In his next to last film, Tod Browning revisits the same territory as The Unholy Three (1925), with a surreal twist. The Devil Doll (1936) is based on Abraham Merritt’s novel “Burn, Witch, Burn,” with a screenplay by Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim, and Browning. Lionel Barrymore, who had a long collaborative history with Browning, stars as escaped convict Paul Lavond.
17 years earlier, Lavond had been sent to prison after being framed by three banking partners. Lavond has escaped with a fellow convict, Marcel (Henry Walthall, another Browning regular) who just happens to be a mad scientist. Together, they make it to Marcel’s home and wife, Malita (the hammy Rafaela Ottiano), who also is, conveniently, a mad scientist. Marcel dies, but not before showing Lavond the scientific discovery that he and Malita have been working on for years. They are able to shrink animals and people to a sixth of their normal size. Considering all the problems with world food shortage, anyone could see the value of this discovery (!). Anyone except Lavond, that is, who is a bit leery when he finds out the shrinking process wipes out memory cells and the subject’s willpower.
The three bankers who betrayed him are a new Unholy Three, a reprehensible trinity driven by love of money. Lavond, Malita and Marcel are three societal outcasts who are despised and rejected. Browning is committed to making sure we root for the underdog; quite the reversal of contemporary, evolved reality shows that deify the affluent top dogs.
Seeing a new potential vehicle for his revenge, Lavond is accompanied by Malita with a case full of shrunken critters in hand. Lavond sets out on a Count of Monte Cristo mission, but considering this is a Tod Browning production, Lavond hardly dons a chivalrous persona like Robert Donat in the 1934 film. Rather, he gets in old lady drag (a la Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three) and takes on the identity of Madame Mandilip, proprietress.
With a couple of six inch Tweedledees, Lavond, in his best Sweeney Todd fashion, opens up a doll shop (rather than a parrot shop or pie shop), exacts revenge, steals jewelery (which he hides in a toy, just like in Unholy Three) and sets out to find the holy child: his long lost daughter, Lorraine ( Maureen O’ Sullivan, aka Tarzan’s Jane). This is yet another frequently used Browning subplot of a severed father/daughter relationship.
What makes The Devil Doll unique is the science fiction angle and a female mad scientist in Ottiano (who has an Elsa Lanchester like streak in her hair). By the time of The Devil Doll, Browning was comfortable with the sound medium and the film benefits from this newfound familiarity, fluid camera work, and the charmingly rudimentary FX for the incredible shrunken people.
As Lavond, Barrymore delivers a subdued, controlled performance. In drag, Barrymore raises the ham meter considerably. Although a sympathetic character, Barrymore conveys genuine creepiness in the revenge scenes as he enforces his will through the dolls by intense concentration.
Ironically, to proves his innocence, Lavond must again go into exile at the film’s end and must forever forsake his daughter. The Devil Doll is a surrealist delight in its sheer lunacy.