“[The film] has, in the person of Malita, what… may be the silver screen’s very first female mad scientist.” (El Santo, par. 9)
A few weeks ago, I participated in the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon with this blog post. I focused on the villainous characters portrayed by Lionel Barrymore in two Tod Browning films. When I saw this blogathon come up, the first thing that came to my mind was the character of Malita in the film The Devil-Doll (1936). I didn’t really talk about Malita in my Barrymore blog post but her character was actually more compelling to me than Barrymore’s character in this film. I agree with El Santo in his review of the film that Malita may very well be the first female mad scientist in classic film.
It’s worth noting Malita is more a scientist’s assistant at the start of the film, having helped her husband Marcel develop a scientific experiment that creates tiny living creatures out of regularly-sized creatures (like dogs and people). However, it’s clear very quickly she has stepped out of the conventional 1930’s devoted, complacent wife’s role. While Marcel has been in prison, she has continued his experiments, “still [living] with about 100 dogs and an ‘inbred peasant halfwit’ servant-girl…” (El Santo, par. 2). She hasn’t been sitting home and knitting, waiting for her husband to escape, but has been hard at work developing the scientific apparatus that will fulfill her husband’s goals for the experiment which actually seem quite altruistic:
“Like two out of every three mad scientists in the business, [Malita and her husband] hope to solve the problem of world hunger, and they mean to do it by shrinking every living thing on Earth down to one-sixth its original size, so that the finite natural resources of our planet will be able to sustain us far longer into the future.” (El Santo, par. 2)
Like most classic film mad scientists, Malita and her husband’s intentions are good but their approach is unconventional, eccentric, and, in the eyes of the medical and science profession, dangerous. But their experiment has one snafu:
“[E]very creature Marcel and Malita have shrunk thus far has come out a completely mindless living puppet, responsive to the brainwaves of those around it, but totally incapable of acting of its own accord.” (El Santo, par. 2)
Marcel isn’t able to solve this problem in his lifetime and it causes his untimely death. But that same problem becomes an asset for his friend and prison buddy Lavond (Lionel Barrymore), as it fits right into his plan of vengeance (you can read more about that in my Barrymore Trilogy blog post). So, like most mad scientist experiments, their lofty intentions for their experiment becomes something more sinister.
Malita, however, is too obsessed with fulfilling her now dead husband’s scientific dreams to realize this. In fact, “[a] false profession of enthusiasm for her late husband’s self-ordained mission convinces [her] to cooperate with Lavond…” (El Santo, par. 3). When she accompanies Lavond to Paris on his mission of revenge, she evolves from a scientist’s assistant to a scientist. She creates a second tiny person that aids Lavond in seeking the vengeance that obsesses him and helps him hide evidence of a theft in the toy shop Lavond owns that poses as a front for their more evil doings.
The problem comes when Lavond has reached the end of his mission and, not being a scientist or much interested in scientific experimentation, is ready to destroy Marcel’s shrinking machine. But he underestimates Malita’s willingness to comply with her seemingly new master (that is, himself). While she was subservient to Marcel’s goals, she is not willing to be the same for Lavond’s. Like many earlier mad scientist films, fate steps in so Lavond gets his wish. Unlike Lavond, who doesn’t actually pay for his crimes (something I discussed in my Barrymore Trilogy blog post), the same can’t be said for Malita:
“[A] squabble with Malita … erupts when Lavond backs out of his promise to help her continue her work— and more to the point, [a] convenient explosion in her lab … ends [the argument]… [and] adequately [balances] her karmic scales for the movie…” (El Santo, par. 7; emphasis original)
Photo Credit: Rafaela Ottiano as Malita in The Devil-Doll (1936). This is the scene where she uses mind-control to make the assassin mini-humans dance in a delightful scene. From the trailer, MGM Studios, 1936, cropped screenshot: CecilF/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice
The actress who plays Malita is the wonderfully diverse character actress Rafaela Ottiano. She was better known for her smaller roles as servants and landladies like her role as Suzette, Greta Garbo’s maid in Grand Hotel (1932). This is one of the few roles I can recall where she plays a larger part of the plot and she is fabulous. Tod Browning’s films were known for their over-the-top performances and Ottiano doesn’t disappoint. Adam Roche’s review of the film points out “[w]ith her shock of white hair eerily reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester’s ‘Bride [of Frankenstein]’, and her genuinely disturbing facial expressions, she’s a delight to behold” (Roche, par. 11). She makes use of her heavily-accented deep voice and her large, rather severe eyes so you almost believe she is gradually getting madder as the film progresses, anticipating the fulfillment of her husband’s life work. At the same time, Ottiano plays Malita with a softer side. In one scene, Malita uses a puppeteer’s control to get the two assassin dolls, Lachna (Grace Ford) and Victor (Arthur Hohl) to dance together on a tabletop for her amusement. The look on her face is one of childish delight, bobbing her head to the music of a music box to which they dance. The scene is charming and even when Lavond walks in, rather than become upset with Malita for playing mind-control with his assassins, he joins in her laughter and lightness.
The Devil-Doll is certainly not one of the most well-known mad scientist films, probably because it’s not really a mad scientist film. As I mentioned in my Barrymore Trilogy blog post, it’s difficult to categorize this film as it crosses several genres. In fact, the film might not have been considered of the mad scientist genre at all but for Malita,. I agree with Roche that “Rafaela Ottiano[‘s] deranged Malita is… the main reason that it’s so often thrown into horror collections” (par. 11). It’s almost a shame we don’t really see Malita fulfill her dreams of continuing her husband’s life work, as “If she were given more screen time, this film would really be something to see” (El Santo, par. 9). Indeed, we would have seen the first female mad scientist in a full-length film.
El Santo, “The Devil-Doll (1936).” 1000 Mispent Hours and Counting. Scott Ashlin, 2008-2017. Undated. Web. 6 September 2017.
Roche, Adam. “Review: The Devil-Doll (1936”. Attaboyclarence: The Podcasts for Classic Movie Lovers. Undated. Web. 6 September, 2017.