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Horror-tober Salute to Tod Browning: The Devil Doll (1936)
This month, just in time for Halloween, I thought I'd salute my favorite master of horror, Tod Browning! A one-time circus performer, Browning is best known for having directed Bela Lugosi in his star-making role in 1931's Dracula. Browning carved a niche for himself as one of the most unique directors of the horror genre in the 1930s. Dracula and 1932's Freaks are considered his crowning achievements, but he directed a total of 62 films, and quite a number have found their way into cult classic status. Browning's career began in the silent era in 1915, and over the next few years he would collaborate with another master of the macabre, actor Lon Chaney, in ten films, including The Unknown (which I will review at a later time).
What I admire most about Browning is the genuinely creepy atmosphere he always brings to his films. I know that the word "creepy" is thrown around so indiscriminately it barely has any meaning anymore, but there really is no better word to describe Browning's work. He creates a very particular mood, and there is something about the plots, the characters, or the situations (or all of the above) that get under your skin, but in the best way possible. He relied very little on special effects, and even less on gore (it was 1930s Hollywood, after all), instead presenting… an otherness to his films that is impossible to shake off. Even if you don't like his films, I defy you to forget them.
Today's film is The Devil Doll, released in 1936 (not to be confused with the MST3K episode of the same name). Frankly, after the controversial hullaballoo created by Freaks four years earlier, I'm amazed that the stiffs at MGM allowed Browning to stay on the payroll. The Devil Doll proved to be Browning's second to last film (his last would be Miracles for Sale, in 1939). I'm not sure if The Devil Doll is the first to use the "evil toy" trope, but it's certainly one of the best. Despite its flaws (including, and not limited to, its only-in-Hollywood science) The Devil Doll is memorably unsettling, has remarkable special effects for its time, and fine acting from its star, Lionel Barrymore.
Tiresome Rant of the Day: Ah, good ol' Lionel Barrymore; older brother of John, and great uncle to Drew. One of MGM's most reliable supporting actors, Barrymore is best remembered for playing crusty old men or outright villains (including the ludicrously evil Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life). Not that he didn't have some range; in fact, it's easy to forget that he was the first to play kindly patriarch Judge Hardy in the very first Andy Hardy film, A Family Affair, in 1937 (Lewis Stone took over the role after that). If John was meant to play dashing, debonair men of the world, Lionel was meant to play gleeful baddies, with that distinctive, reedy voice, those perpetually narrowed eyes, and that tight, unfriendly mouth that doesn't smile so much as sneer.
In The Devil Doll, Barrymore plays Paul Lavond, a recently escaped convict. Framed by his bank colleagues for theft and murder 17 years earlier, Lavond understandably has a generous-sized chip on his shoulder and is determined to exact his revenge. Along for the journey is fellow prisoner and mad scientist Marcel (Henry B. Walthall). They are able to find Marcel's home, where his owl-eyed, equally mad wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano, in the role that made her something of a cult icon) has carried on his work. What manner of work, you ask? Marcel has devised a way to shrink living beings to doll-size, so they will need less food, and perhaps humanity will find a way to end world hunger (my husband reasonably asked how doll-sized people were supposed to harvest, ship, and cook food, but it's best not to dwell on logistics). The big downside to the miniaturized beings? They are reduced to a state of utter tabula rasa, and have no will or mind of their own, unless guided by the will of another (I'm starting to wonder if Joss Whedon saw this movie before he made Dollhouse). So far Malita has experimented on dogs and horses, which only come alive when she or Marcel will them to. But they are ready to experiment on a person, so they successfully try it out on their "inbred, half-wit" maid Lachna (Grace Ford). Lavond is at first appalled, but when Marcel suddenly dies of a heart attack and passes the torch to him (isn't Malita more qualified?), Lavond is able to sweep aside his moral qualms and put his plan of revenge into action.
Lavond goes back to his hometown of Paris (yes, it's one of those movies where Paris not only makes up all of France, but it is inhabited by everyone but French people), Malita in tow. They open a toy shop, and Lavond disguises himself as a sweet little old lady, "Madame Mandelip". Lavond spends a great deal, if not the majority, of The Devil Doll in drag, giving it a camp quality both odd and comical. Anyway, as Madame Mandelip, he tracks down the three men who wronged him and systematically strikes back at them. He lures Victor Radin (Arthur Hohl) to the shop under the pretense of arranging a business deal, only to stab him with a paralyzing substance. In one of the most chilling scenes in the movie, Lavond reveals who he is to Radin, whose face is frozen in horror, and then snarls, "You're not going to die. No, I wouldn't let you die for the world, Radin." He turns Radin into a doll person for later use.
Lavond then targets corpulent windbag Emil Coulvet, to whose young daughter (Juanita Quigley) he sells the now doll-sized and mind-controlled Lachna. The sequence where Lachna sneaks off to steal Mme Coulvet (Claire Du Brey)'s jewels and stab Emil with the paralyzing substance is marvelously executed: a fantastic blend of blue screen effects, camera editing and oversized sets result in a gripping sequence involving our pint-sized assassin. Mme Coulvet's screams of horror at her permanently paralyzed husband will no doubt raise some hairs on your neck.
Yet Another Tiresome Rant: In case anyone is wondering, Radin and Lachna are dressed as "Apache" people (not the Indian, it's pronounced "A-pahj" or "A-pash"). To the best of my understanding, the Apache were basically these violent hipsters who terrorized the streets of France pre-WWI. Why any mother would allow her daughter (who's small enough to still sleep in a crib, for God's sake) to have a doll dressed as a gang member baffles me to no end.
Lavond's final victim, Charles Matin (Pedro de Cordoba), finally confesses his past wrongdoing after Lavond sweats him out not only by the fate of his colleagues, but by being slipped a note with the Book of Leviticus quote: "Confess and be saved". Good thing, too, because he was about to be stabbed and paralyzed by doll-ified former colleague Radin.
The Devil Doll isn't all vengeance and such, though. Lavond is able to reconnect not only with his blind, elderly mother (Lucy Beaumont), but his now grown-up daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan), who harbors a grudge against her father for the ruinous effect his arrest has had on their lives. Barrymore is surprisingly tender in his scenes with O'Sullivan, to the point where you almost forget that he has robbed one man of his humanity and rendered another forever disabled.
I'll admit the movie does occasionally falter in tone, because it tries to paint Lavond as both a man on a bloodthirsty quest for retribution, and a loving father and son longing to reclaim his old life. Kudos for attempting complexity, but it doesn't quite gel, instead making Lavond look like a split personality (he switches from sweet and loving to sneaky and cruel in the twinkling of an eye). When Lavond finishes his revenge trip, he laments that Lachna and Radin's lives are ruined, but they should keep them alive anyway. Dude, it's a little late to play the humanity card after all the crap you just pulled! Still, Barrymore is fascinating to watch, and he wears his old lady disguise with easy aplomb, and he makes Lavond more or less believable. Ottiano is campy good fun as Malita, whose obsession with making everyone small ultimately destroys her. You almost feel sorry for Lavond's victims, until you remember they blithely had an innocent man sent to prison for nearly 20 years. I'm sure Edmond Dantes wouldn't have objected to Lavond's methods. O'Sullivan isn't given much to do besides rant about how she hates her dad, but at least she is as adorable as ever. I think she could have played Mary Tudor and still be cute as a jar of buttons.
What makes The Devil Doll so effective and bizarrely engrossing are the dolls themselves. You feel so terrible for them, because they are robbed of their basic consciousness and free will. When you see the poor dogs and horses completely motionless until commanded to move, the juxtaposition between the characters' delight and your own horror at how they came to be that way is haunting. In one scene, Lachna falls off a table and there is concern that she broke her neck, reminding us that they are still alive, but only just. They are totally at the mercy of Lavond and Malita, and they will never experience true freedom ever again. They will live and die as practically brain dead servants. It's at once frightening and heartbreaking. Only Browning could have made this absurd premise so unforgettable and even thought-provoking. Watch it, but make sure you haven't left any toys lying around.