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DEVIL-DOLL, THE (director/writer: Tod Browning; screenwriters: Garrett Ford/Guy Endore/Eric Von Stroheim/from the novel by Abraham Merritt Burn Witch Burn; cinematographer: Leonard Smith; editor: Frederick Y. Smith; music: Franz Waxman; cast: Lionel Barrymore (Paul Lavond), Maureen O’Sullivan (Lorraine Lavond), Raffaela Ottiano (Malita), Frank Lawton (Toto), Henry B. Walthall (Marcel), Robert Greig (Emil Coulvet), Grace Ford (Lachna), Pedro de Cordoba (Charles Matin), Arthur Hohl (Radin), Lucy Beaumont (Madame Lavond), Claire Du Brey (Mme. Coulvet); Runtime: 79; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Tod Browning/E.J. Mannix; MGM; 1936)
“An enthralling weirdo horror thriller directed by Tod Browning.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An enthralling weirdo horror thriller directed by Tod Browning (“Freaks”/”West of Zanzibar”) and based on Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn Witch Burn; the screenplay is by Garrett Ford, Guy Endore and Eric Von Stroheim. It plays as a sweet revenge film that is laden with a silly plot that is hardly credible and a hokey manipulative sentimental ending that only acts to spoil the sinister mood set by the wickedly fascinating prior set-pieces.

Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) was the former president of a Paris bank who was framed by his three partners for looting his bank and killing a watchman. He received a life sentence and after serving 17 years escapes from Devil’s Island along with Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), an elderly deranged scientist with a nutty nonsensical plan to save the world.

Marcel’s crippled wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) is hidden in the country where she keeps the scientist’s lab operational. Marcel plans to shrink all creatures on Earth down to one-sixth their size so the food supply won’t run out and no creature will go hungry. After they are shrunk down to doll size they lose their memory and can be controlled by the master’s will. Paul only wants revenge on the three crooked bankers, but Marcel is obsessed with ‘making the whole world small.’ At first, Marcel displays three dogs he shrunk that appear as toy-dolls. He then shrinks his half-wit Berlin peasant housekeeper, Lachna (Grace Ford), but before he completes the experiment he dies of a heart-attack. Malita convinces Paul to become her partner, and they go to Paris to open a doll shop together. There Paul is disguised as the kindly elderly woman proprietress, Madame Mandelip, while Malita works in the underground lab as an assistant. The three corrupt bankers fearing the worst, offer 100,000 francs reward for Lavond’s capture.

The first banker to get his payback is the snooty manager Victor Radin (Arthur Hohl), who is impressed by the life-like toy horse that responds to his commands. Radin goes at night to Madame Mandelip’s to become a silent partner in the business by providing a loan to manufacture the dolls, but is shrunk as he’s injected with the secret serum. The other two bankers, with Radin’s disappearance, become more jumpy. Next Madame Mandelip sells a dollto Mrs. Coulvet as a Christmas gift for her young daughter. Her husband is crooked banker Emile (Robert Greig), who becomes paralyzed when injected with a stiletto by the Lachna doll while he sleeps. Lachna also robs him of all his valuable jewels, as she drops them from the balcony to Madame Mandelip controlling her from below. Charles Matin (Pedro de Cordoba) receives a warning in messages taken from the Bible that he’ll be revenged at a certain hour of the night unless he confesses. When he does confess, that changes everything for Lavond but not for the crazed widow. That leads to further melodramatics. But Lavond is cheered that he has cleared his name for his family, his elderly blind mother (Lucy Beaumontand), who always believed in him, and his daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan), slaving away at a laundry job, he always loved but who hated him for ruining her family name. In the last act Lavond meets his daughter at the top of of the Eiffel Tower without revealing his identity, and mentions that he’s the convict who escaped with her father but he died in the swamp. Lorraine blurts out that she wishes she could have told her father that ‘she begs his forgiveness for her doubts.’ Also there is Lorraine’s future taxi driver husband Toto, who knows the truth and keeps Lavond’s secret.

Paul in order to clear his name had to commit crimes, therefore he is really once again doomed as a criminal (in these new charges, he’s actually guilty). This conclusion points to a morality theme and certainly lightens this dark fantasy considerably, but can’t completely undo the chilling scene of the Radin doll bent on carrying out Barrymore’s revenge as he climbs down from a decorated house Christmas tree and climbs the stairs unnoticed by the police guards as he enters the sitting room where the crooked banker Matin nervously awaits his fate.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”