May 15, 2007
The Devil-Doll (1936)
While he is famous for being the mind behind Universal's 1931 horror classic, "Dracula", director Tod Browning is also often labeled as another of the director who struggled the most when the invention of movies with sound arrived to cinema, smashing the careers of many professionals of the silent medium. One of the best American directors of silents, Browning did struggle with "talkies", but thanks to the enormous success of "Dracula", found himself in a very good position. Sadly, "Freaks", his next film, became so controversial that he lost the favor of the audience and the studios, who were not ready to the tale of the love between a midget and a "normal" woman. While he managed to recover from this, he never had again the commercial success of "Dracula"; a real shame, because in 1936 he directed the film that finally proved that he had understood the benefits of the new sound era: "The Devil-Doll".
In this film, Lionel Barrymore plays Paul Lavond, a former banker who was wrongfully accused of fraud and sent to prison for 17 years. In prison he meets another convict named Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), an odd scientist who becomes his friend and plan their escape together. After escaping, they hide in Marcel's house, where Lavond discovers that Marcel and his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) invented a way to minimize objects, in an attempt to reduce people in order to save space and food. Sadly, the process damages the brains of living beings, reducing them to puppets who can be easily controlled with the mind. Lavond is at first horrified by this insanity, but after the sudden death of Marcel, he decides to help Malita if she agrees to help him in his revenge. Now, disguised as an innocent old lady, Lavond returns to Paris with his devilish living dolls, decided to make those who send him to prison pay for every year he spent without his family.
The story was written by Browning himself, giving his very own spin to the plot of Abraham Merritt's novel "Burn Witch Burn"; however, the screenplay was done by Guy Endore, Garrett Fort and Erich Von Stroheim, so actually very few remains from Merritt's novel in the movie, and it's truly more a Browning film. As usual in his stories, Browning focuses on the misadventures of an outcast, in this case Paul Lavond, who while being the hero of the story, has to resort to brutal crimes to achieve his vengeance, almost like a horror retelling of "The Count of Montecristo". The story unfolds nicely, and despite being more than 70 years old, it still feels fresh and original. This is definitely because the characters of the film are so very well developed that truly feel and act like real complex persons despite the fantasy elements of the story.
Now, the true surprise of the film is definitely Tod Browning's effective direction of the whole thing. While he is revered for his work in "Dracula" and "Freaks", most critics and fans tend to agree that his best work happened in the silent era, as those films (as well as "Mark of the Vampire") have their best scenes in the silent parts. Well, this movie proves that idea wrong, as not only "The Devil-Doll" is heavily based on dialog, it is remarkably well-executed and is definitely on par with most of Browning's best silent films. As usual, Browning mixes horror and black comedy in a delightful subtle way, even referencing his own classic "The Unholy Three" in occasions. Finally, it must also be pointed out that in this film Browning crafts truly impressive scenes with special effects that still look awe inspiring even today.
Of course, not everything is about Browning, as certainly without his superb cast the final result would be very different. Lionel Barrymore is simply amazing as Paul Levond, portraying the tragic figure of the good man consumed by hate, forced to commit crimes to clean his name. Barrymore was a master of his craft, and he proves it in the scenes where he must disguise himself as an old lady. Maureen O'Sullivan and Frank Lawton, fresh from Cukor's version of "David Copperfield", are reunited again, playing Lavond's daughter and the man in love with her. The two of them are very natural, but is O'Sullivan's talent the one that shines the most. Italian actress Rafaela Ottiano gives a very good and scary performance, although the fact that Barrymore's character is the focus of the film limits her screen time quite a lot. Overall the cast is pretty effective, and one of the main reasons of the movie's high quality.
It's a shame that Browning's career was considered beyond redemption after the huge commercial failure of the misunderstood "Freaks", as this movie proves that there was still a lot in Browning to give after mastering the craft of making "talkies". While it's hard to deny the importance and value of both "Dracula" and "Freaks", it is only in this movie where Browning shows a true understanding of the new technology, as while the movie is still very visual, it's at its core a very dialog oriented film, and Browning demonstrates he can handle it. While the story has that feeling of being taken straight from a pulp novel, it's very emotional and dramatic (without being overtly sappy), and it could be said that it's in this movie where Browning finally combines the best of both worlds.
Like most people, I too used to believe that Browning's best days happened along Lon Chaney during the years of the silent era, however, "The Devil-Doll" is a film that has made me reconsider that thought as this movie has everything that made Browning great in the silents, as well as his full domination of the new technology. While definitely nowhere near "Dracula" or "Freaks", this is a "talkie" that shows him at his best.