The Devil Doll (1936) **
It is undeniably true that Lionel Barrymore was one of the brighter stars in the Hollywood firmament of the 1930’s and 40’s. Treasure Island remains much loved after most of 70 years, and It’s a Wonderful Life will probably still be playing on TV every December even unto the end of the world. But it is just as undeniable that over the course of his long career, Barrymore served up more ham than Mash’s. Watch his bombastic performance in Mark of the Vampire, and you’ll almost certainly find yourself wishing for the restraining effect that the lack of dialogue had on Barrymore’s overacting in such silent films as West of Zanzibar. But you have not witnessed the man’s full scenery-chewing might until you have seen The Devil Doll, and taken in the awesome spectacle of Lionel Barrymore acting in drag!
This was one of the last movies Tod Browning ever directed, and its comparative listlessness even in the face of its completely daft script supports the oft-made contention that Browning emerged from the brouhaha surrounding Freaks a broken man. It begins with ex-banker Paul Lavond (Barrymore) and a discredited scientist named Marcel (Henry B. Walthall, from Chandu the Magician and London After Midnight) escaping from the notorious Devil’s Island prison. After eluding the police, the two fugitives make their way to Marcel’s house, where his wife and working partner, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano), still lives with about 100 dogs and an “inbred peasant halfwit” servant-girl named Lachna (Grace Ford). The whole time Lavond and Marcel have been traveling together, the old scientist has been talking constantly about his mysterious research, so it’s no surprise that he and Malita get to work again almost immediately upon his return. What are they up to, you ask, and why does it seem to involve half a dozen little toy dogs? Why, they’re shrinking things, of course. Like two out of every three mad scientists in the business, they hope to solve the problem of world hunger, and they mean to do it by shrinking every living thing on Earth down to one-sixth its original size, so that the finite natural resources of our planet will be able to sustain us far longer into the future. There’s just one snag (or two, if you count the obvious impossibility of shrinking everything...)— every creature Marcel and Malita have shrunk thus far has come out a completely mindless living puppet, responsive to the brainwaves of those around it, but totally incapable of acting of its own accord. But while Marcel was in prison, he came up with what he believes is the solution to this problem, and now he and his wife want to test out Marcel’s big brainstorm by shrinking Lachna.
I have no idea what Marcel and Malita’s shrinking process is, but it involves some kind of chemical mist and an absolutely ridiculous quantity of cotton wool. I can also tell you that Marcel’s new idea doesn’t work, and when he realizes that Lachna is now even more brainless than before, the old man has a heart attack and dies on the spot. However, he has lived long enough to impart some idea of what his work was about to Lavond, and the latter man suddenly realizes that he has reason to want to continue it. You see, Lavond spent his seventeen years on Devil’s Island obsessing on revenge in much the same way that Marcel obsessed on his research. Lavond was imprisoned unjustly, framed for embezzlement and murder by three of his colleagues at the bank, and after seeing Marcel’s shrinking process in action, and hearing about its curious side effects on those shrunk thereby, he comes up with a revenge plot that none of his enemies will ever see coming. A false profession of enthusiasm for her late husband’s self-ordained mission convinces Malita to cooperate with Lavond, and the two soon pack up the lab and move to Paris.
This is where the drag part comes in. Knowing full well that every policeman in France is looking for him, and equally well aware that his old partners are sure to have heard of his escape, Lavond disguises himself as an old lady named Madame Mandelip. Madame Mandelip is a toy-maker, and wouldn’t you know it, her current specialty is amazingly lifelike clockwork dolls. The first of Lavond’s enemies to meet Mandelip is Victor Radin (Arthur Hohl, from Island of Lost Souls and The Frozen Ghost), to whom “she” comes looking for some seed capital to set up a bigger workshop in Paris. Radin has little interest in capitalizing a toy company at first, but when he sees some of Mandelip’s handiwork (in the form of a shrunken horse which she presents as a voice-activated mechanical toy), he changes his mind, and agrees to come visit the old woman’s current operation and discuss her financial needs. This profound error in judgement gets Radin stuck with a poisoned needle and paralyzed. Lavond then has Malita shrink him down for later use.
Now if this were a Universal or RKO movie, Lavond’s revenge would occupy just about all of the remaining running time, perhaps interspersed with a rather tiresome but little invoked subplot about a handsome young cop or reporter and his mostly ornamental blonde girlfriend. But this is MGM, and that means we’re going to get clobbered over the head with about 20 pounds of saccharine at some point during the proceedings. When that happens, it will take the form of Lavond’s efforts to reintegrate himself into his old family life by befriending his mother and daughter in the guise of Madame Mandelip. Mom (Lucy Beaumont) turns out to be a pretty soft touch, and Lavond is able to reveal his true identity to her almost immediately. But his daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane in most of the 30’s and 40’s Tarzan movies), is another matter. Lorraine has grown up hating her father, partly for the crimes she believes he committed, and partly for the part those crimes played in driving her mother to an early grave. This subplot is going to consume a lot more of The Devil Doll’s running time than should ever have been allowed.
But the movie does eventually get back down to business, when Madame Mandelip places Lachna in the home of number-two enemy Emile Coulvet (Robert Greig, from The Picture of Dorian Gray and the 1939 version of Tower of London) by selling her to Coulvet’s wife as a doll. That night, Lavond has Lachna empty Mrs. Coulvet’s jewelry box of valuables purchased with money that was rightfully his, and then stick Emile with a tiny dagger dipped in the same paralyzing toxin that he’d already used on Radin. The news of this attack on another of his co-conspirators strikes panic into the heart of Charles Matin (Pedro de Cordoba, of The Beast with Five Fingers), panic which is only intensified when he receives a note admonishing him to “Read your Bible,” and listing several scriptural citations. When he looks them up, the cited verses combine to form the sentence, “At the tenth hour, you shall surely enter the shadow of death— confess, and be saved!” With such a concrete threat, Matin feels confident enough to go to the police, at least after judiciously snipping off the part of the note that talks about confessing— he wouldn’t want to get the police busy looking into reasons why someone might want to harm him, after all. Come 9:00 the next night, the Matin place is absolutely crawling with cops, but unbeknownst to anyone, the shrunken Victor Radin is already inside, ingeniously disguised as a Christmas tree ornament. And because, again, this is an MGM film, as 10:00 and the tiny Radin both close in on Matin, he is stricken at the last possible second by an attack of conscience, and blurts out a confession of his responsibility for the crimes for which Paul Lavond was punished.
This gives us one last chance to wallow in mawkish sentimentality, for despite Matin’s confession, Lavond still can’t just come forward and resume his old life. I mean, he may have been innocent before, but he’s now paralyzed one man and reduced another to a miniature zombie. And while the squabble with Malita that erupts when Lavond backs out of his promise to help her continue her work— and more to the point, the convenient explosion in her lab that ends it— would seem to adequately balance her karmic scales for the movie, they do nothing to settle Lavond’s moral accounts. So to keep the Legion of Decency happy, Lavond decides he must go back into hiding after cleverly arranging to pass a message to his daughter by way of her boyfriend, Toto (The Invisible Ray’s Frank Lawton), to the effect that he loves her dearly, and thought about her constantly while he was locked up. And by a fortuitous coincidence, Lavond gets to deliver the message in person instead, though he does so while pretending to be an old friend of Lorraine’s “dead” father. Lavond then returns to a life in the shadows, leaving Lorraine and Toto to marry and live happily ever after.
On the upside, this movie features some fantastic special effects (some lousy ones, too, to be sure) and such a whacked-out premise that it’s hard not to stay interested in spite of everything. Not only that, it has, in the person of Malita, what I think may be the silver screen’s very first female mad scientist. That Rafaela Ottiano can so easily steal all of her scenes, even from Lionel Barrymore, is the true measure of how far over the top her performance here is. Her facial expressions would be enough by themselves, but the effect is further amplified by the garish white streak in her hair, by the fact that she gets around by hobbling frantically about on a crutch, and by some of the most outrageous dialogue anyone has ever been given to utter outside of an Al Adamson or Ed Wood movie. If she were given more screentime, this film would really be something to see.
On the downside, The Devil Doll is just so fucking sappy! Of all the different elements of this movie’s insanely complex plot, the one I cared about the least was the part about Lavond’s familial angst. But it gets far more time devoted to it than the mad science angle, and even bids fair to steal pride of place away from the revenge scheme storyline, playing serious havoc with the flow of the movie. And what’s more, this subplot is rendered ridiculous as well as maudlin by the fact that Barrymore plays nearly every scene that advances it in drag! Barrymore in a dress is definitely something that should be used sparingly, and I’m of the opinion that it should never be used in any scene that the audience is supposed to take seriously. On the whole, I’d say the bad counterbalances the good almost exactly, and someone considering watching The Devil Doll should probably base their decision on how much female impersonation from a middle-aged ham they think they can take.