Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Special: The Devil Doll, 1936

Tod Browning and Lionel Barrymore

This 1936 film distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and directed by famed horror director Tod Browning, starred a cross-dressing Lionel Barrymore and, as his estranged daughter, Maureen O’Sullivan.

This is a strange and wonderful film which has only come back into public attention as people have begin to rediscover their appreciation for the superb work of Tod Browning. Brilliantly directed and neatly acted, the film also features special effects which—at the time—were cutting edge. Remember, this was long before images could be manipulated with computers. The effects here are artistic tricks of the cinematographer and the brilliance of the set and prop departments. 

Paul Lavond and Marcel
The story focuses on an escaped convict, Paul Lavond (Barrymore), who had been wrongly accused of killing a night watchman and robbing his own Parisian Bank. After being incarcerated unjustly for seventeen years, Lavond escapes the prison at “Devil’s Island” with a slightly mad friend, Marcel (Henry B. Walthal). Marcel brings Paul to his home where Paul meets Marcel’s peculiar wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). Marcel explains that he is a scientist who has been working on an experiment that would ensure that the earth would never run out of food. That sounds like a good idea. Right? Well, it’s not without its costs. You see, Marcel’s idea involved shrinking people and animals to one–sixth their original size. He figures that means there’d be six times more food and resources for everyone. 

Barrymore as Madame Mandelip
During an experiment, Marcel becomes a tad overexcited, has a heart attack and dies. Malita pleads with Paul to help her and Paul agrees to lend the widow a hand. His ideas are far more sinister than those of Marcel and Malita. Paul wants to use this power to shrink human beings as a means of exacting revenge against his former partners who framed him for the theft. He returns to Paris with Malita. However, since he knows he’ll be recognized, Paul goes in disguise—that of one Madame Mandelip, an elderly woman who runs a toy shop. Paul sets his plan into motion and tries to reunite with his mother and daughter. His daughter seems quite fond of Madame Mandelip and shares how she’ll never forgive his father for his crimes. As Paul’s plan continues, he realizes that it’s far too wicked. But, is it too late? Watch and see.

This picture is bizarre. It’s well written, beautifully acted and brilliantly directed. Besides, how could you go wrong with Lionel Barrymore—especially when he’s wearing dangly drop earrings which swing around his head as he speaks?

If you’ve never seen The Devil-Doll, you simply must. It’s the perfect way to end your Halloween.

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