The Devil-Doll – USA, 1936

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The Devil-Doll aka The Devil Doll is a 1936 horror film directed by Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks) and starring a cross-dressing Lionel Barrymore (Mark of the Vampire) and Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan) as his daughter, Lorraine Levond. The movie was adapted from the novel Burn Witch Burn! of 1932, written by Abraham Merritt.

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17 years after being wrongly convicted of robbing his own bank, Paul Lavond (Barrymore), escapes from incarceration at the Devil’s Island penal facility, along with fellow prisoner, Marcel (Henry B. Walthall, London After MidnightThe Birth of a Nation) a scientist who is trying to create a formula to reduce people to one-sixth of their original size. Eluding the chasing guards and hounds, they eventually reach sanctuary at the riverside home of the scientist’s widow, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano, an actress from the original Théâtre du Grand-Guignol). Marcel’s aims are entirely just, aiming to preserve the Earth’s natural resources but when he dies as a result of the pair’s exhausting escape, Lavond gratefully picks up the baton and sees an opportunity to seek revenge against those who made his life a misery.

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Lavond is astounded when he sees the work Marcel has left behind, a St Bernard dog reduced to the size of a paperback book but which will, by the power of his thought alone, perform any task he wishes (correction – any task a dog would usually be expected to perform). A further test, on Malita’s half-wit maid, Lachna (Grace Ford) shows promise but confirms that without an external force to control her, she is ultimately useless. Roping in Malita to assist, they relocate to Paris and he disguises himself as a harmless little old lady, Madame Mandelip, with a talent for making surprisingly realistic dolls. Using the diminutive Lachna as his easily-missed weapon, he gains revenge on the three former business associates who had framed him and vindicates himself.

Devil-Doll Tod Browning 1936

Trickier are his attempts at reconciliation with his daughter, Lorraine (O’Sullivan) who, obviously not recognising her estranged father, recalls how she was left to fend for herself after her mother died whilst he was in prison. Despite Lavond’s gentle enquiries, she makes it clear that nothing will change her mind. Meanwhile, Malita hasn’t finished what she’s started and wants to continue to use the formula for personal gain, even if it means killing Lavond.

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Having dealt with this threat, Lavond’s plight, is that although he has cleared his name, he knows he is ultimately a murderer, as well as the perpetrator of some legally-dubious shrinkings and finds he is unable to shed his disguise and reintegrate himself back into society. With the aid of his daughter’s suitor, Tonto (yes, Tonto, played by Frank Lawton from The Invisible Ray) he settles for one last attempt to clear his name with Lorraine.

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Though he had an enviable career behind him as a director, by the time it came to filming Devil Doll, Tod Browning was a changed man from the auteur who had, alongside Lon Chaney Sr (not to mention Bela Lugosi), terrified and astounded audiences for the last twenty years. His battles with censors, critics and audiences alike filming Freaks had left him distant and frail, Devil Doll being his penultimate film before he sought life away from the camera until his death in 1962. Although there are sinister echoes of some of Browning’s earlier work, particularly dramas such as The Wicked Darling (1919) and the much-compared The Unholy Three (1925), it is actually the actors and special effects work which elevate the film to one of the must-sees of the 1930’s, a film which deserves far mention attention than it receives.

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It is worth noting that the prisoners have escaped from Devil’s Island, a location mentioned as also being the ‘living quarters’ of Erik in the 1925 film, The Phantom of the Opera (though not the book) before he took residence in Paris, the doomed love and disguise following a theme of sorts. Ade Merritt’s source novel is similar in narrative but far darker, crueller and pulpy in tone, the cross-dressing Lavond being very much an invention of Browning and Barrymore. Had he still been alive (and been willing to appear in the talkies he was always dubious of), Chaney would no doubt have taken the role seized eagerly by Barrymore. It is, by all standards, a ‘broad’ performance, scenes of idle old lady chit-chat lasting ten minutes at a time when two would be closer to sensible. However, Barrymore is pretty convincing as an old dame, not exactly the master of disguise of Chaney’s Mrs O’Grady of The Unholy Three but a sterling effort.

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Also excelling themselves are Ottiano who, sporting Elsa Lanchester’s grey streak from Bride of Frankenstein plays the unusual part of a female mad scientist with glaring, if slightly pantomime, menace. The big surprise is O’Sullivan who plays the traditional MGM fawning, swooning tragic-but-wins-in-the-end female lead with a believability that was unusual to find at the time. Clearly the film is a chance for MGM to compete with Universal who were flying high with horror at the time to say the least, though the studio couldn’t bring itself to reign in the schmaltz for long, though an ending which hints at suicide sailed close to the sails of the Hays Code.

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The special effects were no doubt a daunting prospect, Universal wowing audiences with the likes of 1933’s The Invisible Man and, more pertinently, Dr Pretorius’ experiments in shrinking humans in Bride of Frankenstein. Although some of the matte work isn’t exactly seamless, it is still a joy to watch and this post-production work is supplemented by some giant sets to help create the illusion of tiny folk (a trick also used successfully in Laurel and Hardy’s Brats of 1930). Some of the set-pieces are particularly fine, a tiny puppet freeing themselves from a sleeping grown-up’s grasp, when there were surely more easily-filmed options and a tiny but very real ornament on a giant Christmas Tree (quick point – if you’re ever asked what your favourite Christmas film is, throw this one in to feel very superior).

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The inability of the film to really break out from melodrama to full-blown horror is unfortunate, it would surely rank as a classic had the director been on top form and willing to be as challenging as he had been throughout his career. The film comes complete with a Franz Waxman score (Bride of Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1941).

Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia

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