Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Garret Fort & Guy Endor (screenplay), Erich von Stroheim (screenplay), Tod Browning (story), based on a novel by A. Merrit
Starring Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Henry B. Walthall, Rafela Ottiano,Frank Lawton
Lionel Barrymore was part of the most distinguished acting family of the 1930s, so it’s a bit surprising to see he would be appearing in a horror film. But given that it was being directed by horror genius Tod Browning, maybe it’s not so surprising. The result, The Devil-Doll, is a nice excursion into the horror genre.
Paul Lavond (Barrymore) is a bank executive who has been sent to Devil’s Island after being wrongly convicted of robbing his bank and killing a guard. He is aided by Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), a brilliant scientist. The two make it to Marcel’s secret lab, where his wife Malita (Rafelela Ottiano) has kept things up. Marcel has developed a method to shrink people and animals, who stay inert until they are willed to move. Marcel dies, and Lavond, joined by Malita, plots revenge.
He returns to Paris and, disguised as the toymaker Madame Madelip, uses the dolls to get his revenge.
The movie is pretty standard horror revenge. The effects – a combination of double exposure and giant props – are quite good for the time as we watch Lavond put his scheme to catch the real criminals into action.
What helps set it apart is a subplot between Lavond’s daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan) and the her taxi driver boyfriend Toto (Frank Laughton). She hates her father for ruining the family name. Much of the impetus for Lavond’s revenge is to show her that her father was not a criminal.
Barrymore is a fine actor and actually is fairly believable as Madam Madelip. This was one of the last films where he was able to walk,* so he’s able to get around. It also gives him a chance to be more than just a madman out for revenge: his reason isn’t so much to clear his own name as much as it is to show his daughter the truth.
Tod Browning was the master of horror in the early thirties, with films like Dracula and Freaks, along with several of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s silent films. This was one of his last films. He had already had trouble getting assignments after the controversy over Freaks and it seems that he was blacklisted.
The movie seems to have flopped, but it did get some critical notice, especially for its special effects.
*Barrymore acted out of a wheelchair for the last year of his life, the result of arthritis or a broken hip (sources disagree as to which was the main cause, but Barrymore said it was the hip).