Sunday, October 21, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE DEVIL-DOLL (1936)

Tod Browning, the horror director best remembered for classics like Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932), also heads up the unusual 1936 thriller, The Devil-Doll, although the lurid title rather misleads the audience about the kind of movie on offer. In fact, this weird but compelling story features the venerable Lionel Barrymore himself as its tortured protagonist, a man driven to bizarre extremes to avenge himself on the traitors who ruined his life. Effective performances from Maureen O'Sullivan, Frank Lawton, and Rafaela Ottiano add to the film's attractions, but the real surprise is the emotional depth that lies beneath Browning's grotesque facade.

Barrymore stars as Paul Lavond, a banker framed and sent to prison by his former partners. When he and a fellow inmate escape, Lavond thinks only of his revenge, but his comrade, Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), is driven by an obsession with secret scientific experiments. Marcel and his wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano), have found a way to shrink living beings to doll size, though the process renders the subjects mindless automatons with no will of their own. After Marcel dies, Paul and Malita take the miniatures to Paris, where Paul disguises himself as old Madame Mandilip and uses the tiny slaves as the agents of his revenge.

Adapted from Abraham Merritt's novel, Burn Witch Burn!, The Devil-Doll prefigures Attack of the Puppet People (1958) but owes a great deal to Browning's earlier film, The Unholy Three (1925), in which Lon Chaney had played the cross-dressed granny role. The title of The Devil-Doll draws attention to the gimmick of having miniaturized characters, a trick briefly used in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), as well. The best scenes with the "dolls" feature gigantic sets that make the actors look convincingly tiny, but modern audiences will be less impressed with the composite shots, and none of the doll scenes are terrifying enough to warrant the devilish description.

Barrymore makes for the real attraction, giving a truly memorable performance in his scenes as Madame Mandilip. The humor of seeing Barrymore in drag contrasts with the pathos and wrath of his hunted character. Lavond was a good man before 17 years in prison embittered his soul, and he never becomes a true villain in spite of his strange and terrible acts. He stirs our pity by visiting his blind mother and weeping over the hard life of his daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O'Sullivan). Lavond has his limits, but madness drives his wild-eyed collaborator, Malita, and she is the much more diabolical character of the two. Rafaela Ottiano gives a terrific performance in the role, a female equal of great genre actors like Ernest Thesiger, Dwight Frye, and even Peter Lorre. It's a shame she didn't appear in more horror films.

See Lionel Barrymore in more familiar roles in Grand Hotel (1932), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). He also appears with Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning's Mark of the Vampire (1935). Look for Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), The Thin Man (1934), and A Day at the Races (1937). Rafaela Ottiano turns up with Barrymore in Grand Hotel, but you'll also find her in She Done Him Wrong (1933), Curly Top (1935), and Topper Returns (1941).

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