The Devil Doll Blu-ray Review: Tiny Human Dolls Help Lionel Barrymore Get Revenge

They steal! They kill! All at Lionel Barrymore’s will in The Devil Doll (1934) directed by Tod Browning (Dracula 1931, Freaks 1932). Barrymore plays a falsely imprisoned banker and prison escapee who seeks revenge in a very unsuspecting manner after many years locked away from his family.

Paul Lavond (Barrymore), who was wrongly convicted of robbing his own bank, escapes from prison with a French scientist named Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), who longs to continue his work alongside his wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). Lavond is hellbent on not only clearing his name but being able to provide for his aged mother and young daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan). Marcel is concerned with world hunger and has found a way to shrink animals and now humans so they can consume less food and resources. 

Marcel dies unexpectedly and Lavond, who loathes the idea of shrinking people, decides to team up with mad scientist Malita, only so he can use those tiny people to his advantage and exact his revenge. Armed with these tiny souls passed off as toy dolls that he can control with his mind, Lavond returns to Paris ready to strike fear, madness, and death in the hearts and minds of his enemies. To pull it all off, he’ll need to disguise himself but how? Perhaps as a matronly old toymaker? Muhahaha!

Barrymore shines in his odd dual roles as escapee and old woman toymaker. His voice work as the toymaker isn’t too corny but it does give off some Mrs. Doubtfire vibes. Tod Browning employs some of his usual themes throughout: characters with some sort of deformity, madness, revenge, and in this case, suicide, which is only really whispered about. He also takes a few pages from James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein not only with the “mad scientist creation” montage scene but also the use of similar special effects to bring the tiny people to life. The special effects aren’t bad especially for the time; I’m sure they were state of the art then. It’s a bit comical watching the little people sneak around on screen which at times includes some enormous set pieces that Browning demanded be to scale and totally work best for those scenes.

Special Features include an audio commentary by film historians Steve Haber and Constantine Nasr, both are really knowledgeable about The Devil Doll and its cast. They discuss and cite numerous aspects of filming the movie and how it struggled with the Hays Code offices and all their requests for scenes to be cut or reshot. The two give in-depth perspectives and insight on Lionel Barrymore, Tod Browning, and Lon Chaney, who Browning worked with many times. They go over many of Browning’s previous films including Dracula, The Unholy Three. Freaks, London After Midnight and its remake The Mark of the Vampire with Bela Lugosi. The pair point out how those movies all share certain aspects throughout The Devil Doll. They mention how Browning was eventually pushed out of Hollywood as times changed and his odd viewpoints were no longer wanted. They also speak about how Erich von Stroheim got writer credit and all the different drafts the story went through before a final version was settled on. A very interesting note is that at Browning’s insistence the Malita character was kept in the film and is the first  time we see a female mad scientist.  

The two early Looney Tunes cartoons are amusing to watch and one features a future staple of the short films. In Milk and Honey, we see a young Porky Pig pack up his old plowhorse and leave his father for the city in search of work, where he finds himself in a horse race with a pesky horsefly. In The Phantom Ship, we meet “Bean” and his two nephews as they fly off to find the missing titular ship. There’s skeletons and pirates and things that explode in wacky ways. Two black and white cartoon gems we don’t see very often any more. 

Special Features include 

  • New Audio Commentary by Film Historian Dr. Steve Haberman and Film Historian/filmmaker Constantain Nasr
  • Classic Cartoons Milk and Honey and The Phantom Ship
  • Original Theatrical Trailer 

Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll starring Lionel Barrymore is like The Unholy Three mashed up with Psycho, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Child’s Play’s Chucky. A delightfully odd way to spend an evening with some tea or a hot toddy this Halloween season. 

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Joe Garcia III

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