Solomon E Pulls the Devil-Doll’s Strings

Good morning paralyzing preternatural puppeteers!

Today we’ll pull back the curtain of time in search of historic screams. This review will discuss a black and white picture called “The Devil-Doll” released under the strict industry guidelines known as the “Hays Code.” The Hays Code may have softened the horror elements in this loose adaption of the written story “Burn, Witch, Burn!” by Abraham Merritt.

The Devil-Doll is almost 80 minutes long and was released in the summer of 1936. Before we analyze the plot, let’s briefly discuss the main people involved in the production.

(SIDE NOTE: This is unrelated to the 1964 British horror film “Devil Doll.” Which is to say if you watch the sixties Devil Doll by mistake then you won’t see the correct film. Ask me how I know 😉 )

The presumably erroneous hyphen vexes me :\ Still, giving respect to the creative decision, I tried to maintain the hyphen whenever referencing the title.

Lionel Barrymore, a prolific actor and film director who died in 1954, played main character Paul Lavond. Lionel may be recognized by modern audiences as the actor who played unscrupulous businessman Henry Potter in the 1946 classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Lionel is also a member of the Barrymore family of American actors and thus is actress Drew Barrymore’s great uncle.

Maureen O’Sullivan played Paul Lavond’s daughter Lorraine. Maureen may be best known for playing Jane Parker in six Tarzan movies produced in the 1930s and 1940s. Frank Lawton played Lorraine’s boyfriend Toto. Lastly, Tod Browning directed this film. (SIDE NOTE: The poster’s tagline, Greater than “The Unholy Three,” presumably was a reference to a 1930 film by that name in which three sideshow performers commit crimes.)

The action begins with French scientist Marcel and unjustly imprisoned businessman Paul Lavond. The two are escaping an island prison, the infamous Devil’s Island.

Marcel invented a process to reduce things to one-sixth size by reducing all the atoms in a body simultaneously. When you put it that way shrinking someone sounds easy, not much to it! Unfortunately, this has a detrimental effect on memory and will, changing living organisms into mere puppets able to move only by the minds of others. Upon arriving at his laboratory, the obsessed scientist demonstrates his work to Paul.

^ Paul Lavond is on the left, Marcel is in the center, and Marcel’s wife Malita is on the right. They are examining several dogs which have been shrunk to 1/6th of their regular size. Maybe Malita is the grandmother of Marvel Comic’s Rogue given the similar hairstyles?

Paul Lavond was a banker in Paris until convicted of robbing his own bank and killing a night watchman. Paul is actually innocent, but was framed by three former business associates. Paul spent 17 years in prison and has become more than a little angry. (SIDE NOTE: Paul’s bank was never identified. Guess there was only one in all of Paris!)

My deepest appreciation to Taedis “The Terrifying!”, the world’s foremost size historian, for providing this image. It was taken from an issue of The Film Daily published in mid-1936. Follow Taedis on Twitter by clicking here!

It’s important to note that Paul is a complicated character. He is not unambiguously good. For example, when we first see the two of them Marcel describes Paul as having only hatred in his heart. Marcel says his work will allow the world to live. Paul says his work will help three men die. Paul’s quest initially appears only to right wrongs committed against him, not necessarily to prevent the three former business associates from hurting anyone else.

Additionally, Malita was not likeable. She treated her assistant Lachna poorly and called her a “moron.” Malita claimed that Lachna was an inbred, peasant half-wit taken from a Berlin slum. That humble background apparently justified Lachna’s poor treatment in Malita’s mind. Disregard for Lachna’s autonomy resulted in Lachna being shrunk, without consent, and robbed of whatever mental facilities she once possessed. Marcel and Malita felt justified in their actions as they believed that they had perfected the shrinking process. They assume that they will be able to “correct” Lachna’s mental deficiencies and give her a “perfect brain.” However, their assumption is proven faulty and Lachna was turned mindless, just like the toy-sized dogs.

It was unclear why cotton was necessary. Sure it covers the young woman’s naughty bits and preserves modesty. However, the mad scientist goes on to completely cover her in cotton from head to toe before releasing a mysterious mist.

Paul initially rebukes them. He says “This is wrong” and calls their actions “murder.” Not for nothing, but that was an accurate description. Lachna’s body lived on, but her mind was obliterated and therefore she had effectively been murdered.

While Lachna appears happy in reality she was irreversibly shrunken without consent. Not only was her height reduced, but worse of all she was essentially lobotomized and made brainless. In this film, shrunken people have no memories nor will of their own.

My sense is that the director wanted to get to the point where Paul was shrinking foes as quickly as possible. Accordingly, Marcel has a heart attack and his wife suggests that she and Paul move to Paris to continue Marcel’s work mere moments after the attack. Paul realizes that this gives him an opportunity for revenge.

However, why did no one think to check Marcel’s pulse, verify if had stopped breathing, or seek medical assistance? Nope, he’s definitely dead. Let’s continue the plan without him before his body begins to cool! 😉

An argument could be made that Marcel was an escaped convict; therefore, finding a doctor who would treat Marcel without alerting law enforcement would be difficult. Furthermore, Marcel had been physically separated from his wife for an unspecified amount of time, probably several years, so perhaps she did not care about him as much as she did before. Whatever the reason, his wife examined him for a few seconds after his heart attack then declared him dead. That felt rushed. At least put his still warm body in another room before deciding what to do next.

Matin, played by Pedro de Cordoba, was the most fun of the murderous and thieving businessmen. The trio first offered 50,000 francs for Paul’s recapture, but quickly raised the bounty to 100,000 francs. Matin said “There’s a certain amusing irony in offering a man’s own money for his capture.

Paul and Malita move their operation to Paris where Lavond disguises himself as an old lady. Paul dressed as “Madame Mandelip,” a.k.a. Madame Mandilip in the original story. The name was kept, albeit with a minuscule spelling change, but little else was maintained from the original. In Chapter XIII of Burn, Witch, Burn! Madame Mandilip was described as “… a giantess whose heavy face with its broad, high cheek bones, mustached upper lip and thick mouth produced a suggestion of masculinity grotesquely in contrast with the immense bosom.” Her mustache clearly inspired the name Mandilip.

A falsetto voice and white wig are all that is required to evade the police.

Paul was not a conventional hero. For the first half hour, his only motivation was revenge. He was also misanthropic telling Malita that if most men were reduced to the dimensions of their mentality then Marcel’s plan wouldn’t be necessary. Paul seems to think that the majority of men (presumably women as well) are dumb. Paul also strings Malita along, acting as if he intends to carry out Marcel’s plan to miniaturize humanity and thus prevent starvation. However, Paul really only works with Malita to attack those who wronged him.

One of Paul’s redeeming qualities is a love for his daughter Lorraine and a desire to ensure that Lorraine has a happy future with her boyfriend Toto. Paul’s false conviction ruined the family’s fortunes and reputation which drove his wife to suicide. Lorraine is now forced to work two jobs to barely make ends meet for herself and her grandmother. Accordingly, Lorraine hates her father and believes that Toto is wasting time courting her.

It’s easy to understand why Paul holds the men who framed him in such contempt, because they were responsible for so much pain. The motivation is clear and distinctly different than most modern size-fetish media in which a giant or a tiny does things only because that’s the creator’s fetish. Modern creators often fail to provide motives.

Still, the apparent ease with which Paul uses Lachna, an innocent person, to achieve his morbid ends should not be forgotten. He quickly gives up trying to restore Lachna to normal. Instead, Paul views her only as a tool to achieve goals. Although, to his credit, at the end he does claim that it was hideous and cruel. He also acknowledges that the lives of those shrunken were ruined.

^ Lachna, a short while before Paul telepathically controlled her to paralyze one of his foes.

I will not disclose the ending as even my formidable evilness has limits. It is sufficient to report that a full and satisfactory conclusion was provided.

Of note, at least one reviewer considered The Devil-Doll to be a “… dull picture.” That was Henry Kuttner’s (H. K.) opinion in the December 1936 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Nonetheless, H. K. also noted that “There are a few good shots of the animated dolls; although these are merely further developments of the homunculus scenes in ‘The Bride of Frankenstein.’ ” Personally, I enjoyed the special effects during the lengthy sequences of small people running about stabbing evil doers with mini-daggers.

According to Taedis, Tod Browning had worked with David “Stan” Horsley on 1932’s “Freaks.” Horsly was a cameraman for Freaks and had a bad experience on the set which caused him to hate Tod Browning. Horsley moved to another studio and turned his talents towards special effects. Accordingly, Browning was forced to pay Universal $50,000 when he used the miniature special effects techniques that Horsley invented for 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein.” It’s claimed that Horsley could have given Browning the techniques for free, but forced him to pay instead. (SIDE NOTE: Click here for a review of Bride of Frankenstein.) Taedis also noted that the Marx Brothers tested some of their gags in front of a live audience as an opening act before a showing in Cleveland.

Folks in modern times (and even people back then) might consider The Devil-Doll to be dull or slow. Still, I believe it’s worth a watch for those who enjoy a good story along with shrinkage. Overall, The Devil-Doll rates five poor Lachnas out of five. It is recommended viewing for those who like their tinies enacting vengeance on the wicked.

That’s it for today. Expect one more review before Halloween. Until then, keep screaming!

This review was written by Solomon E and is protected under Fair Use copyright law.

All Rights Reserved.

1 thought on “Solomon E Pulls the Devil-Doll’s Strings

  1. Henry Kuttner, of course, wrote the short story upon which the film Dr. Cyclops was based.

    Liked by 1 person

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