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Paul Lavond, a falsely incarcerated businessman, and Marcel, a maniacal inventor, escape from prison on Devil's Island, and take refuge at the latter's former laboratory where they are welcomed by Marcel's wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). The ailing scientist reveals to Lavond his secret formula for reducing living creatures to a fraction of their original size. Following Marcel's death, Lavond returns to France to extract revenge on the three bankers who framed him and left his daughter destitute. With the assistance of Malita, Lavond opens a toy shop where he poses as a kindly old woman and begins a campaign of terror.
Few critics, if any, have ever commented on Tod Browning's visual style, which could best be described as static and resembling a photographed stage play. This is certainly true of his most famous film, Dracula (1931) but The Devil Doll is another matter entirely. It's a very smooth, visually accomplished piece of cinema that has earned it a cult following in recent years. The special effects are impressive for the era, particularly the scenes featuring oversized sets and "miniature" people. Also part of the film's cult appeal is Browning's twisted sense of humor, which is most evident in the scenes with Malita who becomes addicted to miniaturizing humans. It's actually surprising that the Hays Office didn't have major censorship issues with The Devil Doll but they did dictate a moralistic ending in which the Barrymore character atones for his crimes.
Odd as The Devil Doll may sound (it was co-scripted by Erich Von Stroheim), it fits well within the Browning canon of bizarre storylines. His other films include The Unknown (1927), where Lon Chaney deliberately fashions himself into a sideshow freak by having his arms amputated. It's an unclassifiable film that effectively conveys a sense of humanity and unity among the sideshow circus performers (dwarfs, hermaphrodites, pinheads, etc.) and it is arguably Browning's most personal and cathartic film (Browning was a teenage runaway who joined a traveling carnival).
Director: Tod Browning
Producer: Edward J. Mannix
Screenplay: Garrett Fort, Guy Endore, Erich Von Stroheim (based on the novel Burn Witch Burn by Abraham Merritt)
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Editor: Frederick Y. Smith
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Lionel Barrymore (Paul Lavond), Henry B. Walthall (Marcel), Maureen O'Sullivan (Lorraine Lavond), Rafaela Ottiano (Malita), Frank Lawton (Toto), Robert Greig (Coulvet), Lucy Beaumont (Mme. Lavond).
by Michael Toole