From the DVD case: Devil’s Island escapee Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) poses as a shop proprietress and uses secrets of miniaturization to turn humans into elusive minions who inflict revenge on all who sent him to prison. Tod Browning (Freaks) directs. Maureen O’Sullivan co-stars.
Mark says: The Devil-Doll begins with a ludicrous premise: Paul Levond escapes prison after 17 years vowing to get revenge on the three former partners who framed him. Lavond’s fellow escapee, Marcel, is a scientist who leads Levond to his laboratory. Marcel and his wife, Malita, have been working on an experiment to shrink living creatures. Marcel’s wants to shrink every creature in the world as a way to combat overpopulation. Marcel believes if he can shrink everything down to 1/6 its size, the world will have six times the food on which to live. The drawback is that the shrunken subjects (only dogs, so far) lose their own wills and have to be guided by mind control, effectively turning them into slaves. While Marcel is attempting to miniaturize his servant, Lachna (Grace Ford), he falls ill and dies. However, the experiment is a success and Malita vows to carry on her husband’s work. Malita begs Levond to assist her in this venture. Levond realizes he can use Malita and her miniature people in his plot for revenge, and moves the operation to Paris, where his former partners are still enjoying their wealthy lifestyles. Because Lavond is a wanted man, he takes on the guise of “Madame Mandilip,” an elderly woman and kindly doll shop owner.
Despite this preposterous setup, The Devil-Doll is an enjoyable and capable film. Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks) proves a competent director, and the cast is formidable. Lionel Barrymore (Mark of the Vampire) is superb in the duel roles of Paul Lavond and Madame Mandilip. I had the pleasure of seeing this movie without the foreknowledge of Lionel Barrymore’s cross-dressing scenes. I was completely taken off guard when he appeared in a wig, earrings, and frock, speaking in a timbre similar to that of Aunt Bea’s from The Andy Griffith Show. Admittedly, this has a comedic effect, and proves somewhat distracting at first. I mean, here’s the great Lionel Barrymore, crotchety Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, shuffling about in a shawl and chapeau. However, and this is a testament to Barrymore’s acting, as the movie progresses, his scenes as “Madame Mandilip” become less and less of an issue. Barrymore makes a surprisingly believable old woman, and before long, we are drawn back into the story. Of course, there are still moments when his appearance elicits a chuckle. These moments usually occur when Barrymore is in full or partial drag but speaks in the decidedly masculine voice of Paul Lavond.
Rafaela Ottiano (Grand Hotel) plays the mad assistant, Malita. With a shock of white hair, Malita is reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester from Bride of Frankenstein, which was released a year prior. Her expressions, particularly the madness in her eyes, are a treat to watch. Oddly enough, she vaguely makes me think of Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. Malita is a perfect companion to her deranged husband, Marcel, played by Henry B. Walthall. Unfortunately, this was Mr. Walthall’s last role, as he died of influenza before the film was released.
In a subplot, we have the lovely Maureen O’Sullivan, the future mother of Mia Farrow, in the role of Lorraine, Levond’s daughter. Lorraine, not realizing Lavond is innocent, hates her father for leaving her and her grandmother in poverty. Lavond’s exile to prison also caused Lorraine’s mother to commit suicide. Lavond not only wants revenge on his former partners, but he wants their confession as well, so he can win back the love of his daughter. Lorraine is romantically involved with Toto, played by Frank Lawton (The Invisible Ray), but refuses to marry him because of the stigma of her criminal father.
The special effects in The Devil-Doll are exceptional. There are scenes where the miniature people blend almost seamlessly into their oversized surroundings. I am particularly impressed with a sequence that features Grace Ford stealing through the house of Lavond’s enemy, Emil Coulvet (Robert Greig). Ms. Ford, as a tiny mind-controlled doll, climbs down a bed, climbs up a dresser, gathers gems from a giant jewelry box, drops the jewels off a window landing to the waiting Lavond, and then crawls up Emil’s bed and stabs him with a tiny stiletto (specially treated to paralyze him for life). Using both a traveling matte process and oversized sets, the effects are impressive even by today’s standards, and certainly add to the appeal of the film.
Look for Lucy Beaumont (Condemned to Live) as Lavond’s mother, and E. Alyn Warren (Revolt of the Zombies) as the Commissioner of Police.
The Devil-Doll is based on the novel, Burn, Witch, Burn by Abraham Merritt.
Scene to watch for: Lavond burns his wig, but continues to argue with Malita while wearing earrings, a dress, and false bosoms.
Line to listen for: “She’s an in-bred peasant half-wit. But I wanted no prying wits about me.”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ½ out of 5.