Daily Projections, 5-21-2019: The Devil Doll (1936)

Title: The Devil Doll
Director: Tod Browning
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1936
Screening format: tV (TCM)
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

A wrongly convicted prison escapee takes advantage of a deceased acquaintance’s technology enabling him to shrink human beings down to doll size and control them with his mind. He sets up shop, disguised as an old woman, in Paris and uses his dolls to exact revenge on the people who framed him and to clear his name so his daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) and mother may live without shame. It sounds like a Tod Browning movie because it is, made perhaps even more Tod Browning-y by cowriter Erich von Stroheim. Somehow, the “wrongly convicted” aspect of The Devil Doll makes the idea of the ever-grandfatherly Lionel Barrymore roaming around Paris killing people moderately more palatable, though there is still the element of Barrymore in drag to contend with. Maureen O’Sullivan is charming enough in her role as Barrymore’s estranged daughter, though somehow she doesn’t make nearly the impression of her fiancé Toto (played by Frank Lawton). Interesting moral concepts arise at multiple points during the film, issues like guilt and shame and revenge. Barrymore’s Lavond frequently shows signs of guilt over his actions – in an “it took prison to turn me into a criminal” kind of way – though any sense of guilt is ultimately trumped by a sense of responsibility to his remaining family.

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