The Devil-Doll (1936)

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*. Why is the title hyphenated? And why is it singular? There are two devil dolls.
*. On the plus side, it helps to distinguish this film from Devil Doll (1964), an even stranger movie.
*. Tod Browning may have been a great American original and a master of the macabre, but there’s something unpleasant — not unsettling, or spooky, or uncanny exactly, but unpleasant — about his imagination.
*. Listen to how Marcel introduces his miniaturized dogs: “Toy? Forgive me, Lavond. Have you been locked away from life so long you don’t recognize a prisoner of life itself?” And later we’ll hear of how the paralyzed Coulvet is “imprisoned in his body.”
*. Browning’s victims are representative of the malady that is the human condition: not just fallen but deformed, crippled, imprisoned by life itself. It’s less scary than it is depressing.
*. The story here is weak, in large part because of hasty and significant changes demanded by the censors. Originally the dolls were to be created by witchcraft, and introducing the idea of a mad-if-not-bad scientist (Marcel sees himself as a humanitarian) made a mess of things. Where, we are left to wonder, does the power of mind control come from? Why does it attach to one person and not another? Voodoo might explain this, but science can’t.
*. I guess the censors also had some say in the resolution of the plot. The ending is dull, anti-climactic, and improbable. But Lavond had to be punished in some way for his transgressions, even if the exact nature of his punishment is left up in the air. He says that death is his plan, but we may wonder. Meanwhile, Maureen O’Sullivan and her faithful Toto are about as uninteresting as supporting characters can get.

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*. Here is Marcel explaining his scheme: “Lavond, my friend, millions of years ago the creatures that roamed this world were gigantic. As they multiplied, the earth could no longer produce enough food. Think of it, Lavond: every living creature reduced to one-sixth its size. One-sixth of its physical need. Food for six times all of us!” Do the math!
*. More weird science: if you take an in-bred peasant half-wit found in a Berlin slum and shrink her one-sixth the size, does that make her a full-wit? Not that it makes much difference, seeing as the dolls are totally under the power of their creators anyway.
*. There are little nods to The Bride of Frankenstein, a movie which came out the year before. The white streak in Malita’s hair for one, and the dolls who look like the little people Dr. Pretorious keeps in his jars. But the stripe of the skunk actually has an even longer pedigree as a mark of Cain. Peter Lorre had one as the psychopathic Abbott in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Bogart would sport a similar look a few years later in The Return of Doctor X.

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*. The cross-dressed villain wasn’t new either. Browning had Chaney in drag years earlier in The Unholy Three (1925).
*. This isn’t much of a movie. It was an attempt by Browning to try and recapture some of his quickly fading glory, and it failed. Aside from that, it seems mainly to have been devised as a way of showcasing the special effects, which are actually quite well done. The scene that has Lachna climbing the dresser to steal the jewels is particularly good. Otherwise, it’s all a terrible mess.

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