Lionel Barrymore is Paul Lavond in The Devil-Doll (1936). He has broken out of a French prison along with a fellow convict, Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), who is deathly ill. They make their way to an island where Marcel's wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) has her laboratory.
Marcel informs Malita that he deduced the answer to their research while in "that cesspool" of little minds. He promises, "The next one will have a perfect brain!"
They have a method of miniaturization of any life form. Marcel has a utopian dream of shrinking everything in the world as a cure for overpopulation.
After exhibiting for Paul's edification a collection of miniature dogs, the mad-scientist couple then plan to shrink "a peasant halfwit" (Grace Ford) who has been Malita's inept maid. The improved process Marcel believes will correct Lachna's mental retardation. She'll be a perfect mini-person with a perfect brain.
The problem with the process has always been that shrunken animals lose their capacity to move, think, breathe, but are turned into statuettes that spring to life only if a controling human mind concentrates to bring them to life. But Lachna as the first human doll is supposed to be independent of this requirement. Alas, it turns out Marcel after all hasn't solved the side-effects of the process.
Lavond realizes that what this husband & wife team are up to is insanity, with none of the ideal values they have crazily imagined.
However, he sees it as the perfect means of vengeance against the Parisian businessmen who were responsible for his imprisonment for crimes actually their own.
When Marcel has died, Malita is easily convinced by Paul that their experiments can continue with his assistance. They move to Paris & open a toyshop, which Paul operates while disguised as a sweet little old lady, Madame Mandelip. The toys they sell include miniaturized animals.
It's curious that of the films Tod Browning directed, at least three feature transvestism: Joseph/Josephine of Freaks (1932), & "Granny O'Grady" played by Lon Chaney in both the silent & sound versions of The Unholy Three (1925, 1930) who is pretty much identical to Barrymore in old lady drag.
Lavond has a daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O'Sullivan), who is a veritable slave to a laundry company. She believes her father was truly a criminal, & has grown up hating him, though Lavond's mother (Lucy Beaumont) still believes in him & has tried to convince Lorraine that she would know her father was a good man if only she'd been a little older when he was imprisoned.
Lavond dreams of clearing his name & making amends with Lorraine, but his path of vengeance trumps his desire for family.
No one suspects Madame Mandelip the dollmaker is actually the escaped convict, for whose recapture the three worried businessmen have put up a sizeable reward.
The first the three enemies he shrinks is Radin (Arthur Hohl), after having convinced him to invest in "her" amazing process of making toys that can seemingly come to life, using a tiny horse as example.
He then plots a different vengeance against Coulvet (Robert Greig). He uses the "doll" Lachna to rob Coulvet's house. The sequence with tiny Lachna stalking over Coulvet's bedspread in her tango or Apache-dance outfit, with her teency poison dagger, is just endearingly spooky. The toxin induces permanent paralysis, & Coulvet will live out his life motionless but aware.
Now only one foe remains, Matin (Pedro de Cordoba), who when his business partners vanish figures out Lovond is somehow behind it. But there's no escaping a hideous fate.
When Lavond's vengeance is achieved, he plans to just vanish from the world, as he can never really return to what he once had been. Having insured himself that Lorraine's future is set, it remains to do one last thing before he disappears.
Knowing the horror Marcel & Malita's invention really is, he sets out to destroy the terrible shrinking equipment. Malita, still devoted to her late husband's insane dream of shrinking the entire world, turns against Lavond intent on shrinking him. Failing that, she'll set off a explosives, destroying her dreams & the toystore.
Based on a novel by legendary pulp writer A. Merritt, adapted as a screenplay by Guy Endore the author of the 1933 novel Werewolf of Paris, with input from Garrett Fort. Add the great character actor & Decadent director Eric von Stroheim, & classic horror director Tod Browning, & there's clearly no derth of talent went into this film, with just about everyone involved very broadly enthusiastic about horror.
It's no classic like Freaks, but it's distinctly fun, with appropriately melodramatic performances by a delightful cast. The secret "toy" factory in the toyshop is minimalist for conveying weird scientific equipment but it's a nice set even so, & the FX for shrunken animals & people are likewise kept simple but very appealing.
So if you're in the "mood" for experiencing & appreciating period horror it's authentically scary stuff. A viewer who can't quite relate to it in the spirit of its era will yet enjoy it, but probably find it a mite comical, which is still enjoyable.
Devil Doll (1964) & Dummy (2003)
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl