This charming old gem is not a well-known horror. Its director, Tod Browning, is famous for “Dracula” from 1931 and “Freaks” from 1932. Still, “The Devil-Doll” is worth-watching for a few scenes that are ahead of its time.
The plot is not complicated. The protagonist, Lavond (Lionel Barrymore), is a banker who was wrongly convicted and received life sentence. He escapes after 17 years and seeks revenge against three men who framed him. What follows is a series of events that create a planned and cruel revenge. Three men are pursued one by one. The banker also tries to reconcile with his adult daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan). She feels deepest remorse towards her father. Lavond cannot tell her the truth of his innocence since he changed his appearance as the police are after him. He uses for his revenge the devices invented by his cellmate friend, Marcel, who escaped with him, but died shortly afterwards. Meanwhile the daughter hesitates when it comes to marrying her boyfriend because of her family past.
Normal stuff, murder, revenge, family relations, and justice mixed in a deftly driven plot.
Yet to describe the movie this way is to deprive it of all that makes it so special.
Many times you hear the characters who act crazily and say crazy things, yet it does not destroy the movie’s logic.
Lavond, my friend, millions of years ago the creatures that roamed this world were gigantic. As they multiplied, the earth could no longer produce enough food. Think of it, Lavond: every living creature reduced to one-sixth its size. One-sixth of its physical need. Food for six times all of us!
(Marcel talking to Lavond)
Riight. So now let’s look at grotesque motifs in the film:
1. Main character in full drag
Lavond is dressing up as an old woman in order to deceive the police. And he succeeds. I mean the wig, long earrings and even fancy black fingerless gloves included. Lionel Barrymore proves that his movie family’s fame is justified as he is really convincing both as the embittered rough man and as the gentle, kind old lady. Years before “Tootsie” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
2. The miniaturized humans
Remember the scientist friend from the gallows? He invented a method to reduce living creatures to stiff, six times smaller, toy-like objects that can be controlled by human thought. I know how it sounds, but stupider concepts were successfully made believable in movies. Fortunately, here the idea also suits the plot.
The sequence with the title devil-doll (actually a “half-wit” female servant who got transformed not only into a “doll” but got sexier in the process) is a great cinematic achievement.
The doll is in the house of one of three men Lavond wants to harm. As Lavond watches her through the window, the doll obeys his orders. She sneaks out of a sleeping girl’s hug and tiptoes to the man’s bedroom. The cinematography is very impressive and at times the illusion is complete.
3. Bride of Frankenstein/Marie Curie character
The widow of the scientist looks like the combination of these personas. Just look at her and tell me it’s not intentional.
She wants to continue her husband’s work (also a nod to Curie) not because of Lavond’s revengeful plans. She fears that the world is getting overpopulated and the only solution is decreasing the size of humans. This way we can survive with present food supply. How come no one thought about it before…
Her passionate scientific zeal is as obvious as her limp, but her victims, both animals and humans stop thinking on their own because their brains got smaller. These hopeless dolls wait for commands from their masters. Scientific fanaticism, even if derived from noble intentions, is a danger that became especially evident in the 20th century. Still, the figure of Mad Scientist keeps reappearing in culture, from Dr. Frankenstein, through Dr. Moreau to Dr. Brundle from Cronenberg’s “The Fly.”
These three grotesque features are not the only thing that attracted my attention to “The Devil-Doll.” Tod Browning is famous for “Freaks”, but I see traces of his fascination with subjects that the society considers abnormal in this movie as well.
Old black-and-white horrors may not scare you to death (unless you watch “Nosferatu” or “The Phantom of the Opera” at night, though the second one when the Phantom is not on screen may put you conveniently to sleep). But they have a charming precision and are often not afraid to combine darkly funny scenes with terrifying ones.
“The Devil-Doll” is not a horror comedy but it can entertain you for its 78 minutes running time despite its stereotypical plot of revenge. And I think I will never forget the dolls’ wild dance. To quote IMDb: “dolls are costumed as members of vicious street gangs known as the Apache (pronounced ah-PAHSH), who were involved in theft, prostitution, and the occasional murder in pre-World War I Paris. The dolls even perform the Apache dance popularized by the gangs, in which extremely close steps alternate with seemingly brutal punches, kicks, hair-pulling, spins, and throws; it was usually danced to the Valse des rayons (aka Valse chaloupée) composed by Jacques Offenbach. In the 1930s and 1940s, this dance was still performed by professional dancers and can be seen in several films and even cartoons of the period.” Devil dolls indeed!
Finally, the concept that you shouldn’t be afraid of a mythical monster, but of a seemingly harmless old lady is very modern and has been readapted again and again since 1936.