31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.
Nature of The Devil Doll Shame:
Unwatched Tod Browning
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Directors 6: Tod Browning
#2. The Devil Doll
Finding an unseen Browning wasn’t much of a chore. Finding an unseen Browning in the watchpile proved to be a little more difficult. I stumbled across The Devil Doll in this Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection. I’d watched the other films in the set, but apparently skipped The Devil Doll. It’s on the same disc as Mad Love starring Peter Lorre, a film to which I’d also give a high recommendation. TCM often plays it during October, so keep your eyes spicy peeled on the calendar. (It’s playing on October 31st, by the way, and The Devil Doll makes an appearance on October 28th.)
Based on the book Burn Witch Burn! by Abraham Merritt, Browning’s The Devil Doll concerns a convict by the name of Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) wrongly accused of robbing a bank and murdering a night watchman. 17 years after his conviction, he escapes with a mad scientist whose work entails creating a formula to reduce people to 1/6th their original size. No one ever calls him “mad” — but trust me, he’s a traditional lunatic. Likewise, most everyone else in this picture. The scientist dies shortly after their escape and his assistant (the scene-stealing Rafaela Ottiano) urges Lavond to continue his work. After some consideration, Lavond agrees, but with the intention of using the formula to exact revenge on the men and former business partners who’d framed him for the original crime.
Lavond’s plan is thus: Dress as an old woman who makes dolls. The She-Barrymore sends these little 1/6th doll people out to kill his enemies and ultimately clear his name. Of course once he clears his name, he’s got that whole weird crossdressing dollmaker thing to explain, but maybe we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Or maybe not.
Tod Browning’s commercial career peaked with Dracula (1931) and he went on to direct the notorious Freaks (1932) a year later. Freaks nearly ruined his career. His post-Freaks career consists of contrition and studio projects of varying value and ambition. I would suggest, having now seen The Devil Doll, that this film represents perhaps his most ambitious and most interesting studio film.
Adapted to the screen by Erich von Stroheim (!) and Guy Endore, The Devil Doll displays a remarkable amount of personal melancholy on behalf of the beleaguered director. MGM only made The Devil Doll because they needed to honor the contract signed by Browning in the wake of Dracula‘s success. As Freaks was the first film made under this contract, it goes without saying that MGM immediately regretted the investment.
Visually, the film’s a bit of a marvel for 1936. The matte effects used to place the “dolls” within the scene and action appear rather seamless. Critics at the time likened the achievement of these effects to that of King Kong and The Invisible Man.
The element that elevates the film beyond standard 30’s horror fare is the relationship between Barrymore’s Lavond and his estranged daughter, played by the always radiant Maureen O’Sullivan. Lionel often had a tendency to overplay these emotional scenes in lesser films, but in The Devil Doll he’s restrained, acting as an extension of the director’s vision for the film as a familial melodrama wrapped in commercial horror. And he’s doing this under a bad wig and old lady rags.
The DVD image could definitely use some clean-up, and its a shame that his film hasn’t been treated with more kindness throughout the years. Warner Archive has re-released this set in recent years, but I haven’t seen the new discs to know if anything’s been done to improve this original.
I’ve read that filmmaker Guy Maddin considers this a highly influential film, and I can see the relevance to Maddin’s experimental oeuvre that presents an off-kiler narrative with earnest emotion beneath the apparent madness. After my first watch of The Devil Doll, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d just watched. The film mingles so many disparate genre elements that it all seemed, well confused. I let the film roll, starting over again at the beginning. The Devil Doll points us in certain genre-defined directions. I settled in for a routine experience throughout the second half of the film, but witnessed anything but routine. After re-watching the opening twenty minutes or so, I came to appreciate how Browning manipulated his audience and then unleashed something curiously sentimental. In a movie about little people running amuck.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Warner Archive re-released the Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection late last year.
2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon
#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) / #2. The Devil Doll (1936)
2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon
#1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals / #17. The Unknown / #18. Kuroneko / #19. Komodo / #20. Tremors / #21. Tremors 2 / #22. A Nightmare on Elm Street / #23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge / #24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors / #25. Tenebrae / #26. Salem’s Lot / #27. Veerana / #28. House of Wax / #29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage / #30. Dead and Buried / #31 Ghost and Mr. Chicken