Directed By: Tod Browning
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O'Sullivan, Frank Lawton
Trivia: The film's working title was The Witch of Timbuctoo
Director Tod Browning’s next-to-last film (his final being Miracles for Sale in 1939), 1936’s The Devil-Doll is also one of his best, a wonderful blend of horror and melodrama that features a strong performance by Lionel Barrymore, playing both an escaped convict and a little old lady!
After 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, banker Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) escapes, intent on exacting revenge against three former associates who framed him. Joining him in the escape is Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), a scientist who’s perfected a formula by which he can shrink any living creature, human or otherwise, to one-sixth their normal size, which he believes will end world hunger (after all, smaller people won’t eat as much food). Shortly after the two of them reach his laboratory, Marcel dies. So, Lavond joins forces with his widow, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano), and heads to Paris, where, posing as an elderly woman, he opens a doll store and sets to work using Marcel’s formula to bring down his dishonest colleagues. By doing so, he hopes to both clear his name and win back the respect of his daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan), who’s been a social outcast ever since his arrest.
Lionel Barrymore is superb as Lavond, and even makes for a believable old woman (I liked how he went from full-on revenge mode to sweet little old lady in the blink of an eye). The special effects are strong as well, with Browning and company bringing Lavond’s “dolls” convincingly to life. In one scene, Lavond plants a female doll in a former associates house, which then wakes up in the middle of the night and steals a valuable necklace. Even knowing how these effects were achieved (using oversized sets and furniture to make the actors appear smaller than they are) doesn't make them any less impressive.
Equally as good are the film’s more dramatic moments, where Lavond, disguised as the old woman, interacts with his daughter, Lorraine, who, over the years, has grown to hate him. In the hands of lesser actors, these scenes might have come across as overly-sentimental, but Barrymore and O’Sullivan are subdued enough in their performances to generate real emotions during these encounters (their final meeting packs enough of a punch to bring a tear to your eye). By perfectly balancing fantasy with human drama, The Devil-Doll may just be the most complete motion picture Tod Browning ever made.