The Devil-Doll is one of those movies I stumbled across by accident. I am luck enough to work at night, and with that comes a bit of luxury. There is a TV in the room to keep us company on those long 12 hour shifts. I was shuffling through channels for something to occupy the part of my mind that wasn’t spoken for with other tasks and there it was. The black and white grain made me think “40’s maybe 50’s”. The man dressed like an old lady caught my attention. However, it was the tiny real woman in a trance mistaken for a doll that really sucked me in and I couldn’t take my eyes away. Did I mention I was at work? I guess a few stolen moments with this mysterious movie wouldn’t hurt.
I was wrong about the year. It was made in 1936. That really shocked me. The special effects are excellent for the time. Back then they didn’t have the benefit of computers, so they made big giant models of furniture and objects to make the tiny woman fit in just right. They also did the old cut and paste trick, which surprisingly looks pretty darn good.
The plan is to use the shrunken zombiefied folks (They aren’t pus and bloody zombies, just blindly staring into space zombies.) to get revenge on the people who wronged this cross dressing dude. I have nothing against cross dressing, and he only does it as part of his plan, but he’s a lot like the Mrs. Doubtfire of his time. He’s got a manly beauty I just can’t describe adequately. He pretends to be an old woman with a doll making shop, as he puts his plan in motion.
This man happens to be Lionel Barrymore, the great uncle of Drew Barrymore and he played the grumpy cynical Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. I didn’t know this while I was watching. His voice sounded so familiar, but I didn’t realize who he was until now when I looked the movie up online.
I won’t tell you if the plan succeeds. You should see it for yourself to find out. Watching a movie like this, having no idea what it was or what would happen is half the fun. I will add though, nearing the end Barrymore says, quite flippantly and with a dismissive sigh about the shrunken man and woman who shrunk for his evil deeds and then tossed in a basket like rag dolls, “Their lives are ruined but…blah blah blah” and then he just moves on to something else really quickly. It’s just so funny. Like they had the two humans being miniaturized for criminal activity and when the story is winding down they just toss them aside. It’s hysterical, almost like the whole movie was just some strung together wild shocking images and special effects with a flimsy story tagged on out of necessity…oh I know it never would happen THESE days, but way back then, ya know…we are so much more sophisticated now:).
There are moments that reflect the same tone of Wizard of Oz. The acting is rigid and melodramatic, but that’s how it was during that time in cinema history. There’s a cabby named Toto. He even says to his chick, “Remember me?” and she replies, “Oh Toto” with that 1930’s distressed finesse. It’s three years before Wizard of Oz, so I’m not sure if there’s a connection or it’s just a coincidence.
Ok, it’s not perfect. The story is a bit strange but oddly captivating. A man is wrongly accused of a crime and after many years escapes from Devil Island and proceeds to exact his revenge. He uses someone else’s diabolical plan and scientific discovery of how to shrink people down to Barbie Doll size. It’s so dramatic and over the top I got that creepy evil feeling. It’s great.
Another imperfection is that some of it is in France, but everyone speaks English with varying degrees of poor French accents. They go up on the Eifel Tower, but it’s got that look of very old school studio set with murky fake sky. Who cares? It’s still cool.
For me it has a pretty uneventful ending for such a bold movie. Actually, the best part of the end was that I watched it on a local Public TV station and apparently they put the DVD in their machine and forgot about it because it went back to the DVD menu. It only lasted a couple of minutes before someone got wise and flipped the switch to show the community calendar with a digital voice weather report and elevator music. Classy.
Overall I would say I fell in love with it for the mad science, the man from the 30’s in a dress, and the often stilted dialogue that would fill a whole site of obscure quotable treasures. The Devil-Doll is definitely worth your time and effort.