“NO MORE FAILURES!” TOD BROWNING’S CLEVER AND INVENTIVE DEVIL-DOLL

THE DEVIL-DOLL

Pros: Special effects and (trick) photography, competent filmmaking, Raffaela Ottiano

Cons: Typically cheery ending; unconvincing French setting

The penultimate movie directed by Tod Browning, famous for his 1931 adaptation of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and the following year’s infamous Freaks, 1936’s The Devil-Doll remains one of the most clever and inventive films of its day, a picture which paved the way for such things as Dr. CyclopsThe Incredible Shrinking Man, and any number of Bert I. Gordon films. The story concerns a French banker named Paul Lavond, played by Academy Award winning actor Lionel Barrymore, perhaps best known as “Mr. Potter” from It’s a Wonderful Life. After spending seventeen years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Lavond escapes from prison and returns to Paris seeking vengeance on the collaborators who framed him. This revenge is achieved with the help of a mysterious formula developed by a fellow inmate and scientist that shrinks any living thing it comes into contact with. Supposedly, the scientist had aspirations to ease world hunger through use of the formula, but Lavond uses it to create miniature humans who will follow his every command. As he attempts to restore honor to his name, Lavond also pursues a relationship with his estranged daughter, who has found that her relation to an infamous criminal has made her life difficult. Can father and daughter ever be reunited, or will evil eventually permeate Lavond’s soul to the point of no return?

Written by Browning, Guy Endore, Garrett Fort, and Erich von Stroheim, Devil-Doll has many intriguing and unique aspects to it, not the least of which is the fact that the story almost forces the viewer to accept a potentially evil figure as a sympathetic main character. It’s easy for a viewer to relate to the Paul Lavond character as a father wrongly committed of a crime who simply wants to make his daughter proud, but there’s more to Lavond than that. We mustn’t forget, after all, that this guy is using a scientific serum for utterly nefarious purposes, and really has no problem harming the people who did him wrong years ago. Lavond then becomes a morally ambiguous figure not entirely unlike a comic book-based character like Darkman, and it’s really up to the viewer to decide if the guy’s actions are justifiable or undeniably criminal. Complicating matters further is the fact that Lavond assumes the identity of an elderly, female doll-maker in the story as a disguise – onscreen, it’s actually this seemingly benign old woman who carries out the revenge scheme by using the living “dolls” she’s created. Are we to believe that it’s this “alter-ego” and not Lavond, the caring father that is actually the inherently “evil” character?

in drag
Lionel Barrymore possibly looks even worse in drag than does Edward D. Wood, Jr….

As potentially creepy as it is to see Barrymore in drag (and it is!), he does a really nice job of walking a fine line in his performance between seeming like a genuinely decent guy forced to extreme actions, and a flat-out villainous character who delights in terrorizing his victims. Considering the nature of Browning’s previous film Freaks, I’d have to say that the ambiguity of the character is one of the main points of the film, as if Browning is questioning whether the means Lavond uses justify his end goal of reuniting with his daughter. Though a love story involving the daughter (played by the lovely Maureen O’Sullivan, known for her role as “Jane” in various Tarzan films of the 1930’s) and a taxi driver seems completely unnecessary in the bigger context of the film, my number one complaint about the picture is that, after treading in the gray with regard to pinning down the Lavond character, the film finishes with a tidy ending that to me seemed cheesy and inappropriate, too bright and fluffy. It has to be said at this point that films in the 1930s had to adhere to strict production codes with regard to their stories, so I suppose I can’t really complain too much about this.

Despite the fact that Barrymore and O’Sullivan are clearly the focal point of the story, making the father-daughter interactions hit home for the viewer, I was much more fascinated by the supporting cast, particularly Italian-born actress Raffaela Ottiano as Lavond’s assistant and Henry B. Walthall (in one of his last film roles) as the convict/scientist who designs the miniaturization formula. Ottiano’s part in the picture appears to have been taken straight out of a nightmare: sporting a crutch, a bizarre white streak in her frizzy dark hair, and a perennially demented expression, she nearly steals the show as she hobbles around in the periphery and cackles her lines of dialogue. Similarly, Walthall makes a strong impression in his relatively minor role, conveying the sincerity of a character not too far removed from that of Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Walthall’s (almost obligatory) “…you think I’m mad…” speech was a highlight of the picture for me: dig that quivering brow and intense stare! It’s these two roles that probably cemented the fact that this film would even be regarded as a horror picture: most of the rest of the film plays in a more dramatic fashion even if there are a few suspenseful “stalk” sequences.

special effects
The special effects are impressive considering when this film was made.

Considering this film was made in 1936, Devil-Doll boasts some pretty wild special effects and trick photography. Using split screen and matte photography, miniature actors are inserted in live action backgrounds in several scenes, and the results are fairly convincing and honestly, put many films made decades later to shame. I was especially impressed during a sequence when a female “doll” comes to life while being clutched by a sleeping young girl – check out the shadows animated against the wall as the “doll” climbs down the bedsheets. Now that’s paying attention to detail! Another fine sequence (showing the types of special props and sets that were created for this film) shows a miniaturized human who’s been hung on a Christmas tree climbing down the branches amidst ornaments and tinsel before creeping along the floorboards in search of its target. A couple scenes here feature the inventive use of oversized props – this film being made over two decades before The Incredible Shrinking Man – and I immensely enjoyed the memorable “Apache Dance” (named not after the AmerIndian tribe, but rather a Parisian street gang of the early twentieth century) performed by two dolls on a table top to the tune of a music box.

apache dance
The Apache Dance sequence; perhaps the single best moment in the film

As much as the ending is a bit weak in my estimation and I’m not sure that the film sells the Paris locations (the stock footage of the Eiffel Tower don’t cut it when most of this is quite obviously filmed on cramped sets), but Devil-Doll certainly is one of the most clever films of its day and another demonstration of the genius of director Tod Browning. After a solid, diverse career in the silent era, Browning arguably made the best work of his career shortly after the development of the “talkie.” The controversy surrounding Freaks more or less sent his career off the rails in 1932 however, and the last two decades of his life were spent as a recluse. Boasting nice, occasionally eerie photography by Leonard Smith and inoffensive, melodramatic music by Franz Waxman, the efficiently-made Devil-Doll stands as an excellent picture from the latter part of Browning’s career. Completely unique and trend-setting in its day, even today it stands as a dark, sometimes creepy alternative to the more well-known horror pictures of the 1930s. Recommended!

This film is available in several packages: a two-fer packaged with 1935’s Mad Love, and a 3-disc Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Box Set. This package includes six films: Doctor XThe Return of Doctor XMad LoveMark of the VampireThe Mask of Fu Manchu, and The Devil-Doll, with commentary tracks on all films except Devil-Doll. It’d be a great pickup for those interested in non-Universal horror films of the 1930s. All films here are full-frame, with nice looking prints.

3/10 : More is implied than is ever shown; some minor violent content, creepiness, and threatening declarations.

bert
0/10 : Squeaky clean

2/10 : A few scantily clad ladies and some awkward father-daughter moments…

6/10 : It’s fairly straight-forward, but I could see some viewers really getting into this flick

“It’s like some horrible dream! I don’t want any part of this…”

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