Saturday pizza and bad movie night with Svengoolie. This was an old-fashioned melodrama of sorts. And pizza.
Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) and an elderly Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) escape Devil’s Island—no mean feat. They arrive at Marcel’s home, where his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) has been carrying on his experiments in shrinking living beings, namely dogs, small enough to be held in one’s hand. Malita uses a crutch for a bad leg and has a white streak in her hair, a la the bride of Frankenstein. Marcel’s idea is that because smaller animals need less food to survive, there will be no more food shortages. This is all for the good of mankind.
Marcel and Malita did not experiment on humans because there seem to be problems with the smaller animals’ minds. They lose all will of their own and will only act when commanded. Marcel says he has now figured out how to overcome that problem. Tragically, he dies while showing Lavond how to use the miniaturizing machine on the servant girl, Lachna (Grace Ford).
Some months later, in Paris, three bankers read of the prison escape, which the police have only now made public. They expect the convict Lavond to return to Paris, where his aged mother still lives. The bankers falsely accused Lavond of embezzlement and murder. This could go very bad for them.
At about the same time, an elderly woman with a robust frame, Madame Mandelip, opens a doll shop in Paris. Her assistant uses a crutch for a bad leg and has a white streak in her hair. Her dolls are incredibly life-like.
Madame Mandelip has become friendly with a young girl who works in a laundry, Lorraine Lavond (Maureen O’Sullivan). She even calls on the young girl’s grandmother, Mme. Lavond (Lucy Beaumont), where she learns that Lorraine has not forgiven her father for being a convict and leaving the family in poverty.
Because he can control the dolls through a type of hypnosis, Lavond sends them out to steal from the bankers who unjustly accused him and to physically injure them. He seeks not to kill the men but to destroy.
More than vengeance on the bankers, he wishes to win the love of his daughter.
What happened to all the dogs, normal and miniaturized, when Lavond and Malita set out for Paris?
The special effects would not pass muster for 2020, but for 1936, they seem quite nice. The human “dolls” crawl across furniture and bedding. The dogs, however, are another matter. When Marcel and Lavond hold the miniature dogs in their hands, they are quite clearly toy dogs. The story explains their lethargy as a lack of will brought on by the miniaturization process. Once they are given commands, they spring to life, not in the hand, but on the tabletop.
One of the dolls is a miniaturized banker, Victor Radin (Arthur Hohl). Madame Mandelip brought a doll to show him as a means to persuade him to invest in her shop. She ended up injecting him with a paralyzing agent, then shrinking him, thus robbing him of will and stature.
In one sequence, little Radin and little Lachna, led by a gleeful Malita, perform a dance on a tabletop. For no apparent reason, little Radin slaps little Lachna and throws her to the ground. He then twirls her almost like an ice skater, sending her spinning over the table edge onto the floor. Oh, what a time for the shop’s bell to ring!
A customer refers to a weeping Lachna doll with a term that that sounds like “apasch.” A little searching revealed it’s spelled “Apache” and denotes a style of dance popular in the early twentieth century in France. The name was drawn from Parisian street gangs and involved slapping, kicking, or throwing one’s partner around—presumably, these were stage rather than actual blows. I found a couple of clips from the 30s. These were hard for me to watch, even though I admired the athleticism of the couples.
Yeah, so this is what Malita had Radin and Lachna doing to each other for her entertainment.
The movie offers some comic relief also. A policeman comes to call after a necklace belonging to one a wife of one of the bankers. It’s known that Madame Mandelip was at the banker’s house the day before, admiring the necklace. He’s already pried the gem out of its setting. Malita has to hide it while Madame Mandelip and the officer are talking.
The movie is based on the 1932 novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by weird fiction author Abraham Merritt.
The ending was not what I expected, frankly, it did pose the question, abstractly: is revenge worth it?
Title: The Devil Doll (1936)
Guy Endore…(screenplay) and
Erich von Stroheim…(screenplay) (as Eric Von Stroheim)
Abraham Merritt…(novel) (Burn, Witch, Burn)
Richard Schayer…(contributor to dialogue) (uncredited)
Cast (in credits order)
Lionel Barrymore…Paul Lavond
Maureen O’Sullivan…Lorraine Lavond
Robert Greig…Emil Coulvet
Released: July 10, 1936
Length: 1 hour, 18 minutes