(7/10) Dracula and Freaks director Tod Browning’s sci-fi/horror/comedy The Devil-Doll from 1936 is an accomplished special effects reel concerning shrunken people. Despite the feeling that Browning recycles his old themes, this moral play is one of the best sci-fi films out of USA in the late thirties – and Lionel Barrymore in drag is absurdly fun.
The Devil-Doll. 1936, USA. Directed by Tod Browning. Written by Tod Browning, Garret Fort, Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim, et.al. Based on the novel Burn, Witch, Burn by Abraham Merritt. Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton, Rafalea Ottiano. Produced by Tod Browning, E.J. Mannix. IMDb: 7.0/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 81% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A.
I always assumed, based on the title, that The Devil-Doll had more to do with black magic or voodoo than science fiction. Turns out I was wrong, and boy am I glad I watched it. Produced by MGM, the film followed the release of Universal’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), a film that likewise involved miniature people. What was a throwaway moment in Bride becomes the whole premise for The Devil-Doll, directed by the man that started the whole horror shebang by directing Dracula in 1931, Tod Browning.
Banker Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) escapes prison on Devil’s Island along with scientist Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) and manages to get to Marcel’s wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano), who has conveniently set up her cottage and lab at walking distance from prison. It turns out that Marcel and Malita have been working on a formula to shrink people to one sixth of their natural size to counteract the problems of overpopulation. Their problem is that the animals they have tested on have lost all memory and willpower in the shrinking process, and only respond to commands. Marcel thinks he has found the solution, and the couple proceed the shrink their slow-witted but pretty maid Lachna (Grace Ford). But alas! the process doesn’t work, and she still has no will of her own, and lies still as a doll when not commanded into action. Marcel conveniently dies of a heart-attack.
Lavond is appalled at the couple’s cruelty, but Malita convinces him to continue Marcel’s work in Paris with her, while seeking revenge on three bankers that have framed him for a crime he didn’t commit. Said and done. While the police in France seek the escaped Lavond, nobody suspects the old, senile doll-maker Madame Manderlip – who is really Lavond in disguise. As Manderlip he can also visit his daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan), whose life has been ruined by living in the shadow of her supposedly criminal father, whom she hates with all her heart. She works at a cleaner’s and dates a young taxi entrepreneur, Toto (Frank Lawton) whom she refuses to marry as not to drag him down in her misery.
Luring him in with a miniature horse, Lavond stuns and shrinks one of his old partners (Ratin) who betrayed him (Pedro de Cordoba), and places the shrunken Lachna in the hands of another old partner’s, Coulvet’s (Robert Greig), daughter, as a doll. In the night the “doll” springs into action, climbs huge furniture to get to the wife’s jewelry and then paralyses Coulvet with a tiny poisoned dagger. Lavond sends a note to the last crook, Matin, urging him to confess before the stroke of ten the next evening or suffer Coulvet’s fate. Another shrunken and mentally enslaved person, Radin (Arthur Hohl), has entered Coulvet’s house, bizarrely enough, as a Christmas tree ornament. By the stroke of 10, Matin confesses to the police officers ordered to protect him, thus clearing Lavond’s name. The murders are all pinned on Madame Manderlip, who has also ”confessed” in a letter to the police.
When Lavond tells Malita he will not continue her work any further, she blows up the lab and herself with it, destroying all evidence. Now everything is set up for an appropriately sappy make-up between father and daughter in the end.
According to the title credits the film is based on Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn, Witch, Burn (1932), but apart from the fact that it involves murderous “dolls” and a doll-maker called Madame Manderlip, there really are no similarities between the two. Instead, this feels very much like director Tod Browning’s attempt at a sound remake of his silent film The Unholy Three (1925), a remake he was robbed of himself when MGM chose Jack Conway to direct the sound version in 1930. The Devil-Doll was Tod Browning’s second-to-last film, and it seems he is summing up his career in it.
During his youth working at a circus, Browning was stricken by the lives and fates of many of the ”circus freaks” he encountered, and these continued to feature in his films throughout his career – as did his liking of the macabre. His breakthrough film came in 1925 with The Unholy Three, that told the story of three circus performers who run off to begin a career as con-men and burglars. In The Unholy Three Lon Chaney’s character takes the disguise of a little old lady working in a pet shop, and visits homes doing recons for nightly burglaries. Paul Lavond in The Devil-Doll also sells miniature ”pets” to his victims, although the fact that she’s a doll-maker is one of the very few things that have been carried over from Merritt’s novel. There is an almost exact replica of a scene in The Unholy Three where the stolen jewels are put inside a child’s doll that passes through the hands of the investigating detective. The Unholy Three also features a woman too ashamed of her past to get engaged to the man she loves. Just like The Unholy Three, The Devil-Doll begins with a trio that ultimately falls apart.
Other Browning films are also referenced. The slow-witted Lachna bears a striking resemblance to some of the performers in Freaks (1932). Both The Blackbird (1926) and The Unknown (1927) feature criminals in disguise. London after Midnight (1927) and Mark of the Vampire (1935) both involve disguised people investigating crimes. In West of Zanzibar a man seeking revenge on his enemy unwittingly has his own daughter prostituted, causing her to hate him. In The Devil-Doll Lorraine seems to think working in a cleaning shop is just as bad as prostitution. And the list can be made longer …
By 1930 Browning had already made a career out of his collaboration with Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces, who often portrayed depraved anti-heroes with real or feigned disabilities. In 1927 he directed what can perhaps be classed as America’s first vampire film, London After Midnight, again with Chaney, although in the end it’s revealed that Chaney’s character was simply a detective in disguise. Browning was hired by Universal in 1930 to direct Dracula – with Chaney in the title role, but Chaney had just renewed a contract with MGM, and died the same year. Browning had wanted to cast an unknown European actor, and have him mostly hide in the shadows, while Bela Lugosi was lobbying hard for the role in which he had excelled for three years on stage.
Browning apparently didn’t like the script for Dracula, and resented the fact that he didn’t get the time and budget to do a proper job, and had to play around with rubber bats and whatnot. Furthermore, he was a visual storyteller and had a hard time adapting to directing dialogue, and the restraints that sound technology brought hampered him as a filmmaker. Dracula was ultimately saved by cinematographer Karl Freund, who reportedly took over much of the direction duties. Still, the film was a surprise success. But instead of continuing his career with creature features, Browning directed the boxing drama Iron Man in 1931, and the controversial Freaks in 1932, featuring a cast of real sideshow ”freaks” and some extremely macabre drama. While viewed as a dark masterpiece by many critics today, the film was too much for the contemporary audience, and more or less killed Browning’s career. Universal quickly pulled it from theatres and ran it as a roadshow picture. It was banned in many countries, including the UK. After the debacle with Freaks, Universal kept Browning on a short leash. For the comedy Fast Workers (1933) the studio removed his directing credit, as was also the case with The Devil-Doll (1936), as they feared mainstream audiences would shy away from films with his name attached to it. In between he did get credit for the remake of London After Midnight, called Mark of the Vampire (1935), presumably because the horror film wouldn’t appeal to the mainstream anyway. His relationship with Universal soured further during the late thirties, as the studio failed to bring him scripts that appealed to him, and he directed his last film in 1939.
If James Whale, who directed Frankenstein (1931, review) and The Invisible Man (1933, review) was known for his black humour, Tod Browning more than exceeded him in this matter. Browning’s comedy was downright morbid, and it was often his less than sympathetic anti-heroes that were the butt of the jokes. In this sense, The Devil-Doll was one of his most lighthearted later films. Indeed compared to The Unknown or Freaks, Browning treads lightly in this one, clearly aiming at a mainstream audience. Despite the rather bleak subject-matter, the film never loses its jovial tone, and seeing Lionel Barrymore enjoying himself immensely in drag is one of the greatest joys of the movie.
As mentioned, The Devil-Doll was “based” on the 1932 novel Burn Witch Burn by influential and eccentric writer and journalist Abraham Merritt. As assistant editor and later editor of The American Weekly, Merritt was one of the best paid journalists in the US, and writing fiction was more of a hobby. Despite this, Merritt is cited as a major influence on authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock and Robert Bloch, and Burn Witch Burn has been called one of the best supernatural horror books of all time.
Burn Witch Burn is the story of the physician Paul Lowell, a specialist in brain diseases, who is hired by a mobster to investigate a series of strange murders where the victims have been found in a mysterious state of paralysis, as if scared stiff, and one by one die of no apparent cause. At the same time, Lowell and his investigative team start hearing stories of life-like dolls attacking people with small blades, and soon the dolls start committing murders. Getting their hands of one of the dolls, they realise that it is the spitting image of one of the previous murder victims. They track all the victims to a peculiar doll-maker’s shop, where they find the grotesque doll-maker Madame Mandilip, a practitioner of the dark arts, who has been travelling the world making killer dolls where-ever she has settled. It turns out that when a customer agrees to sit as model for one of her dolls, he unwittingly surrenders his soul to the toy. When the doll is finished, the soul’s previous owner dies. The conclusion of the book should be obvious from it’s title.
As you can see for yourselves from the short plot summary above, the novel has very little in common with the film.
The idea of killer dolls has roots as far back, at least, as German horror pioneer E.T.A. Hoffmann, who in 1816 published the influential short story The Sandman. While his creation, the life-size automaton Olympia, isn’t a killer doll per se, she is the reason the protagonist Nathaniel is driven insane and takes his own life as he ultimately realises that the woman he loves is in fact nothing more than a wind-up toy. It is also this story that introduces us to the evil alchemist doll-maker, and the dark fever-dream quality of Hoffmann’s writing has carried on into he stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Merritt, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and many more. Poe is another clear influence for Burn Witch Burn. There are several scenes in the book where the paralysed characters seem to exist beyond physical death and even communicate from beyond the pail. This is a recurring theme in many of Poe’s stories, but perhaps most prominent in the 1845 story The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, in which a physician puts a dying patient in a state of hypnosis, delaying death for several months, until finally the patient, Valdemar, slightly released from the trance, begs the physician to let him go: “I am dead!”
However, the most obvious inspiration for Burn Witch Burn is a little known short story by American writer Fitz-James O’Brien from 1859 called The Wondersmith. It’s a peculiar, atmospheric and slightly racist story which takes place, more or less, in a creepy doll-maker’s shop on Golosh Street. Here a mysterious group of Roma people, apparently part of some sect of occultists, meet and make plans for world domination. The doll-maker here is called Herr Hippe, or the Wondersmith, however, there is also a fortune-teller by the name of Madame Filomel, which seems to have been the inspiration for Madame Mandilip in Merritt’s book. Hippe provides the dolls, or manikins, and Madame Filomel provides a bottle of souls from murderers and evil despots. Infusing the dolls with life through a ritual of dark magic, the group plans to sell the dolls to unwitting Christians — and on New Year’s Eve they’ll command all their dolls to kill the Christian children in their beds (with small blades, as in Merritt’s book) as they lie waiting for Father Christmas. Still, as the fatal day arrives, there is an accident which sets fire to the shop, and … Burn Witch Burn.
The similarities between The Wondersmith and Burn Witch Burn are too many — even down to the style of writing — to be a coincidence. It’s almost as if Abraham Merritt would have read O’Brien’s story and thought: “What a letdown!” when the doll-makers’ project fails in the end, and set out to give it an alternative ending: What would have happened if they would have succeeded?
The Devil-Doll unfortunately suffers from perhaps too many cooks — Tod Browning gets the story credit, Merritt the based-on credit, three people worked on the screenplay, including Dracula and Frankenstein contributor Garrett Fort and screen legend Erich von Stroheim, and for good measure there’s additional dialogue by Richard Schayer. Still, I feel that in this case the problem isn’t necessarily the number of screenwriters involved, but rather the fact that Browning is trying to do too many things within a single film. I haven’t found any information on how the picture came about; whether it was studio-initiated or if this was Browning’s project. Browning is credited as one of the producers, so one can perhaps assume that he was the instigator. What is clear is that he had no intention whatsoever of putting Abraham Merritt’s book on screen, but rather just cherry-picked the central idea of killer dolls. Because Browning was working on Dracula in 1930, he wasn’t available to film the sound version of The Unholy Three and it feels like The Devil-Doll is him trying to sneak in his own sound remake of the film through the back door.
The end result is a disjointed movie that isn’t sure what it wants. What’s ultimately a moral play starts off as mad scientist scheme, evolves into crime fiction, turns into drag comedy, flirts with Dickensian social realism, turns back to special effects reel, and branches out into heist movie. The central melodrama feels like it belongs in a silent film, which is does, since it is ripped straight from Browning’s old melodramas starring Lon Chaney. The mad scientist scheme always feels like it’s from a completely different film.
Here I’m going to borrow a line from Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings: “Despite the fact that I have several problems with this movie, I really like it”. There’s a carefree attitude to the film, and the people involved seem to have had fun. Lionel Barrymore in drag is hilarious, and both Henry B. Walthall and Rafaela Ottiano are wonderfully over the top as Mr. and Mrs. Mad Scientist. As Lyz Kingsley writes at AYCYAS: “Rafaela Ottiano’s performance as Malita is unquestionably the highlight of The Devil-Doll. Astonishingly, she not only manages to out-over-act Lionel Barrymore – no mean feat in itself – but more than once does so while not doing anything. Just standing there, the woman is a riot of exaggeration; but once she starts stumping around on her crutch, pulling faces and declaiming her not exactly subtle dialogue, it’s almost more than the heart can bear.”
The shots where black screen and travelling mattes have been merged are beautifully set up, but unfortunately not always as well executed – strong matte lines are visible throughout many of the shots. But one must respect the effort that has been put into creating giant sets for the actors to climb around in. Especially impressive is a scene where Lachna climbs a shoe, a foot stool, a chair and finally a dressing table to get to a jewelry box, and then climbs out on the window sill to throw the oversized gems down to Madame Manderlip. Not only is the setup impressive, but so are the climbing skills of whatever stunt woman who performed the job (if indeed it wasn’t Grace Ford herself).
While literary history is full of stories concerning people of different size, from giants to Liliputians, the idea of actually shrinking people is a surprisingly modern one, with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) being the first widely read novel featuring this trope. The first story I can think of in which science is somehow involved in shrinking a human being is a completely obscure short story from 1803 by Finnish philosopher Gabriel Israel Hartman called A Dream, in which a scientist suddenly finds himself shrinking as he looks through a microscope – it is also probably the first ever story involving a microcosm. Other early fore-runners of the genre were Alfred Taylor Scofield’s Travels in the Interior (1886), Edwin Pallander’s The Adventures of a Micro-Man (1902) and Mark Twain’s Three Thousand Years among the Microbes (1905), which all happen to be stories of people being shrunk to the size of bacteria, who go on more or less educational adventures in the human body. Browning may have been familiar with later pulps stories on the theme, including Ray Cumming’s The Girl in the Golden Atom (1919), Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan and the Ant-Men (1924), in which Tarzan is shrunk by means of electricity, or S.P. Meek’s Submicroscopic (1931).
People changing size was a regular trope in the early days of film, when trick film reels by directors like Georges Méliès, Edwin Porter and Segundo de Chomon were popular, however the fad wore off around 1910 when films became more story-oriented. While miniaturisation may have featured in adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and other fairy-tale and fantasy films, The Devil-Doll is without doubt the first feature film to depict the shrinking of people through scientific means. The next one – and perhaps even better known – is the early colour film Dr. Cyclops, released in 1940 (review), which is the first movie to turn the shrinking men and women into the protagonists of the story.
The most famous film of them all is, naturally, The Incredible Shrinking Man, released in 1957, which came to serve as a blueprint and benchmark for all miniaturisation films to come. Bert I. Gordon’s low-budget fare Attack of the Puppet People (1958) was an attempt by AIP to surf the popularity of the former film. As special effects evolved and science fiction gained popularity, more films followed, for instance the cult classic Fantastic Voyage (1966), which picks up the turn-of-the-century trope of shrinking people to microscopic size and sending them into the body of a human, in this case in a miniature submarine. In the eighties the trope was used mainly for humorous effect in The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), Innerspace (1987) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). In later years, the superhero Ant-Man made his cinematic debut in the film by the same name in 2015 and has since featured in a number of Marvel movies. Ant-Man is probably the only shrunken film character that has the scientifically impossible ability of maintaining his original strength while shrinking to the size of an insect. The latest (as of August 2019) addition to the family of shrunken friends is the 2017 film Downsizing, which actually works with the original premise of the scientists in The Devil-Doll: downsizing people in order to counteract problems arising from overpopulation and consumerism.
Oscar-winner Lionel Barrymore was the brother of the acclaimed master actor John Barrymore and part of the Barrymore acting clan, continuing to this day with John’s granddaughter Drew Barrymore. Lionel Barrymore takes this film out of B-movie swamp, just as he (barely) saved the strange semi-talkie The Mysterious Island (review) seven years earlier. He does convey the portrait of a man who knows in his heart that the revenge streak he is on is morally wrong, but enjoys taking out his tormentors nonetheless, and the scene between him and Maureen O’Sullivan at the end will bring a tear the the eye of the most hardened horror film addict. His Madame Manderlip is not Tootsie-accurate, but he makes for very good old lady. Especially brilliant is seeing him switch from sweet old lady to spiteful avenger in the blink of an eye.
Maureen O’Sullivan got her big breakthrough in 1932 playing Jane opposite Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan in Tarzan of the Apes, a role she reprised six times. Before that she apperared as the female lead in the bizarre sci-fi musical comedy Just Imagine in 1930 (review). In the thirties and early forties she had a number of high profile roles in films like The Thin Man (1934), Anna Karenina (1936) and Pride and Prejudice (1940). She took a break from acting in 1942 to tend to her sick husband, director John Farrow, and her family. She returned to acting in the fifties, both on stage and in film, and one of her most famous later roles was in the star-studded Woody Allen film Hannah and her Sisters (1986), with her daughter Mia Farrow playing the title role. In The Devil-Doll O’Sullivan does a splendid job as Lavond’s headstrong daughter, and the love interest of Toto the taxi driver (Frank Lawton), and certainly gives star Barrymore a run for his money. The only problem with the portrayal is that it is very hard to believe such a feisty young woman would throw her life away because of the sins of her father.
Some critics find Frank Lawton too ”refined” and ”British” to play a French taxi driver, but personally I like the lightness he brings to the movie, and it is nice to see a romantic interest in one of these films who is actually likeable and seems to have both a brain and a heart. Lawton had made a bit of a splash as David Copperfield in 1934, but is today perhaps best known for two film roles in 1936 – The Devil-Doll and Universal’s Karloff/Lugosi vehicle The Invisible Ray (review). Why his movie career never really took off is beyond me, since I thought he was outstanding in both films. Perhaps his ”refined” manners and slight frame didn’t really fit the mold of the rugged leading man. Another actor from The Invisible Ray appears in a small role as a doctor – Frank Reicher, best known for playing the ship’s captain in King Kong (1933, review).
Oklahoma-born Grace Ford only appeared in four films between 1935 and 1937, and dropped out of the business when she married Italian-born geophysicist and businessman Henry Salvatori, who would later become a republican activist. The couple is best remembered today for their broad philantropic work in Los Angeles, including funding much of Los Angeles Music Center, and donating large sums to hospitals, schools and shelters. Ford’s role as Lachna is by far the best known – and she certainly wasn’t without talent.
The Devil-Doll wasn’t a box office smash, but grossed a decent 1,9 million dollars domestically — compared to 12 millions for top-grossing San Francisco and 10 millions for Chaplin’s Modern Times in 1936. It received mixed reviews. The New York Times‘ Frank Nugent praised the movie, in particular its special effects, which he compared favourably to those in King Kong and The Invisible Man: “By use of the split screen, glass shots, oversize sets and other trick devices cherished of their kind, they have pieced together a photoplay which is grotesque, slightly horrible and consistently interesting. A freak film, of course, and one which may overburden Junior’s imagination, but an entertaining exhibition of photographic hocus-pocus for all that.” Variety posted a lukewarm review, writing “The director, cameraman and art department make the most of it, but the writers’ contribution is lacking in originality and seldom is equal to the idea in back of it.
The Variety reviewer erroneously writes that the premise, “a scientist’s discovery of a process by which all living things, including humans, can be reduced to one-sixth their normal size” is taken from Merritt’s novel. Frank Nugent at the NY Times at least openly admits that he “shall be embarrassed if you ask us how closely” the film is based on the book. But the good people over at pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories had naturally read Merritt’s novel. Which is no surprise, as the reviewer hiding behind the pseudonym “H.K.” was none other than future SF author extraordinaire Henry Kuttner. Kuttner’s opinion of the film was clearly coloured by the fact that it was falsely marketed as an adaptation of Burn Witch Burn: “There is no point in recapitulating the story, which is not Merritt’s, and which is by no means novel”. He called the The Devil-Doll “a run-of-the-mill thriller” and “a disappointment”, although he admitted the movie had a couple of good scenes and that Barrymore and Hohl “do what they can”, even if the acting on the whole “is not good”.
My personal opinion is that despite its scripting flaws, The Devil-Doll’s merits balance out the weaker spots, and that it is an entertaining, well made film. Fans of Abraham Merritt might want to keep it at arm’s length, though. Burn Witch Burn was also adapted into a Mexican film called The Curse of the Doll People in 1961.
The Devil-Doll. 1936, USA. Directed by Tod Browning. Written by Tod Browning, Garret Fort, Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim, Richard Schayer. Inspired by the novel Burn, Witch, Burn by Abraham Merritt. Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton, Rafalea Ottiano, Robert Greig, Henry B. Walthall, Grace Ford, Lucy Beaumont, Pedro de Cordoba, Arthur Hohl, Juanita Quigley, Clair Du Brey, Rollo Lloyd, E. Alyn Warren, Frank Reicher, Billy Gilbert. Music: Franz Waxman, Cinematography: Leonard Smith. Editing: Frederick Y. Smith. Art direction: Cedric Gibbons. Makeup: Robert J. Schiffer. Assistant director: Harry Sharrock. Sound: Douglas Shearer, James Brock, T.B. Hoffman, Michael Steinore. Wardrobe: Dolly Tree. Produced by Tod Browning, E.J. Mannix for MGM.