The Devil Doll, 1936. 8/10

Very bizarre horror/sci-fi fest. Lionel Barrymore, as the wrongly-convicted escaped prisoner Lavond, teams up with his partner’s wife Makita (Rafaela Ottiano) to exact revenge on the bankers who framed him. Sounds like a film-noir plot; but there’s much more than simple crime going on here.

His partner Marcel (Henry Waldhall) is a (very mad) mad scientist; shrinking critters and people for a sort of pre-New Age utopia. He croaks at an inopportune time. But that’s just plot: Ottiano is so spooky, her eyes bulging out like a 1950s alien, weird hair, the whole Pandora’s box of horror. Not to be outdone, Barrymore segues into a cunning female disguise, as he has to fool the Parisians and glom onto his intended victims. Carrying on Marcel’s people-shrinking process, he/she quickly establishes a legitimate doll-making business with Malita.

With these archetypal characters, the story takes on the exaggerated tone of a folk tale. A witch-like woman, a man who pretends to be a woman, little people controlled by them, three evil guys, and a happy young couple Lorraine and Toto (Maureen O’Sullivan and Frank Lawton). They’re Lavond’s daughter and her fiancee; the only ones here with a relationship that isn’t fractured or strained in some way.

The weirdest bit is the devil dolls’ (Grace Ford’s and Arthur Hohl’s) slave-like telepathic manipulation by Lavond and Malita. The special effects are very clever and well-thought-out for the most part. Particularly the scene where Radin (Hohl) pretends to be an ornament on a Christmas tree; following orders from Lavond, he sidles from his perch to sneak up on bad guy Matin (Pedro de Cordoba). Some sort of paralyzing serum is the little minion’s weapon.

Having neutralized his antagonists (without actually killing them), and been exonerated by the police, he’s pretty much in the clear. But Malita doesn’t want to give up their (live) doll business. The ol’ exploding flask deal takes care of both her and the evidence (their lab).

Still, this denouement doesn’t tie up the father/daughter subplot. Toto, somewhat surprisingly, keeps secret the knowledge that Lorraine’s father is alive and well. Lavond again pretends to be someone else (his dead partner Marcel) to her; he’s too ashamed of what he’s done to tell her the truth. This tidbit is taken as a hint that Lavond doesn’t want to live.

Other than a few slow spots, the only problem I have with Devil-Doll is this intrusive domestic subplot. That’s not to say that O’Sullivan and Lawton don’t give good performances–they do; but this stuff seems to belong to another movies altogether.

The Devil-Doll is greatly entertaining for Barrymore’s and Ottiano’s performances alone; the horror and sci-fi stuff adds to the brew. Recommended. 8/10.

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