A Villainous Crook: Lionel Barrymore in The Show (1927) and The Devil-Doll (1936)

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***This post is part of the Third Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. ***

***Some spoilers***

I once read that the Barrymores were considered the first family of the American theater and it’s easy to see why. Of course, most of us are familiar with the newer generation of Barrymores (specifically, the lovely Drew Barrymore) but in the golden age of Hollywood, brothers John and Lionel Barrymore and their sister Ethel Barrymore were a force to be reckoned with, in theater and Hollywood.

For me, the most memorable image of Lionel Barrymore in film comes from his later roles as a grandfatherly sort of man, sometimes a little curmudgeon, though always wise and honest, as is his character in Key Largo (1948), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and his Dr. Gillespie character in the Dr. Kildare films of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. But earlier in his career, Barrymore made several films with offbeat director Tod Browning/, best known for his dark and sometimes cheesy horror films and his obsession with carnivals and circuses. In these films, Barrymore could play a different kind of character, attesting to the complexity and versatility characterizing the Barrymore legacy.

The Show Movie Poster Pic

Photo Credit: Poster for The Show, 1927, MGM, printed by Tooker Litho Company: Ras67/Wikimedia Commons/PD US non notice

In 1927, Barrymore and Browning made a film called The Show. Barrymore plays a character simply known as The Greek, a complete opposite of the characters I describe above. The Greek works in a carnival side show based on the story of Salome, complete with a scantly-clad woman whose name really is Salome (Renee Adoree) and a dramatic chopping the head of John the Baptist (played by John Gilbert in one of his rare anti-hero roles). Perpetuating the seedy stereotype of carnival people in those days, The Greek is a thug, an unscrupulous thief – not to mention an insanely jealous one. He is willing to kill for money, as we see early in the film. His jealousy and murderous tendencies combine in more gruesome attempts to get the carnival barker and womanizer, Cock Robin (John Gilbert) out of the way. Robin not only ends up with the money The Greek killed for but also becomes his romantic rival for Salome’s affections. The Greek has no problem planning a public beheading for Robin during the Salome show (which backfires) and later on, by unleashing a poisonous lizard on him.

Because this is a silent film, Barrymore’s naturally deep soothing voice is obliterated to the character’s advantage. This was the first silent film with Barrymore I’d ever seen and I was surprised at how the kind eyes I remembered from films like You Can’t Take It With You could turn intensely dark and sinister. Barrymore, like any experienced stage and silent screen actor, uses expression skillfully in this film to convey the evil inherent in his character. In one scene, he pulls a gun from a drawer, intending to shoot Robin after finding out he has the money he wants. Then, he sees a photo of Salome bending over the head of John the Baptist taken from the side show and the idea of a public beheading dawns on him. The look on his face at the idea for the fate of his rival is absolutely chilling.

Ultimately, though, The Show is a fairly conventional melodrama (though the carnival setting makes it more interesting than most from the silent era) and melodramatic villains tend to be one-dimensional. As Chris Edwards points out in his blog post about the film,

“[t]he Greek, who seems diabolical enough, thanks to Barrymore, is in the end no more than the common hood he appears to be, and bit of a bumbler. He thinks small, and only about himself, and in time those flaws will put an end to him.” (Edwards, par. 10)

The Devil Doll Movie Poster

Photo Credit: Movie poster for The Devil-Doll, 1936, MGM, printed by the Tooker Litho Company: We hope /Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

Barrymore does play a more complex villain nine years later in Tod Browning’s The Devil-Doll (1936). This film is interesting and entertaining, not only because of Barrymore’s performance (one of his few staring roles) but because it’s a hodge-podge of film genres – horror, mad scientist, mystery, melodrama, thriller, revenge plot. It also has a little cross-dressing on the side, with Barrymore spending a good part of the film in drag as Madame Mandelip, a kind grandmotherly woman who owns a toy store, in an effort to hide from the police.

What makes Barrymore’s villainous Paul Lavond (alias Madame Madelip) more complex than The Greek is his evil deeds are done for a deeper purpose. We learn in the beginning of the film he was once a prominent banker but was set up by his three partners to take the rap for embezzlement. So thievery plays a role in his character but, unlike The Greek, he is innocent of the crime. He commits diabolical (but non-murderous) acts later in the film to extract revenge on the men who put him in prison rather than kills for money he never gets, as in The Show.

The other element that makes Barrymore’s Lavond more complex and interesting than The Greek is he has emotional ties. He has a mother (Lucy Beaumont) and a daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan) he left behind when he was went to prison that he cares deeply about. Blogger El Santo, in his review, is rather harsh on the film on this point:

“Now if this were a Universal or RKO movie, Lavond’s revenge would occupy just about all of the remaining running time, perhaps interspersed with a rather tiresome but little invoked subplot about a handsome young cop or reporter and his mostly ornamental blonde girlfriend. But this is MGM, and that means we’re going to get clobbered over the head with about 20 pounds of saccharine at some point during the proceedings.” (El Santo, par. 5)

While it’s true the relationship between Lavond and his daughter (in the guise of Madame Mandelip) dominates the revenge plot, I think the complexity of Lavont’s character lies in the conflict he feels between wanting to get even with his perpetrators (which he knows means committing unspeakable crimes) and wanting to get to know the daughter who despises the memory of her father and blames him for her mother’s death and their shame and poverty. Interestingly, while the film is sentimental in this respect, we do not see father and daughter reunited at the end. Instead, Lavond never reveals to Lorraine that he is alive, not even after one of his associates confesses and clears his name. This is partly because a reunion would have gone against the ethics of the Post-Code Hollywood era where a criminal doesn’t get a happy ending. Instead, “Lavond … returns to a life in the shadows, leaving Lorraine and Toto [her boyfriend] to marry and live happily ever after” (El Santo, par. 7). So the film does have an MGM-like warm and fuzzy ending but not for Lavond.

I think it’s significant that Barrymore’s collaboration with Tod Browning resulted in his stepping out of the warmer and more sedate roles he would play later on. Though The Show and The Devil-Doll don’t have the prestige of later films like You Can’t Take It With You and Key Largo, they do show another side of Barrymore that expands our understanding of the man we have come to know and love in the later films.

Works Cited

Edwards, Chris. “The Show (1927).” Web blog post. Silent Volume. Blogger. 17 November 2013. Web. 14 August 2017.

El Santo, “The Devil-Doll (1936).” 1000 Mispent Hours and Counting. Scott Ashlin, 2008-2017. Undated. Web. 14 August 2017.

4 thoughts on “A Villainous Crook: Lionel Barrymore in The Show (1927) and The Devil-Doll (1936)

  1. Lionel Barrymore is one of my favourite actors, and I want to thank you for introducing me to The Show. I can’t believe I haven’t seen this one and am looking forward to it. The Devil Doll has many delights in its storytelling, and while MGM was, more often than not, the home of the happy ending, they also produced a wonderful and surprising variety of films.

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    1. Hi Patricia,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I also appreciate Lionel Barrymore – to be honest, I like him more than I like John mainly because his versatility as an actor was very wide. I was actually not aware of Barrymore making any other films with Tod Browning except The Devil-Doll until I decided to do this blog post on The Show and realized it was directed by Browning. I do agree MGM did favor happy endings but there are a lot of films made there that were more experimental (like The Devil-Doll and Freaks).

      Tam

      Like

  2. Lionel Barrymore was so versatile! I’ve been meaning to see The Devil Doll for so long that I have already come to know the ending – not by your review – but Lionel’s presence still encourages me to seek this title.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    Like

    1. Hi Leticia,
      Thank you for your comments. I agree Lionel Barrymore was very versatile as an actor. The Devil-Doll is a fun movie to see, very Tod Browning-ish in his talkie career.

      Tam

      Like

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