Friday, November 7, 2008

The Devil-Doll (MGM, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I had the interesting experience of double-billing the two Devil-Dolls even though they had nothing to do with each other plot-wise and in fact don’t have exactly the same title either. The Devil-Doll (note the hyphen) is a 1936 production by Tod Browning at MGM, based more or less on A. Merritt’s novel Burn, Witch, Burn, though actually reworked by Browning into yet a third version of his 1925 film The Unholy Three with Lon Chaney, Sr. heading a group of criminals working out of a toy store which Chaney runs in drag. (The second Unholy Three was an official remake in 1929 and Chaney repeated his role, but Jack Conway directed; it was Chaney’s only sound film before his death of throat cancer in 1930.)

In The Unholy Three one of Chaney’s confederates was a little person (played by midget actor Harry Earles, whom Browning also used in Freaks) who would pose as a baby to break into people’s houses and rob them; in The Devil-Doll the crooks’ master is Lionel Barrymore (the second time Browning directed him in a remake of one of his Chaney vehicles — The Mark of the Vampire, the 1935 film based on 1927’s London After Midnight, was the first) and he plays Paul Lavond, a French banker who was framed for fraud by his colleagues Radin (Arthur Hohl), Coulvet (Robert Grieg) and Matin (Pedro de Cordoba). At the start of the film Lavond is escaping from Devil’s Island in the company of Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), a mad scientist who developed a scheme of shrinking human beings and all other life forms so the planet can support a greater population on the same resources. His wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) — raven-haired but with a grey streak that suggests she went to the Bride of Frankenstein’s salon — is waiting for the escapees in a cottage on the island, and to test whether their system will work on a human they shrink their servant girl Lachna (Grace Ford).

The problem is that, though the subjects of this process remain alive, they have no will of their own and can move only when controlled telepathically by someone else. Lavond seizes on the process as a way of avenging himself on the three former partners who framed him, and he kidnaps Radin and turns him into a living doll, has Lachna stab Coulvet and paralyze him personally, and intimidates Matin into a confession that leads to Lavond’s exoneration. Meanwhile, Lavond’s daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan in a far more heartfelt performance than the leading ladies in these sorts of films usually give), who’s been raised by her grandmother after her mom committed suicide following her father’s disgrace, has grown up and is dating taxicab owner/driver Toto (Frank Lawton).

The Devil-Doll is a quite entertaining film, well paced, with an effective music score and good suspense editing — proof that whatever the reason most of Tod Browning’s talkies are disappointing (especially by comparison with his marvelously kinky silents!), it’s not anything wrong with his technique or his ability to adapt to sound filmmaking. Barrymore is a bit too schticky and sentimental in a role Chaney, had he still been around in 1936, could/would have played to perfection — and it’s almost impossible to believe that anyone could have been taken in by his drag — but for the most part The Devil-Doll is a truly accomplished piece of filmmaking, and the special effects of the small people operating in a normal-sized world are quite convincing (comparing favorably to the ones in The Incredible Shrinking Man 21 years later) except for the occasional tell-tale black lines around their figures that give away the process work.