30 April 2007

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Guy Endore, Garrett Fort & Erich von Stroheim

Grade: B+

The Devil Doll, directed by Tod Browning (Freaks, Dracula), has a few things going for it aside from its reliable director; most strikingly, it has Lionel Barrymore in drag for the bulk of its running time. (If only George Bailey had known his rival's dirty secret! He may have had some leverage.) Barrymore plays Paul Lavond, an erstwhile banker framed for embezzlement, who escapes from prison along with a mad scientist, Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), who brings Lavond to his secret laboratory in the swamp to show off his incredible shrinking potion; it can transform anything—or anyone—to pint-size, and also conveniently allows the shrinker to control the shrunken's mind. The science is a little fuzzy here—free will depends on the size of our brains?—but before you could call anyone on it the scientist character is killed off (and coincidentally, shortly after filming, Walthall died in real life as well), leaving Lavond in control of his potions and ripe for revenge against the three slimy bankers who set him up, soiled his name, shamed his daughter, drove his wife to suicide, and sent him to the clink.

But, as a jail bird and Public Enemy No. 1, how can he stay in and get around Paris to exact his vengeance without being re-arrested? How about by opening a "doll" shop and dressing as a little old lady? Barrymore is a hoot, but this is a horror movie, not a comedy and, thankfully, he manages not to allow his performance to become bawdy in that Mrs. Doubtfire/White Chicks sort of way common to contemporary crossdressing films. (I know, I know, it's a tired complaint: "they don't make drag queen pictures like they used to!") In fact, he’s often so convincing throughout that it’s easy to forget it’s even him underneath that costume.

Reflecting the dual nature of Barrymore's transvestism, there's a lot of double entendre in the dialogue, such as a self-reflexive moment in the final scene as well as a conversation early in the film between Lavond and Marcel's wife. “I may not look it,” he tells her, “but I was once a successful banker.” The slumming Barrymore seems to be saying, with gravelly disappointment, “you may not be able to tell from the silly horror movie I’m in, but I used to be a respected actor of the stage.” Not even B-movies, however, could diminish Barrymore’s acting prowess, and he gets to show off his range, from his familiar Mr. Potter scowl to the sweet and funny disposition of an old woman; he is at his best in a hilarious scene in which a police officer comes to ask questions and s/he goes into hysterics. "Oh, what will the neighbors say?" he screeches in a falsetto. Indeed!

Lavond shrinks a couple of people, and uses them to kill, paralyze, and torment his foes one by one. The special effects are sophisticated, showing the miniaturized assassins with a clever combination of rear projection and oversized set design. Also notable is that The Devil Doll is somewhat class conscious, a rarity for a Hollywood film; for a slight example, while Lavond stalks his enemies as the old lady, he's constantly shooed away with disgust and disdain for being a lowly peddler. But while The Devil Doll might seem to be subversive, pro-Soviet agitprop, with its literally “little" guys exacting justice by knifepoint on wealthy and powerful bankers, it's actually moreso a subtle shade of anti-Communist, as its mini-killers are the victims of a madman's mind control. Lavond's soldiers are brainwashed slaves, like Lilliputian Manchurian candidates.

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