The Devil-Doll (1936) originally titled The Witch of Timbuctoo, was the second to the last film directed by Tod Browning who is best known for directing of Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), and string of classic silent films with Lon Chaney.
Lionel Barrymore, an actor of stage, screen and radio as well as a film director, best known for the role of the villainous Mr. Potter, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), played the lead role of Paul Lavond an escaped convict. Barrymore had won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in A Free Soul (1931). Barrymore was also a composer. His works ranged from solo piano pieces including "Scherzo Grotesque" and "Song Without Words", to large-scale orchestral works, such as "Tableau Russe".
Maureen O'Sullivan, whose career lasted over 50 years and was often dubbed 'Ireland's first film star’ played Lorraine, Lavond’s daughter. During her career O’Sullivan appeared as Jane in 6 Tarzan films from 1932 to 1942 and also starred in such films as The Thin Man (1934), Pride and Prejudice (1940), and modern classics such as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).
The movie was adapted from the novel Burn Witch Burn! (1936) by Abraham Merritt. Merritt known by his byline, A. Merritt, was an American Sunday magazine editor and a writer of fantastic fiction. He was inducted into The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Austrian director, Erich von Stroheim who was also an actor and producer, co-wrote the screenplay along with Browning. Horror novelist and screenwriters Samuel Guy Endore and Garrett Elsden Fort who is best known for his screen adaptations of such as Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), Dracula's Daughter (1936), and The Mark of Zorro (1940), also contributed their talents to the elaborate script.
Like most of Todd Browning’s films, The Devil Doll (1936) was a twisted and complicated tale featuring a cross dressing Barrymore and (Devil) dolls dressed as members of the Parisian street gang known as the Apache. The Apache (pronounced ah-PAHSH), gang members were reportedly involved in theft, prostitution, and the occasional murder in pre-World War I Paris. The Apaches were often associated with the Parisian districts of Belleville, la Bastille, La Villette and Montmartre which was the location of the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub. In the film the dolls perform the Apache dance popularized by the gangs, in which extremely close steps alternate with series of brutal punches, kicks, hair-pulling, spins, and throws.
The film is notable for its outstanding miniature work (at least for its time). Most of the miniature work was accomplished using over oversized sets and camera effects. It has been pointed out by many viewers that in some scenes the miniature humans and animals do not cast a shadow, nor does Lachna make any indentions on her victim’s blanket as she is walking on it. Despite its special effects and respectable camera work The Devil Doll (1936) was a disappointment at the box office.
Horror films released in 1936 were not as nearly profitable as their predecessors. The Devil Doll (1936) released on July 10, 1936 with a budget of 391,000 ended up making only a $68,000 profit. Yet it was Tod Browning’s most successful film in several years but was nowhere close to the box office performance of his former films. The Devil Doll (1936) with its meager earnings marked the beginning of the end of Browning’s career. MGM felt that he had lost his magic touch. Miracles for Sale (1939) released three years later would be his final film.
The Devil Doll (1936) is not Browning’s worst film but it is certainly not his best. Watching the film one gets the feeling that the director was trying desperately to recapture the magic that he had lost and despite his best effort somehow came up short. The Devil Doll (1936) is not a bad film, it is to say the least entertaining and for the fans of Barrymore and O’Sullivan and for those who enjoy the Browning brand of the bizarre, the film is a must see.