With Halloween coming up soon, here’s a few thoughts on Tod Browning’s hypnotic 1936 thriller, The Devil Doll, all but forgotten today in the wake of his highly successful film Dracula (1931), which despite its undoubted influence, is much less interesting as a film than this later work from the director.
Working from a screenplay co-authored by the unlikely trio of Garrett Fort, Guy Endore (author of the classic horror novel The Werewolf of Paris) and none other than legendary director Erich von Stroheim – this last credit is a real surprise, given von Stroheim’s other work in his films as a director in his own right, to say nothing of von Stroheim’s work as an actor in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion just one year later in 1937 – based on the 1933 novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt (which subsequently served as the template for at least two other films in the 1940s and 1960s), Browning creates an eerie dream world of suspense, fantasy and mystery, aided in no small part by Franz Waxman’s gorgeous score, Lionel Barrymore’s bravura performance in the leading role, and the film’s then state-of-the art special effects.
As Michael Toole writes on the TCM website of the film, the film’s plot concerns “Paul Lavond, a falsely incarcerated businessman, and Marcel, a maniacal inventor, [who] escape from prison on Devil’s Island, and take refuge at the latter’s former laboratory where they are welcomed by Marcel’s wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). The ailing scientist reveals to Lavond his secret formula for reducing living creatures to a fraction of their original size. Following Marcel’s death, Lavond returns to France to extract revenge on the three bankers who framed him and left his daughter [Maureen O' Sullivan] destitute. With the assistance of Malita, Lavond opens a toy shop where he poses as a kindly old woman and begins a campaign of terror [using a group of miniaturized humans as his weapons of destruction].
Few critics, if any, have ever commented on Tod Browning’s visual style, which could best be described as static and resembling a photographed stage play. This is certainly true of his most famous film, Dracula (1931) but The Devil Doll is another matter entirely. It’s a very smooth, visually accomplished piece of cinema that has earned it a cult following in recent years. The special effects are impressive for the era, particularly the scenes featuring oversized sets and ‘miniature’ people. Also part of the film’s cult appeal is Browning’s twisted sense of humor, which is most evident in the scenes with Malita who becomes addicted to miniaturizing humans. It’s actually surprising that the Hays Office didn’t have major censorship issues with The Devil Doll but they did dictate a moralistic ending in which the Barrymore character atones for his crimes.” Now available on DVD, it’s definitely a film worth checking out, and in my opinion, clearly Browning’s best work as a director.