie comes early on, with the outrageous performances of Henry B. Walthall and Rafaela Ottiano as a pair of happily married mad scientists. Between them, Walthall (best known for playing "The Little Colonel" in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation) and Ottiano almost manage to make Barrymore’s performance seem subtle. Ottiano in particular is a laugh riot. With a dramatic streak of white in her hair, stumping about the lab with a single crutch, the actress conveys her character’s obsession by clenching her teeth, contorting her mouth, and opening her eyes as wide as she possibly can – usually while looking down, which is kind of freaky. Once this trio has finished dining on the furniture, there isn’t much that the rest of the cast can do. Of the supporting players, Maureen O’Sullivan stands out, but as much for the incongruity of her immaculately clipped British accent as for her performance. As you would expect, the quality of the film’s special effects is highly variable. The superimposition work is generally poor, and is further hampered by problems of scale: poor Lachna shoots up and down like Alice in Wonderland. In contrast, the "doll" scenes that were done by having the actors interact with oversized sets and props show great attention to detail throughout, and consequently they work very well. Leonard Smith’s crisp cinematography and Franz Waxman’s score are also assets. Although not a great film by any means, The Devil-Doll is certainly one of the better entries in the pantheon of "little people" movies, making an interesting forerunner to the more overtly science fiction Dr Cyclops, and even to Bert I. Gordon’s Attack Of The Puppet People. Speaking of which, it occurred to me while listening to Malita’s melodramatic raving, and watching her make Lachna and Radin dance for her own amusement, that it was a pity no-one ever introduced her to John Hoyt’s Mr Franz. Now that would have been a match made in cinematic heaven….