Devil Doll - 1936 - Todd Browning Lionel Barrymore - Maureen O’Sullivan Script Eric von Stroheim, Garrett Fort, Guy Endore
Viewed Side Cinema - 30 01 05
Devil Doll is the almost last crack of the whip for Todd Browning his last show as the heretic Ring Master before being outed and dumped by the Hollywood Inquisition. The last shot of Devil Doll sees the protagonist descending the heights of the Eiffel Tower from the domain of the Gods to the inconsequential level of the mortals. It is a long descent in the gloom and feels like a final exit.
Devil Doll is a film that flows across the screen like a dream that is comprised of a number discrete sections, all interrelated but characterised by breaks in continuity. The discontinuities resolve themselves as dream unfolding, a circus circus of dreams. Devil Doll is Browning’s transposed circus of the freaks and the disinherited and it is structured as a series of circus acts. Devil Doll is a film of the vengeance taken by the mutants on the straight world. It is Browning’s coda, a final statement of his integrity.
As in dreams or circuses, discontinuities don’t matter because the strength of the underlying logic drives the imagery and story we are watching, short circuits the need for narrative rationale. We take each sequence, each act as it comes. From Devil Doll’s opening shot of a searchlight beam directed straight out from the screen into the eyes of the audience temporarily dazzling us before swinging round into the forest where the hunt is on for two escaped prisoners, to the strange Parisian toyshop and the miniaturisation sequences, we are caste into the circus of revenge. With sardonic charm Ring Master Browning introduces us to his collection of freaks cripples and clowns who will grapple and finally overcome the forces of the straight world of the smug the mean and the fat.
Barrymore, the clown in chief, plays to the house as a cross dressing old lady whose mission is the revenge killing of the greedy bankers who have robbed him and destroyed his life completely. The high points of the film are the miniaturisation sequences in which the live humans are reduced to the size of tiny dolls, in order to carry out the revenge as directed by Barrymore. There is something in the technical affectation of these ‘freak’ sections which are effected by mechanical and optical devices(traveling mattes and the building of large sets) that makes them the more powerful than the seamless digital effects of today. The point I think is that although the effects are technically superbly done in Devil Doll ( in particular the scene where the miniature woman doll extricates herself from under the crooked elbow of little girl sleeping in her cot) there is in them an aspect that is both slightly gauche and magical. The sequences have the quality of Hans Christian Anderson’s stories like the Tin Soldier of the Little Flower Girl, where fragility is central to the creation of the character. The Tin Soldier and the Little Flower Girl are coruscating shimmering creations whose vulnerability permeates their stories. Browning’s image creations with use of effectively simple mechanical technology has a similar quality: it is child-like and warm . Today’s digital effects have a colder feel to them. The comparatively easy production of digitised effects makes anything possible and fragility of image is often less in evidence than the confident excess of facile mastery.
The subplot has two lovers(one of whom is Barrymore’s estranged daughter) whose preferred meeting place is at the top of the Eiffel tower. Only when up in the Gods can they find meaning away from the humdrum pull of life’s gravitational mass. There is something about this arrangement that belongs to dream logic. But it is also a part of the film’s circus assemblage, as you realise that these lovers are Browning’s trapeze artists, dazzling aerialists who only find happiness in the defiance of gravity.
The end sequence takes place on Eiffel’s high platform and ends the film on the dark directorial note alluded to earlier, with Barrymore’s descent of the tower in the lift. Down down down. The shadows of the girders move across his face as he goes down. From what he has said we know that having completed his revenge that he is going, in one form or another, to kill himself. Given that Browning knew that this would be one of his last films, if not his last this is surely a personal statement. Browning’s realisation of Freaks had disgusted Mayer at MGM and Browning knew he was working out his contract. It was the end for him. He was an apostate filmmaker who had challenged the Hollywood ideology of ‘ideal type’ representation. In the Hollywood catechism, it is not the place of the crippled or the mutants to lead the way. These are outcast. Only the whole and the unblemished may take the lead across the silver screen. Browning broke this primal canon of the Hollywood coda. He paid the price.