the devil-doll (1936)
A few years after Freaks almost ended his career (and just before it eventually did end) as a director, Tod Browning was still spinning his strange tales with 1936's The Devil-Doll. What amounts to an off-shoot of Whale's miniature people in The Bride of Frankenstein one year earlier and Lionel Barrymore dressed in drag as an old woman ensues. The picture is able to shed its bizarre premise in many scenes and become a human tale of a wrongfully-accused father trying to clear his name in the eyes of a daughter who despises him. It's here that the film really takes shape and the best scenes results, not from the special effects, but from the simple act of a man seeking vengeance and righting a wrong. Browning wishes to bring us a tale of mad science and mind control, with the perspective of a form of eugenics; science trying to perfect man and to perfect the life that it sees around itself. We also see a man who would use these discoveries to his own end, without concern for how it will affect the people that he's using, though the script does try to present Barrymore as disgusted with the manipulation and at least slightly deranged by his quest as exemplified in Barrymore's means to his end via cross-dressing and playing a part to disguise himself.
The Devil-Doll plays out a world of mechanisms and people used as pawns to effect. Barrymore has a score to settle and will go outside the norms of society at every turn to get things done. His schemes are based on mind control and manipulation of others' will (and adherence to norms), yet Browning never crafts any more elaborate set pieces that might bring this into the forefront. The themes are left to linger in the background and the story of father and daughter comfortably take center stage, likely because it was an easier pill to swallow than the tale of a deranged madman. Unlike many pictures of the time, Browning does not make a point of trying to clear the morally ambiguous proceedings and add any sort of righteousness to Barrymore's deeds than is inherent in the story. The real disappointments come from not enough being done with a fertile, yet bizarre, premise. The joys of the film lie in the offbeat and perverse acts themselves, of seeing each character used as fodder for Barrymore who, as an ex-banker, was likely accustomed to living freely and outside of the law due to his standing as a citizen. The strange resemblance to The Bride of Frankenstein is in the white streak in the wife of the scientist's hair, the little people and Franz Waxman's score, and it's not unwelcome although this film is not on par with Whale's whereas Browning's Dracula some years earlier was leaps and bounds ahead of Whale's initial Frankenstein. The bittersweet conclusion of the film goes a long way to solidify its themes of disguise and deceit in the name of justice. The law, as Browning sees here is too adherent to old forms of hierarchy and too easily manipulated, where science may give power to those who are truly correct in their own ways.
The Devil-Doll is an experience of significant imagination, as well a picture willing to dive into the esoteric sciences. We see a large deal of time paid to the strength of the will early in the picture. Barrymore's will to live and carry out vengeance, the act of shrinking the brain of another and having the will become subservient to those more powerful than it. The act of turning human beings into drones of a sort. Browning's was a career that was sure to bear even stranger and deeper fruit had he been able to continue directing, but what he did create is strong cinema that weaves its way into the murky and strange subconscious. For that, The Devil-Doll is a picture worth seeing, and an experience that continues to have greater relevance as we see the continued effects of the science of manipulation on and on through time.