(1936) Directed by Tod Browning; Written by Garrett Fort, Guy Endore and Erich von Stroheim; Based on the novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt; Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton and Rafaela Ottiano; Available on DVD
“You see, when a man saves an ambition in a dirty dungeon for 17 years, it becomes almost an insane obsession. With Marcel, it was science. With me, it was hate. Hate and vengeance.” – Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore)
Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that originally appeared in August 2014.
Big thanks to Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for inviting me to participate in The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Today, I’m shining the spotlight on Lionel Barrymore, and a forgotten ‘30s curio. Be sure to check out the other entries about one of cinema’s most illustrious and enduring acting families.
Mr. Barrymore collaborated with director Tod Browning several times before; notably on West of Zanzibar and the London After Midnight remake, Mark of the Vampire. 1936’s The Devil-Doll was the prolific director’s penultimate film. The screenplay (based on the novel Burn, Witch, Burn, by Abraham Merritt) was credited to three writers, including Erich von Stroheim, although his involvement doesn’t make the story any less preposterous. Of course, the story’s outlandish nature is arguably part of the charm.
Disgraced former bank president Paul Lavond (Barrymore) and scientist Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) escape from Devil’s Island penitentiary, finding safe haven in the latter’s secluded house/laboratory. Marcel’s wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) has continued his work, a process to shrink creatures to one-sixth of their original size. Naturally (as required by all mad scientist movies), there’s a drawback, which results in wiping the subject’s memory clean. What remains is a living husk, “…a creature capable of responding only to the force of another will.” When Marcel and Malita decide to use a lowly servant girl Lachna (Grace Ford)* as their first human test subject, Lavond considers the possibilities of exploiting the process for his own ends. Unfortunately, for Marcel, at the dawn of his success, he drops dead from exhaustion.
* Described by Malita as an “inbred peasant halfwit.” Beyond the obvious absence of informed consent, I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to ponder the inherent ethical minefield of this experiment.
Barrymore seemed to be enjoying himself as Lavond, who (borrowing a page from Browning’s The Unholy Three) disguises himself as an old lady to exact his vengeance on the three former business partners who framed him for embezzlement. Depending on your acceptance or denial of this dubious plot device, you’ll either grin or groan by the scenes that follow. Lavond sets up shop as Madame Mandilip, a kindly old toymaker. He’s assisted by Malita, to create human dolls that will carry out his demands. The bulk of the film relies on what Roger Ebert once coined the “idiot plot.”* None of the characters seem capable of seeing through Lavond’s flimsy disguise or stop to question why something about this eccentric old lady seems a bit askew (Perhaps Malita invented a substance that effectively brainwashes anyone in Madame Mandilip’s vicinity?). To make matters worse, Lavond does nothing to keep a low profile, but practically flaunts his disguise in front of the police. Even though the credulity level is stretched beyond the breaking point, you have to admire Barrymore for working through such an absurd premise. We might not believe one minute of it, but we’re willing to follow him to the end.
* According to Ebert’s film glossary, the “idiot plot” refers to “any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.”
Aside from Barrymore’s bonkers performance are some key supporting roles. Rafaela Ottiano chews up the scenery as the wide-eyed Malita, seizing every opportunity to mug at the camera. She gamely vows to carry on Marcel’s work – because creating miniature people and creatures makes perfect sense. To say that Ottiano overacts a bit would be akin to stating the Titanic was a boating accident. Maureen O’Sullivan is notable for her earnest performance as Lavond’s estranged daughter Lorraine, who ekes out a meager existence at a laundry, and feels only hatred for the man who left his family destitute. Frank Lawton plays her eternally optimistic and long-suffering cabdriver boyfriend Toto. Pedro de Cordoba also deserves an honorable mention as Lavond’s unscrupulous former business associate Matin, who utters the film’s best line (“There’s a certain amusing irony in offering a man’s own money for his capture.”).
It might be a stretch to call The Devil-Doll a genuine classic, but it deserves recognition as an oddity from another era. It’s not in the same league as some of Browning’s other, stronger efforts, such as Freaks or The Unknown, but it carries the same fearless, brazen spirit of these earlier films. Whether you’re a Lionel Barrymore fan, a Browning aficionado, or a ‘30s camp cinema enthusiast, you should find something to like. Or, if you ever had a burning desire to see Mr. Potter in drag, now’s your chance.