Wednesday, 3 August 2016
THE DEVIL DOLL (1936)
“Look at me and see what seventeen years in the grave has done to me…”
The downward slide of Tod Browning’s directing career had begun with his most recent film, the disappointing Mark of the Vampire, and increasingly he found it hard to get projects off the ground at M-G-M. He wanted to make a voodoo tale called The Witch of Timbuctoo at the end of 1935 but this was blocked at script stage due to pressure from the British censors. In The Monster Show, Browning aficionado David J. Skal records: “Great Britain had requested the removal of all black characters for fear that the witchcraft scenes would ‘stir up trouble’ among blacks under British colonial rule” - a level of appalling fear-mongering racism that also weirdly echoes the plot reasoning we have just seen for the extinction of the occult knowledge by the authorities within Revolt of the Zombies.
Browning was however able to reshape his story into The Devil Doll (1936) which combined his oft-used theme of revenge with voodoo-esque hocus-pocus in modern-day France. It was loosely based on Abraham Merritt’s 1932 novel Burn Witch, Burn, one of the writer’s works steeped in his fascination for witchcraft and the occult. Browning enlisted experienced genre screenwriters Garrett Fort, Guy Endore and credited director-turned-actor Erich Von Stroheim to weave together a film that not only moves kinetically but also its audience in an unusually affecting ending for a hard-nosed vengeance picture.
The premise is based around Lionel Barrymore (last seen in Browning’s Mark of the Vampire) as Paul Lavond, one of two escaped convicts who has spent seventeen years boiling with the desire for revenge after being framed as a murderer and robber of his own bank by his three partners. His fellow escapee is mad scientist Marcel, desperate to get them safe haven back with his wife with whom he has been experimenting on something unrevealed yet potentially world-changing. He is played by Henry B. Walthall, who gained fame as the Confederate General locking horns with the Ku Klux Klan in Griffith’s controversial Birth of a Nation. The two fugitives are taken in by Marcel’s equally eccentric wife Malita, embodied by Rafaela Ottiano who specialised in memorably macabre roles. Possessed of fierce eyes and a Nefertiti white hair streak recalling Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein, Malita is the Lady Macbeth-like engine urging on Marcel’s crackpot technology.
The nutcase couple take Lavond into their confidence, showing him their incredible results in miniaturising living dogs to one-sixth normal size. (The effects in this sequence rely on a fairly basic double-exposure, which only noticeably mars itself in the evident outlines around the superimposed figures). They base their rationale for such crazed ingenuity on the potential for reducing the global human population and future resource shortages. The only downside is that shrinkage of the living atoms also erases the subject’s memory – yet that opens up the possibility for voodoo-style mental subjugation in the ‘right’ hands. Lavond’s horror at seeing them progress to their “peasant halfwit” servant girl Lachna (Grace Ford) is tempered by the macchiavellian Malita pointing out this usefulness of Marcel’s technology in enabling a unique method of justice for Lavond if they relocate to his home of Paris. She uses the sudden death of her husband mid-process as emotional leverage to persuade Lavond.
Meanwhile in gay Paree, Lavond’s trio of sinister ex-partners have now read in the paper that their old friend is on the loose, so with feared retribution on the cards they post a 100,000 franc reward themselves for his capture. The plot now heads into the familiar horror territory of systematic revenge carried out on the multiple guilty parties, rendered even more familiar by Browning recycling his leading man disguising himself as a little old lady - Lon Chaney in 1927’s The Unholy Three (see my Chaney reviews 12/2015) - to undertake his plans undisturbed under the frilly cloak of an elderly lady selling toys.
To be fair, the drag impersonation allows Barrymore an added dimension of compassion and vulnerability that prevents his grim, furrow-browed mission calcifying into a one-note performance. This is emphasised in his scenes with his daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’ Sullivan, who had been playing Tarzan’s Jane for M-G-M and went on to a long and praiseworthy career as well as being mother to actress Mia Farrow). He cannot bring himself to reveal his real identity when he visits her at the launderette she has been reduced to slaving in. He must care for her at a remove whilst in disguise, which only fuels his need for vengeance even more.
One by one, the three banker scumbags are dispensed using the rough and bizarre justice of Marcel’s scientific breakthrough - and some much more impressive special-effect scale work. Arthur Hohl’s Radin is astounded by the old lady’s amazing, obedient ‘toy’ horse and visits her, whereupon he is paralysed into becoming a servile mini-mannequin himself. Next up, Lavond’s old dame sells a Lachna ‘doll’ to the wife of the second criminal, the bearded and rotund Couvet - Marx Brothers’ film veteran Robert Greig – and negotiates some convincingly- upscaled bedroom set furniture to administer a bedside manner of poisoned-dagger paralysis to him and steal his wife’s jewelled necklace.
If this is beginning to sound like the story of Browning’s The Unholy Three, the blatant reworking goes further: a police inspector comes to make routine theft enquiries connecting the old lady to the robbery and the ensuing furtive hiding of the jewel plays as an almost identical but less tense rehash of Chaney’s scene in the original movie.
By now, the last evil member of the triumvirate has the benefit of a police protection detail around him yet Lavond has threatened him in a encoded letter that unless he “Confess and be saved”, he will still die at the stroke of ten. Even a roomful of cops can’t save him from the remote-controlled Radin, hidden with macabre humour as a Christmas tree bauble. As he is about to stabbed in the leg by the mini-assassin, Radin owns up and Lavond is at last exonerated.
Usually in horror films of the period, this is where the movie ends and often in a detrimentally rushed climax. One of the plus points of the extra running time that takes The Devil Doll to 78 minutes is that after Malita fails to convince Lavond to go on with the work, the purgative laboratory blaze that follows permits a little more breathing space for character resolution and leads him to make restitution with his daughter. Their last meeting is most sensitively handled by the actors and Browning. Lavond, as himself, pretends to be a friend instead of revealing who he really is to Lorraine. He expresses all his pent-up love, regret and future hopes for her as if conveying them as a second-hand message – his final parting atonement. He leaves her and her boyfriend, exiting with the self-sacrificing heroism of Rick Blaine in Casablanca and giving The Devil Doll an unexpected and touching ending.