(7/10) In a nutshell: Dracula and Freaks director Tod Browning’s sci-fi/horror/comedy The Devil-Doll from 1936 is an accomplished special effects reel concerning shrunken people. Despite the feel that Browning recycles his old themes, this moral play is one of the best sci-fi films out of USA in the late thirties – and Lionel Barrymore in drag is absurdly fun.
The Devil-Doll. 1936, USA. Directed by Tod Browning (uncredited). Written by Tod Browning (uncredited), Garret Fort, Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim, Richard Schayer. Loosely based on the novel Burn, Witch, Burn by Abraham Merritt. Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton, Rafalea Ottiano. Produced by Tod Browning, E.J. Mannix for MGM. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 7.0
Here’s one that got away. I always assumed, based on the title, that The Devil-Doll had more to do with black magic or voodoo than science fiction. Turns out I was wrong, and boy am I glad I watched it. The film was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1936, one of the big five studios who jumped the sci-fi horror bandwagon after Universal’s five years of almost supreme reign over the genre. The film followed the release of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), a film that toyed with the notion of miniature people. What was a throwaway moment in Bride becomes the whole premise for The Devil-Doll, directed by the man that started the whole horror shebang by directing Dracula in 1931, Tod Browning.
Banker Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) escapes prison on Devil’s Island along with scientist Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) and manages to get to Marcel’s wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano), who has conveniently set up her cottage and lab at walking distance from prison. It turns out that Marcel and Malita have been working on a formula to shrink people to one sixth of their natural size to counteract the problems of overpopulation. Their problem is that the animals they have tested on have lost all memory and willpower in the shrinking process, and only respond to commands. Marcel thinks he has found out the solution, and the couple proceed the shrink their slow-witted but pretty maid Lachna (Grace Ford). But to Marcel’s shock the process doesn’t work, and she still has no will of her own, and lies still as a doll when not commanded into action. Marcel dies of a heart-attack.
Lavond is appalled at the cruelty towards Lachna, but Malita convinces him to continue Marcel’s work in Paris with her, while seeking revenge on three bankers that have framed him for a crime he didn’t commit. Said and done. While the police in France seek the escaped Lavond, nobody suspects the old, senile doll-maker Madame Manderlip – who is really Lavond in disguise. As Manderlip he can also visit his daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan), whose life has been ruined by living in the shadow of her supposedly criminal father, whom she hates with all her heart. She works at a cleaner’s and dates a young taxi entrepreneur, Toto (Frank Lawton) whom she refuses to marry as not to drag him down in her misery.
Luring him in with a miniature horse, Lavond stuns and shrinks one of his old partners (Ratin) who betrayed him (Pedro de Cordoba), and places the shrunken Lachna in the hands of another old partner’s, Coulvet’s (Robert Greig), daughter’s hand. In the night she springs into action, climbs huge furniture to get to the wife’s jewellery and then paralyses Coulvet with a tiny poisoned dagger. Lavond then sends a note to the last crook, Matin, telling him to confess before the stroke of ten the next evening or suffer Coulvet’s fate. Ready to take action is the shrunken and mentally enslaved Radin, who has entered the house, bizarrely enough, as a Christmas tree ornament. By the stroke of 10, Matin does confess to the police officers ordered to protect him, thus clearing Lavond’s name. The murders are all pinned on Madame Manderlip, who has also ”confessed” in a letter to the police.
When Lavond tells Malita he will not continue her work any further, she blows up the lab and herself with it, destroying all evidence. But fortunately the film doesn’t take the easy way out and have father and daughter happily reunited. No, like in reality, Lavond figures that the police would have a lot of difficult questions if Lavond suddenly appeared. Instead, he meets Lorraine in the Eiffel Tower, as a ”friend of her father”, and in an emotional scene sets things right between them, telling her that her father is dead, and basically for her to live her life. The end.
This was director Tod Browning’s second-to-last film, and it seems he is summing up his career in it. During his youth working with a circus, Browning was stricken by the lives and fates of many of the ”circus freaks” he encountered, and these continued to feature in his films throughout his career – as did his liking of the macabre. His breakthrough film came in 1925 with The Unholy Three, that told the story of three circus performers who escape to begin a career as con-men and burglars. The film was remade in 1930 as a talkie without Browning’s collaboration, and in a way The Devil-Doll is his own remake of the film, despite the fact that it is loosely based on the influential horror/sci-fi writer A. Merritt’s novel Burn, Witch, Burn (1932). Legendary actor/director Erich von Stroheim also contributed to the script. In The Unholy Three Lon Chaney’s character takes the disguise of a little old lady working in a pet shop, and visits homes doing recons for nightly burglaries. Paul Lavond also sells miniature ”pets” to his victims. There is even an almost exact replica of a scene in The Unholy Three where the stolen jewels are put inside a child’s doll that passes through the hands of the investigating detective. The Unholy Three also features a woman too ashamed of her past to get engaged to the man she loves. Just like The Unholy Three, we begin the film with a trio, that ultimately falls apart.
Other films are also referenced. The slow-witted Lachna bears a striking resemblance to some of the performers in Freaks (1932). Both The Blackbird (1926) and The Unknown (1927) feature criminals in disguise. London after Midnight (1927) and Mark of the Vampire (1935) both have disguised people clearing up crimes. In West of Zanzibar a man seeking revenge on his enemy unwittingly has his own daughter prostituted, causing her to hate him. In The Devil-Doll Lorraine seems to think working in a cleaning shop is just as bad as prostitution. And the list can be made longer …
By 1930 Browning had already made a career out of his collaboration with Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces, often having him playing depraved anti-heroes with real or feigned disabilities. By 1927 he directed what can be seen as America’s first vampire film, London After Midnight, again with Chaney, although in the end it’s revealed that Chaney’s character was simply a detective in disguise. In 1930 Universal hired him to make Dracula – and presumably would have liked Chaney in the title role, but Chaney had just renewed a contract with MGM, and died the same year. Browning had wanted to cast an unknown European actor, and have him mostly hide in the shadows, while Bela Lugosi was lobbing hard to get to play the role in which he had excelled for three years on stage. Mainly because of budget and time constraints, Universal opted to make the film very much based on the play, as well as the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, rather than going with Browning’s changes, and hired Lugosi.
Browning apparently didn’t like the script, nor the small budget with its rubber bats, and was still very uncomfortable with directing sound films, and left much of the direction to cinematographer Karl Freund. The film was of course a huge success, but instead of continuing his career with creature features, he directed the boxing drama Iron Man in 1931, and the controversial Freaks in 1932, featuring a cast of real sideshow ”freaks” and some extremely macabre drama. While viewed as a masterpiece by many critics today, the film was too much for the contemporary audience, and more or less killed Browning’s career. For the comedy Fast Workers (1933) the studio required him to go uncredited, as was also the case with The Devil-Doll (1936). In between he did get credit for the remake of London After Midnight, as Mark of the Vampire (1935), again teaming up with Lugosi. He made his last film in 1939.
If James Whale, who directed Frankenstein (1931, review) and The Invisible Man (1933, review) was known for his black humour, Tod Browning more than exceeded him in this matter. Browning’s humour was downright macabre and morbid, and it was often his less than sympathetic anti-heroes that were the butt of the jokes. In this sense, The Devil-Doll was one of Browning’s most light-hearted later films. Indeed compared to The Unknown or Freaks, Browning treads lightly in this one, clearly aiming at a mainstream audience. Despite the rather bleak subject-matter, the film never loses its jovial tone, and seeing Lionel Barrymore enjoying himself immensely in drag is one of the greatest joys of the movie. Oscar-winner Barrymore was the brother of the acclaimed master actor John Barrymore and part of the Barrymore acting clan, continuing to this day with John’s granddaughter Drew Barrymore.
Lionel Barrymore takes this film out of B-movie swamp with his superb acting, just as he saved the strange semi-talkie The Mysterious Island (review) seven years earlier. He does convey the portrait of a man who knows in his heart that the revenge streak he is on is morally wrong, but enjoys taking out his tormentors nonetheless, and the scene between him and Maureen O’Sullivan at the end will bring a tear the the eye of the most hardened horror film addict. His Madame Manderlip is not Tootsie-accurate, but he does do a very good old lady. Especially brilliant is seeing him switch from sweet old lady to spiteful avenger in the blink of an eye.
Maureen O’Sullivan got her big breakthrough in 1932 playing opposite Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan of the Apes (based on the novel by prolific adventure and sci-fi author Edgar Rice Burroughs), and reprised the role six times. Before that she apperared as the female lead in the bizarre sci-fi musical comedy Just Imagine in 1930 (review). In the thirties and early forties she had a number of high profile roles in films like The Thin Man (1934), Anna Karenina (1936) and Pride and Prejudice (1940). She took a break from acting in 1942 to tend to her sick husband, director John Farrow, and her family. One of her six children, renowned actress and activist Mia Farrow, was born in 1945. She returned to acting in the fifties, both on stage and in film, and one of her most famous later roles was in the star-studded Woody Allen film Hannah and her Sisters (1986), with Mia Farrow playing the title role. In The Devil-Doll O’Sullivan does a splendid job as Lavond’s headstrong daughter, and the love interest of Toto the taxi driver (Frank Lawton), and certainly gives star Barrymore a run for his money. The only problem with the portrayal is that it is very hard to beleive such a fiesty young woman would throw her life away because of the sins of her father.
Some critics find Frank Lawton too ”refined” and ”British” to play a French taxi driver, but personally I like the lightness he brings to the movie, and it is nice to see a romantic interest in one of these films who is actually likeable and seems to have both a brain and a heart.
The whole cast is able and believeable – save Ottiano and Walthall, but that probably isn’t their fault. Especially Ottiano constantly threatens to destroy the whole movie with her overplayed, wild-eyed horror mannerisms, which I suspect that Browning insisted upon. He has even adorned Malita with a white Bride of Frankenstein-streak in her wild black hair. Marcel and Malita behave like they have accidentally wondered on set from the latest Bela Lugosi-instalment, and the slick production values of the rest of the film constantly clashes with the bizarre horror film antics of especially Ottiano. It’s like Browning’s been trying to merge genres without succeeding.
Apart from Barrymore, the most impressive aspect of the film is the portrayal of the miniature people. The shots where black screen and travelling mattes have been merged are beautifully set up, but unfortunately not always as well executed – strong matte lines are visible throughout many of the shots. But one must respect the money and effort that has been put into creating giant sets for the actors to climb around in. Especially impressive is a scene where Lachna climbs a shoe, a foot stool, a chair and finally a dressing table to get to a jewelry box, and then climbs out on the window sill to throw the oversized gems down to Madame Manderlip. Not only is the setup impressive, but so are the climbing skills of whatever stunt woman who performed the job (if indeed it wasn’t Grace Ford herself).
Frank Lawton had made a bit of a splash as David Copperfield in 1934, but is today perhaps best known for two film roles in 1936 – The Devil-Doll and Universal’s Karloff/Lugosi vehicle The Invisible Ray (review). Why his movie career never really took off is beyond me, since I thought he was outstanding in both films. Perhaps his ”refined” manners and slight frame didn’t really fit the mold of the rugged leading man. Oklahoma-born Grace Ford Salvatori only appeared in four films between 1935 and 1937, and dropped out of the business when she married Italian-born geophysicist and businessman Henry Salvatori, who would later become a republican activist. The couple is best remembered today for their broad philantropic work in Los Angeles, including funding much of Los Angeles Music Center, and donating large sums to hospitals, schools and shelters. Ford Salvatori’s role as Lachna is by far the best known – and she certainly wasn’t without talent.
Another actor from The Invisible Ray appears in a small role as a doctor – Frank Reicher, best known for playing the ship’s captain in King Kong (1933, review), and who was both a prolific actor and director in his own right. Most of the rest of the cast are fairly anonymous, and few have ties to science fiction – this being MGM, a studio that wasn’t big on sci-fi in the thirties.
The film itself feels like it sometimes splinters off in a bit too many directions. What’s ultimately a moral play starts off as mad scientist scheme, turns into drag comedy, flirts with dickensian class tales, turns back to special effects reel, and branches out into burglar fiction. The scene where Lachna steals the jewels is certainly impressive, but ultimately unnecessary, and feels like it’s in the picture just because it’s a reference to The Unholy Three. The end result is that after the movie is over, it feels a bit thin, like Browning saw the homunculi in The Bride of Frankenstein, and thought they’d make a good starting point for a film, but didn’t have an original script, so he just rehashed old ideas from his previous movies.
If Bride was the first film to introduce the ”shrunken” people, The Devil-Doll was the first film to make them a central plot element. Nevertheless, they are merely ”props” in this film, and it was Dr. Cyclops (review) in 1940 that was the first film to make the mini-people the protagonists of the film. These three films are well worth remembering, since it is all too often the case that The Incredible Shrinking Man – made as late as 1957 – gets the credit for inventing the genre. In a way, this can also be seen as one of the first zombie films – if we regard zombies in their original meaning, rather than the rotting brain-eating things of Romero’s making – be it that these zombies are very small.
Despite its scripting flaws, The Devil-Doll’s merits win over the weaker spots, and it is an entertaining, very well made and exciting film to watch. Even if Tod Browning’s career never rebounded from the fact that the media and the censors both in America and abroad recoiled in disgust over the (intentionally?) misunderstood little masterpiece Freaks, his movies in 1935 and 1936 did win him some credit in his later career. Nevertheless, whether it was because of his inability to completely come to terms with sound films or whether the industry simply shunned him, his film career ended in 1939 with the comedy Miracles for Sale. Neither that nor The Devil-Doll were really any worthy caps for his remarkable career, but both do display a very clever craftsman at work.
The Devil-Doll. 1936, USA. Directed by Tod Browning (uncredited). Written by Tod Browning (uncredited), Garret Fort, Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim, Richard Schayer. Loosely based on the novel Burn, Witch, Burn by Abraham Merritt. Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton, Rafalea Ottiano, Robert Greig, Henry B. Walthall, Grace Ford, Lucy Beaumont, Pedro de Cordoba, Arthur Hohl, Juanita Quigley, Clair Du Brey, Rollo Lloyd, E. Alyn Warren, Frank Reicher, Billy Gilbert. Music: Franz Waxman, Cinematography: Leonard Smith. Editing: Frederick Y. Smith. Art direction: Cedric Gibbons. Makeup: Robert J. Schiffer. Assistant director: Harry Sharrock. Sound: Douglas Shearer, James Brock, T.B. Hoffman, Michael Steinore. Wardrobe: Dolly Tree. Produced by Tod Browning, E.J. Mannix for MGM.