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Disguised as an old woman, an escaped convict uses the
of a pair of mad scientists to further his schemes of personal
Director Tod Browning, master of the macabre, had another winner with this little horror/science fiction film. Its glossy production values, courtesy of MGM, do not get in the way of the director's pacing or the heightening of suspense. The actual story itself - with tiny, shrunken people being used to carry out dastardly deeds in Paris - is quite absurd, but the cast is so good and the direction so able that the viewer can simply sit back and enjoy the results.
Lionel Barrymore, one of America's greatest character actors, has a field day in the lead role and is actually quite compelling dressed as an elderly lady, hobbling about like an authentic beldame. It would not be long before he would be confined to a wheelchair by crippling arthritis, but with his excellent voice and piercing eyes Barrymore would scarcely be handicapped as an actor. Here he is a positive menace, cooing & consoling his intended victims before sending the devil-dolls - controlled by his mind - to finish the job of retribution.
Fragile & ailing, Silent Film star Henry B. Walthall would be dead before THE DEVIL-DOLL could be released. Nonetheless, he still manages to give a powerful performance as a deranged scientist who has discovered how to reduce living things to one sixth their original size. Walthall's desperate eagerness over his researches replicates the dying actor's desperation to communicate with his audience. Equally formidable is Italian actress Rafaela Ottiano as Walthall's widow, feverishly continuing her husband's weird experiments. Her insane eyes and sinister mien, making her resemble Frankenstein's Bride, give the film some of its spookiest moments.
Rotund Robert Greig appears as one of Barrymore's victims; gentle Lucy Beaumont plays Barrymore's mother. Maureen O'Sullivan & Frank Lawton, reunited once again after DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935), nicely fill the requisite roles of the young lovers.
Movie mavens will recognize Eily Malyon as a mean-tempered laundress & Billy Gilbert as a butler, both uncredited.
Erich von Stroheim, brilliant & obsessive, was one of the screenwriters on this project. The special effects in the scenes involving the tiny people are quite well managed.
Director Tod Browning just wasn't drawn to normal people. His movies
are often set in circuses and carnivals, or else involve criminals who
take on weird or grotesque disguises. Deception of one kind or another
is a common theme in his films. Some find his movies to be profound
commentaries on the human condition; others see them as just weird. I
see Browning as a unique film artist. As to the extent of his genius,
it's hard for me to gauge. There's no one else quite like him. Whenever
I'm watching a Browning picture I'm inevitably more thrilled by the
ideas behind it than I am by the film itself. The Devil Doll concerns a
man framed for a crime he didn't commit who is sent to Devil's Island,
where he learns the black art of shrinking people to the size of mice
from an inventor. He escapes from the island and returns to Paris,
where he proceeds to extract his revenge on those who sent him away.
There's a lot of plot in this one, far more than I just outlined, and the movie has on occasion a Victorian-Dickensian feeling, aided in no small measure by the casting of Maureen O'Sullivan and Frank Lawton, who had just appeared in the movie of David Copperfield, as the romantic leads. Lionel Barrymore is the star, and still quite capable of getting around, and delivers a fine performance, alternately sympathetic and diabolical. This is not a fast-paced or exciting movie by today's standards, but it has its virtues, most of them pictorial. The special effects are superb, and the elf-people uncannily persuasive.
For those who remember the word "camp," that description would apply to
this film and especially the character played by lead actor Lionel
He makes this movie really fun to watch, adding humor to the "horror" story, dressing up and talking like an old woman en route to satisfying his revenge. The story has no credibility - absolutely none - but the movie is so likable that it's still satisfying and always entertaining. I wish this would be put out on DVD.
Another big plus for this movie is the fact it isn't that dated for being so old. The special effects, for its day, are quite good. The combination of humor and horror works, almost 70 years after it was released! Tod Browning, who did some weird movies such as "Freaks," directed this one, if that helps make you want to check this out.
Lionel Barrymore is great in this film as an escaped convict out for revenge
against the three bankers who framed him for embezzlement and murder
seventeen years before. He and another fellow, a scientist, escape from
Devil's Island together and arrive at the scientist's house, where his wife
carries on his twisted experiments: shrinking living beings. His goal is to
shrink all creatures on Earth, to make food production easier, but the
shrunken things' brains don't function properly. You can control them
telepathically, for some strange reason, but they can't think for
themselves. When the scientist dies, Barrymore devises to use these dolls to
get revenge on his enemies.
There are a lot of relatively good special effects in the film, and, like I said, Lionel Barrymore is fantastic. There is a nice emotional center of the film - Barrymore's daughter has suffered a lot from her father's crimes, and she hates him. Barrymore's sole purpose in getting revenge (and getting his enemies to confess their crimes) is to free his daughter from the shame in which she has always lived because of him. I actually wish that there was at least one more sequence concerning the daughter (there are three in the present film). The final scene is quite touching. 7/10.
Don't let the genre classification as "sci/fi & horror" mislead you. It's
really an excellent suspense/mystery/melodrama with the superb Lionel
Barrymore (Mr Potter of "It's a Wonderful Life") and a young Maureen
O'Sullivan. The sci/fi & fantasy elements - a mad scientist's ability to
shrink people and control their actions - are exciting plot devices that
allows Barrymore to exact revenge on the men who destroyed his life and
Director Tod Browning ("Freaks", the original "Dracula", and many Lon Chaney films) has created a great mix of suspense, action, light humor, & heart-tugging emotions in this tale of revenge and redemption.
The efx are (mostly) ahead of their time, and as good as the later shrunken-people sci-fi movies of the 40s and 50s, such as "Dr Cyclops", "Attack of the Puppet People", and "The Incredible Shrinking Man".
But the best part is the great acting of Barrymore. He plays a desperate escaped convict, who hides by masquerading as a kindly old woman, who in turn pretends to be maker of perfectly detailed dolls. As this character that's both humorous and murderous, obsessed and befuddled, he toys with the police and his betrayers who will be the targets of his army of living dolls. It's a tour de force of acting in this beautiful film.
I really enjoyed this little horror flick. It was the story of an
escaped prisoner and his efforts to exact revenge using his evil little
zombie dolls. It was well-written and exciting to watch.
However, what really made the film for me was watching Lionel Barrymore. He was an immensely talented actor that starred in countless movies from the 1920s to about 1950 and I would have to say that this was definitely the weirdest departure he ever took on the screen! Not only was he an escaped con trying to exact revenge, but much of the movie he disguised himself as an old lady! Seeing him in drag (and doing a credible job) gave a me a real laugh and it was nice to see him increase his range. FYI--in drag, he DID look and sound a little bit like his famous sister, Ethel!
This could as easily have been given the name of Browning's previous movie:
Lionel Barrymore demonstrates more range than we're accustomed to, playing an escaped convict and, much of the time, a sweet old lady.
Ottiano is scary as the widow of his jail buddy, who has the patent on making live people into dolls.
The print shown this week on Turner Classics is beautiful but seems to have gaps in its continuity, as if all that survives may be something cut up for commercials in the days when local stations showed old movies.
While he is famous for being the mind behind Universal's 1931 horror
classic, "Dracula", director Tod Browning is also often labeled as
another of the director who struggled the most when the invention of
movies with sound arrived to cinema, smashing the careers of many
professionals of the silent medium. One of the best American directors
of silents, Browning did struggle with "talkies", but thanks to the
enormous success of "Dracula", found himself in a very good position.
Sadly, "Freaks", his next film, became so controversial that he lost
the favor of the audience and the studios, who were not ready to the
tale of the love between a midget and a "normal" woman. While he
managed to recover from this, he never had again the commercial success
of "Dracula"; a real shame, because in 1936 he directed the film that
finally proved that he had understood the benefits of the new sound
era: "The Devil-Doll".
In this film, Lionel Barrymore plays Paul Lavond, a former banker who was wrongfully accused of fraud and sent to prison for 17 years. In prison he meets another convict named Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), an odd scientist who becomes his friend and plan their escape together. After escaping, they hide in Marcel's house, where Lavond discovers that Marcel and his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) invented a way to minimize objects, in an attempt to reduce people in order to save space and food. Sadly, the process damages the brains of living beings, reducing them to puppets who can be easily controlled with the mind. Lavond is at first horrified by this insanity, but after the sudden death of Marcel, he decides to help Malita if she agrees to help him in his revenge. Now, disguised as an innocent old lady, Lavond returns to Paris with his devilish living dolls, decided to make those who send him to prison pay for every year he spent without his family.
The story was written by Browning himself, giving his very own spin to the plot of Abraham Merritt's novel "Burn Witch Burn"; however, the screenplay was done by Guy Endore, Garrett Fort and Erich Von Stroheim, so actually very few remains from Merritt's novel in the movie, and it's truly more a Browning film. As usual in his stories, Browning focuses on the misadventures of an outcast, in this case Paul Lavond, who while being the hero of the story, has to resort to brutal crimes to achieve his vengeance, almost like a horror retelling of "The Count of Montecristo". The story unfolds nicely, and despite being more than 70 years old, it still feels fresh and original. This is definitely because the characters of the film are so very well developed that truly feel and act like real complex persons despite the fantasy elements of the story.
Now, the true surprise of the film is definitely Tod Browning's effective direction of the whole thing. While he is revered for his work in "Dracula" and "Freaks", most critics and fans tend to agree that his best work happened in the silent era, as those films (as well as "Mark of the Vampire") have their best scenes in the silent parts. Well, this movie proves that idea wrong, as not only "The Devil-Doll" is heavily based on dialog, it is remarkably well-executed and is definitely on par with most of Browning's best silent films. As usual, Browning mixes horror and black comedy in a delightful subtle way, even referencing his own classic "The Unholy Three" in occasions. Finally, it must also be pointed out that in this film Browning crafts truly impressive scenes with special effects that still look awe inspiring even today.
Of course, not everything is about Browning, as certainly without his superb cast the final result would be very different. Lionel Barrymore is simply amazing as Paul Levond, portraying the tragic figure of the good man consumed by hate, forced to commit crimes to clean his name. Barrymore was a master of his craft, and he proves it in the scenes where he must disguise himself as an old lady. Maureen O'Sullivan and Frank Lawton, fresh from Cukor's version of "David Copperfield", are reunited again, playing Lavond's daughter and the man in love with her. The two of them are very natural, but is O'Sullivan's talent the one that shines the most. Italian actress Rafaela Ottiano gives a very good and scary performance, although the fact that Barrymore's character is the focus of the film limits her screen time quite a lot. Overall the cast is pretty effective, and one of the main reasons of the movie's high quality.
It's a shame that Browning's career was considered beyond redemption after the huge commercial failure of the misunderstood "Freaks", as this movie proves that there was still a lot in Browning to give after mastering the craft of making "talkies". While it's hard to deny the importance and value of both "Dracula" and "Freaks", it is only in this movie where Browning shows a true understanding of the new technology, as while the movie is still very visual, it's at its core a very dialog oriented film, and Browning demonstrates he can handle it. While the story has that feeling of being taken straight from a pulp novel, it's very emotional and dramatic (without being overtly sappy), and it could be said that it's in this movie where Browning finally combines the best of both worlds.
Like most people, I too used to believe that Browning's best days happened along Lon Chaney during the years of the silent era, however, "The Devil-Doll" is a film that has made me reconsider that thought as this movie has everything that made Browning great in the silents, as well as his full domination of the new technology. While definitely nowhere near "Dracula" or "Freaks", this is a "talkie" that shows him at his best. 8/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the film that modern film-makers should watch when
contemplating the adaptation of a famous novel. By now, we're used to
the convention of prefixing a film with the novel's author's name
("Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," "Bram Stoker's Dracula," "Alexandre
Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo) which serves as a dire warning that
the story will bear no resemblance at all to the original.
As Kurosawa would later demonstrate in "The Bad Sleep Well," if you're not going to film the novel as is, don't do it halfway-- make something new from the story. That's what we have here, with an excellent version of Dumas' Monte Cristo.
An escaped prisoner, the falsely convicted Paul Lavond, wreaks his terrible revenge on those who conspired against him, unites two young lovers, bids his lost love goodbye, all with the aid of amazing secret science.
While Edmond Dantes became a master of alchemy and poisons, Lavond masters an alchemy of a different sort, removing and reducing one enemy after another. Lavond needs no Abbe' to lead him to a source of infinite wealth-- Lavond uses his enemies' own money, which they had embezzled from him and his bank, to destroy them.
And just as Dantes was a master of disguise, playing a variety of roles while being drawn irresistibly toward those he once loved, so Lavond puts on an amazing disguise to bring love and reconciliation to his loved ones, and a terrible revenge to those who destroyed his life.
O'Sullivan is delightful as always, by turns darling, petulant, defiant, and vulnerable; her final reunion, however brief, with her lost, still unrecognized, father is a wonderful climax to this film.
A wonderful story, beautifully told. The effects, delightful though they are, are the least amazing thing in this film. Browning deserves remembrance and homage for reminding us that films need a strong story _first_, and such effects as are convenient may come later, if at all.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The career of Tod Browning was too short and he only made one more film
after this and it's a terrific showcase for Lionel Barrymore. This story is
about two escapee's from Devils Island and Barrymore is Paul Lavond and he
was found guilty and sentenced to 17 years in prison after being set-up by
his business partners. He follows his friend Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) to
where his wife is living and after eluding the police and their dogs they
finally arrive. Marcel's wife is Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) and she has been
continuing the scientific experiments that they both have started years
before. Paul learns that they have figured out a way to shrink animals and
people to the size of dolls and can make them move and do things with will
power. But one night Marcel dies of a heart attack and Malita persuades Paul
to help her with her experiments. Paul agrees and see's this as a chance to
get revenge on those responsible for his incarceration. They travel to
Paris, France but they have to be careful because the police expect Paul to
show up. Paul dresses up as an old woman and calls himself Madame Mandelip
and he opens a small toy shop with Malita. Paul is able to see his mother
while in disguise but he has a daughter who doesn't recognize him. Maureen
O'Sullivan is Lorraine and she hates her father but doesn't realize that
he's really innocent.
This is certainly not on the same level as "Dracula" but it's still a very entertaining film and Lionel Barrymore is a joy to watch. Tod Browning always had a good eye for talent and Barrymore was a star on Broadway and more than able to tackle this role. I have to admit that when he's dressed in drag he's fairly convincing but his old lady voice becomes a little tiresome. Barrymore was much more versatile than a lot of the roles he had to play on film. I'm sure his best performances were in the theater and he was just a natural as an actor. O'Sullivan is not in this film enough and she really has only one good scene and it's where she lets out her rage when talking about her father. The big gripe I had with this film is that its suppose to be in Paris. It's obviously not and everyone speaks English, "Lets go to the Eiffel Tower". The film ends with a much more upbeat note than what we would expect considering what Barrymore does to exact revenge. A lot of films would have had the protagonist meet some sort of fate but Browning doesn't seem interested in that. Browning wrote this script with Erich von Stroheim and there is some good tension built up in certain scenes and one that stands out is where one of the businessmen stares at the clock and when he's about to meet his fate he stands up and confesses his guilt. Ottiano visibly resembles the Bride of Frankenstein with the streak in her hair and she spends most of her performance looking wide eyed and wearing pancake makeup. She's a lot of fun to watch in this film and the strength of her persona is very evident as you watch this. Not exactly a great film but one that does offer a very good performance by Barrymore.
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