The Devil-Doll (1936). 79 minutes. Directed by Tod Browning. Starring Lionel Barrymore (as Paul Lavond), Maureen O’Sullivan (as Lorraine Lavond), Frank Lauton (as Toto), Rafaela Ottiano (as Malita), Robert Greig (as Emil Coulvet), Lucy Beaumont (as Madame Lavond), Henry B. Walthall (as Marcel), Grace Ford (as Lachna), Pedro de Cordoba (as Charles Matin), Arthur Hohl (as Victor Radin), Juanita Quigley (as Marguerite Coulvet), Claire Du Brey (as Madame Coulvet), and Rollo Lloyd (as Detective Maurice).
The Devil-Doll is a horror movie written and directed by Tod Browning, who brought us Freaks (1932), the controversial pre-Code film that effectively triggered the beginning of the end of his career. Thus one reason to view The Devil-Doll is to see Browning’s penchant for lurid plots in its final throes. In some regards, Freaks and The Devil-Doll share much in common, including depictions of deformity, little people (broadly defined), and a revenge plot: the 1936 movie offers us miniature human killers, hypnotically controlled by a convict who is obsessed with punishing the men who framed him years earlier. That he enlists the help of this army of small people is but one of the movie’s quirks, which also include prominent, campy cross-dressing on the part of lead actor Lionel Barrymore. Although not nearly as daring, moving, or upsetting as Freaks, The Devil-Doll nevertheless serves as a useful example of how 1930s cinema maintained a fair amount of wildness even after the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code.
In France, convicted criminals Paul and Marcel escape from prison and make their way to Marcel’s labs, where his wife and scientific partner Malita has been furthering Marcel’s experimental scientific work in his absence. Together the married couple is working on a process to shrink humans and animals in an effort to solve the world’s food shortage. After Marcel dies, Paul and Malita move to Paris to continue the experiments; the two decide to use the shrinking process to help Paul exact revenge on the men who framed him for robbery and murder. They create shrunken human “dolls,” whose will they can control through a kind of hypnosis, in order to attack Paul’s enemies.
Meanwhile as a front, Paul and Malita run a doll shop, and Paul dresses as an old woman in order to disguise himself. With his true identity concealed, he comes to know his adult daughter Lorraine. Finally after terrorizing one of his oppressors into confessing, Paul is able to restore his reputation and pass his fortune to Lorraine. Malita is enraged that Paul is no longer interested in the experiment and blows up the labs, killing herself. Paul meets with Lorraine on top of the Eiffel Tower, dressed as himself but pretending to be a family friend, and lets her know that her father loved her but is dead. He then walks towards an uncertain fate.
As a horror film, The Devil-Doll is chiefly concerned with offering macabre thrills, and these are primarily to be found in its special effects-laden scenes during which the doll agents are manufactured, activated, and made to kill Paul’s enemies. The movie reminds me of two more popular and more admired special effects-centered films of the 1930s: King Kong (1933) and The Invisible Man (1933). While King Kong relies on miniature stop-motion clay animation and oversized props to evoke its giant ape character, and The Invisible Man uses wire work and matte processes to convey actor Claude Rains’s invisibility, The Devil-Doll uses matte work and large props to make its full-sized doll actors appear miniature. The scenes with shrunken characters are amusing visually, and I chuckled at some (especially the sequence with the stiletto-wielding doll dressed in a Tam O’Shanter), but the doll action also contributes to the movie’s strange, sinister atmosphere: the combination of almost cute, toy-like humans with demonic behavior is one reason why The Devil-Doll is both enjoyably kitschy and mildly unsettling.
But The Devil-Doll is actually more thoughtful than its crowd-pleasing special effects and sensationalistic title would imply. The shrinking and manipulation of humans works as a magical horror tool to effect Paul’s revenge plot, but it also works symbolically. Paul the avenger has a compassionate side, as exhibited by his love for his daughter and mother, yet for most of the movie, his propensity for ethical thinking and action is limited, reduced by his suffering, rendered minute much like one of his dolls. The transformation of people into small devices, concentrated with malevolence, represents the metaphorical reduction we experience when we become consumed with vengeance and let our hatred run wild.
I see echoes of Freaks in the focus on the tiny bodies of these antagonists—their borderline otherness, their existence outside of humanity. Some larger characters are also reminiscent of the people we meet in Freaks, such as the limping Malita, who must use a crutch, and the “half-wit” Lachna, the first human to be transformed into a doll. Unlike the so-called freaks of the circus in the 1932 movie, however, Paul’s dolls are clearly the result of a mad scientist’s plot. They are part of a science-fiction tale: supernaturally controlled, created on a lab table with tubes, bubbling fluid, and gauzy cotton. Whereas the sideshow performers in Freaks live outside of normal society but behave with great humanity and compassion, the dolls of this movie unfortunately have no life outside of their hypnotic crimes. They do not speak or convey emotion, nor do they attract our sympathy. The Devil-Doll would no doubt be more complicated, possibly in a way that would be comparable to Freaks, if it were more committed to developing the interiority of the dolls in terms of their personalities, thoughts, and feelings. The doll scenes seem like a lost opportunity for the film to move away from its thriller components and inch towards a more compassionate examination of the shared humanity between Paul, Malita, and the things they create.
The miniature humans who steal and kill may be from a fantasy world, but The Devil-Doll also tells its story through full-sized characters who live on the very real fringes of society, particularly Paul, who cross-dresses throughout most of the movie. In another movie universe, Paul would embark on a vengeful crusade in a more conventional way, murdering and intimidating through less creative means. But here Paul pulls out all of the stops, inventing a small army of zombie dolls who will do his bidding but also commanding his miniature killers while wearing a full-on drag grandmother ensemble, including a grey wig, dangling earrings, hat, shawl, long dress, and ample bosoms.
The whole performance is a bit reminiscent, to a later audience, of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), in which Bates is a psychotic cross-dresser and murderer; if you have seen that movie, you might recall that Bates chiefly cross-dresses when he is killing. That The Devil-Doll, almost 25 years older than Psycho, insists on Paul’s cross-dressing throughout the film, both in scenes where he is directing violent crime and scenes where, more benignly, he visits with his daughter and blind mother, suggests that the earlier movie makes room for cross-dressing to exist as a general disguise for all manner of surreptitious work, not just murder. But it still plays on the strangeness of Paul’s attire by cutting to him in drag during assaults by the dolls on his enemies. So in other words, cross-dressing in The Devil-Doll is still affiliated with the criminally depraved.
And yet while Paul’s cross-dressing is made out to be the product of a crazed, criminal obsession, it also provides him with the ability to shift his identity at opportune times. Paul navigates through his life as an escapee by adopting many versions and hybrids of himself, rarely revealing his full self in voice, clothes, hair, and persona to anyone. When he visits his blind mother, he approaches her building dressed as a woman because he knows it is under surveillance, but when he enters her apartment, he speaks in his male voice. It is only when his daughter appears that he switches back to the voice of the old woman he pretends to be. To the public he is an elderly grandma, in his mother’s presence he is male in voice but not in appearance, to Malita in their shop he is often wigless and speaking in his own deep male voice but wearing women’s clothing, and finally, when he speaks with Lorraine on top of the Eiffel Tower in the movie’s final scene, he wears his own clothes and speaks in his own voice but pretends to be someone else—a friend of Paul’s who has a message for Lorraine. Paul lives in a kind of flurry of impersonating activity that involves performing versions of himself for strangers, the authorities, business antagonists, and even his closest family members. His tangled persona is a point of interest, but in light of his twisting and turning identity, the other characters cannot claim to know him very well.
The result is a character who grows lost in himself and to us as he grows lost in his revenge. We are not offered much of an opportunity to see deeply into Paul’s psyche; one of the movie’s failings is that he remains at the end, as he is at the movie’s beginning, someone whose life has come to be defined by a motivation rather than a set of personal characteristics. It is particularly difficult to know what to do with his character in an ethical context. What Paul does to the men who framed him is clearly illegal and he knows it, hence the disguise. Is it morally justified, however? And can we consider Paul in any regard to be a decent, albeit vengeful, person whose triumph we should approve of? This is a problem common to most revenge dramas, compounded here by an underdeveloped protagonist about whom we might feel uncertain. We likely feel uncomfortable celebrating Paul or admiring his criminal success. Not clearly punished in the end for his crimes, he restores his financial legacy, makes a a favorable impression on his daughter whose love and admiration he craves, and walks off into the unknown a free man.
But not everyone goes free so easily. Just as the protagonists of King Kong and The Invisible Man meet their tragic ends, so too do some of the ministers of evil in The Devil-Doll. Malita and the dolls die in a large explosion meant by Malita to kill Paul. Yet it is not clear to me why the dolls must be extinguished. Insofar as they have aided Paul, they do so because he controls their wills. It seems therefore like a cruel ending for his nefarious yet unwilling instruments who are already captives in their small bodies—but then again, the universe of The Devil-Doll is full of unexpected cruelties. It is surprisingly dark for a movie with a happy ending, and part of its horror lies in the way that hardly anyone in it, especially the avenger Paul, is redeemed.
It is not uncommon, however, for the work of Tod Browning to inspire us to register discomfort when his protagonists triumph unimpeded in their sinister endeavors and to feel a mixture of pity and revulsion for the characters that his movies punish. Although The Devil-Doll is not as well known or well regarded as some of his other movies, such as the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931), its combination of a malevolent protagonist, a revenge plot, and outright kinkiness place it in conversation with the director’s larger body of work. If you want to know more about Browning’s films and better understand his career, The Devil-Doll, while more of a tawdry treat than his most admired projects, is nonetheless a good place to start as it captures much of what made Browning’s films unique. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the horror films of the 1930s, particularly to anyone who has seen (or will see) the more famous Freaks.