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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Devil-Doll

Sharing a disc with Mad Love is another MGM horror film, Tod Browning's The Devil-Doll, from 1936. It is also a weird to the point of goofy flick, with some ahead-of-their-time special effects and a performance by Lionel Barrymore given primarily in drag.

A pair of French convicts escape from prison. They are Barrymore, as a wrongly convicted banker who was set up by his three partners and upon whom he swears revenge, and Henry B. Walthall, in full mad-scientist mode. He leads them to a remote shack, where his wife Rafaela Ottiano, continues his experiments. They are endeavoring to save mankind. How? By coming up with a way to shrink everyone to one-sixth their size, so the food will stretch further. They don't mention how people who are only a foot high will harvest watermelons.

Barrymore thinks they're nuts, but after Walthall dies he figures he can use the technology to his advantage. He goes to Paris in disguise, as a little old lady who operates a toy shop. He tricks one of the bankers into the shop, and the guy is shrunk down to doll size.

The concept is pretty creepy. As a kid I always thought the idea of miniature people was disturbing--in Bride of Frankenstein the scene in which Dr. Praetorious reveals his miniature king and queen gave me the willies. However, it's not all that terrifying here. The special effects are primitive, but certainly for the time must have been quite dazzling, and there are some elaborate oversized sets for the dolls to run around, making them look only a foot tall.

What makes this film better than average is the humanity that's lying underneath. Barrymore, who was railroaded, lost his wife to suicide and his daughter (the lovely Maureen O'Sullivan) has hated him ever since. They share a touching scene at the end of the film on top of the Eiffel Tower, though O'Sullivan never learns that she's actually speaking to her father.

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