Tod Browning Frank S. Nugent - Essay

Frank S. Nugent

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "The Devil Doll" you will find a St. Bernard, a Great Dane and a circus horse reduced to mouse-like dimensions. By the same magic, Arthur Hohl, Grace Ford and one or two other hapless players are shrunken to fountain-pen length and have a brisk time climbing Christmas trees, staggering under the weight of a jeweled bracelet and sticking tiny daggers into the necks and ankles of Lionel Barrymore's full-sized victims.

Not since "The Lost World," "King Kong" and "The Invisible Man" have the camera wizards enjoyed such a field day. By use of the split screen, glass shots, oversize sets and other trick devices cherished of their kind, they have pieced together a photoplay which is grotesque, slightly horrible and consistently interesting. A freak film, of course, and one which may overburden Junior's imagination, but an entertaining exhibition of photographic hocuspocus for all that.

Based—and we shall be embarrassed if you ask us how closely—on Abraham Merritt's novel, "Burn, Witch, Burn," it tells the story of a scientist's discovery of a process by which humans and animals are reduced to a sixth of their normal size and of an escaped convict's use of the pigmies to be revenged upon the three men who conspired to send him to Devil's Island….

[The] picture relies mainly, and with understandable assurance, upon such ingenious bits as Miss Ford's demonstration of Alpine skill in climbing (via a slipper, footstool, bench and drawer handles) to the top of a dressing table; or Mr. Hohl's ludicrous impersonation of a Christmas tree ornament; or the Apache dance with a table-top serving as a ballroom. Tod Browning, who may be remembered for "The Unholy Three," "Dracula" and similar pleasantries, has invested these essentially ridiculous episodes with a menacing, chilling quality which makes it impossible for you to consider them too lightly. That, naturally, is as it should be in a horror film.

Frank S. Nugent, "'The Devil Doll'," in The New York Times (© 1936 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 8, 1936, p. 5.