I was surprised how good this was. Even though it was directed by Tod Browning, I expected a routine horror show. It is a lot more than that.
Lionel Barrymore and a mad scientist friend escape from Devil’s Island after he has been imprisoned for 17 years for a financial fraud he didn’t commit. He was framed by three other bankers. He’s had a long time to think about his revenge. They make their way to a laboratory in the swamp, where his even madder wife (much madder; she is played by the very weird-looking Rafaela Ottiano, whose eyes constantly threaten to pop out of her head) has been carrying on his experiments in shrinking animals to 1/6 their size. Think of it! Smaller people need less food! That’s what killed the dinosaurs! There were too many of them and not enough food! The man is obviously missing more brain cells than a Tea Party Republican, but his shit does actually work. Problem: These tiny dogs and horses and, finally, half-wit female lab assistant, don’t have working brains. (Again, we’re back to the Tea Party.) But … they can be mentally controlled to do whatever you want them to do.
Mad scientist dies from the disappointment, and Lionel and the widow make their way to Paris. (I suspect they were counting on the audience not knowing that Devil’s Island is in South America. We simply cut to Paris, and there they are, set up in a shop selling toys and dolls.) Lionel sets out to get his revenge, but all Paris is looking for him, so he dresses up as a bent-over old lady and spends the rest of the picture in drag. And he’s pretty good at it, too. Barrymore, often known for his overacting, keeps it nicely and sometimes comically under control here, in a very nice performance. They shrink one of his enemies and use him and the tiny girl to get at the others. Meanwhile, he’s heartbroken that his beloved daughter hates him, and he dare not reveal himself to her.
That’s enough plot. It’s all quite effective. The SFX work must have been stunning at the time, and it’s still damn good, though of course our more sophisticated eyes will spot some of the tricks easily enough. It’s a combination of opticals and some seriously huge sets for the actors to clamber around on. I was curious about how it might end, and it surprised me, a little. He truly was innocent, but he’s done some pretty bad shit to get even, so he can’t get away scot-free by the Hays Code of the day. I thought he might go up in flames with the mad widow, but what happens is a lot more interesting than that, and actually quite satisfying.