With an indulgent father and an ill mother, little Marie Eline is allowed to run roughshod over her nurse. Things take a turn, though, when her father gives her a lifelike doll. He had no idea how lifelike and the doll is soon terrorizing her young mistress.
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The Cardboard Box of Dr. Caligari
If you were an American studio during the nickelodeon era, you were expected to have a few types of employees on staff: ingenues and handsome heroes, a villain or two, some dogs and, of course, the kids. The Thanhouser studio employed Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid, and Helen Badgley, the Thanhouser Kidlet. The Spoiled Darling’s Doll was designed to showcase both girls, ages ten and four at the time, respectively.
Marie Eline plays the spoiled darling. She kicks and screams and throws her breakfast on the floor. The noise is too much for her mother, who sits in a wheelchair and suffers from headaches, and so Marie’s nurse takes her for a ride. Marie responds by lashing her with a miniature buggy whip.
Marie’s father (David H. Thompson) is the root of the problem, spoiling her terribly. He has a present for her: a life-size and lifelike doll (Helen Badgley) in a box. Marie is delighted and after one more tantrum for the road, she falls asleep.
The box comes open and the doll emerges. She wants Marie to wait on her hand and foot and her mysterious powers—making objects disappear at will—make it obvious that it would not be wise to disobey. The doll throws a fit over breakfast, takes the buggy whip to Marie and, when the child finally has enough and pleads exhaustion, slaps her unconscious.
Little Marie wakes up to find the doll in its box but she gets her father to make sure. Having learned her lesson, Marie vows to be a better little girl and the nurse and her father benevolently chuckle and assumes she is ill. But the film has one more twist up its sleeve…
As a showcase for the Thanhouser Kids, The Spoiled Darling’s Doll is quite successful. Marie Eline and Helen Badgley clearly had fun taking turns playing brats and Badgley was singled out for particular praise due to her convincingly mechanical movements. Not bad for pre-K.
Using dreams and fantasy sequences to show a child or a wayward adult learning their lesson was a popular trope during this era. The narrative could be as simple or complex as the runtime allowed and it allowed actors to play roles that would not normally be open to them. Mary Pickford and Owen Moore’s film The Dream (1911) features an unfaithful husband repenting after dreaming that his wife has begun to behave like him. Soap Bubbles (1911) is an Italian short that involves a brat seeing his mother suffering as he plays with a bubble pipe, which leads to a tearful apology.
Later, more elaborate narratives were incorporated, including the vision-within-a-vision-within-a-vision in Sodom and Gomorrah (1922) and, probably most famously, the extended what-if of It’s a Wonderful Life.
One the surface, The Spoiled Darling’s Doll fits tidily with the earlier iterations of this trope but it has some variations on the theme that makes it particularly interesting to students of film history. (It’s all in the finale/conclusion, so flee now if you want to avoid spoilers.)
The “it was all a dream” is not a plot twist as the film announces the fact that little Marie is dreaming with a title card. So, when she wakes up and is reassured by her father that everything is all right and the doll is not alive, it’s all pretty much par for the course. But then the final shot of the film is Helen Badgeley as the doll—and clearly alive. AAAAA!
I think the sequence was meant to be cute instead of frightening but it accidentally presages a great many horror movies with the “hand reaches up from grave/wreckage” or “dead villain’s eyes snap open” or “character we were assured was not a vampire smiles and reveals fangs” endings.
Further, showing that the doll really is alive calls to mind the final shot of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in which Werner Krauss stares into the camera with an enigmatic expression—is he really as benevolent as he claims? Da da dum! Plus, the doll spends much of the film standing upright in a box… Cesare in lace?
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let me be clear that I do not believe that Caligari ripped off or was inspired by The Spoiled Darling’s Doll. Merely that both works were breathing the same air and parallel innovations obviously occurred. And, of course, Caligari was intended to be disturbing and to stretch the brain, while The Spoiled Darling’s Doll was meant to showcase the young actresses in the Thanhouser troupe.
The enigmatic final shot (or was it?) had also been used in The Great Train Robbery (1903), though its exact narrative purpose has not yet been definitively determined. And Mary Jane’s Mishap (1903) ends with the film’s dead heroine rising from her grave, terrorizing mourners. In the case of The Spoiled Darling’s Doll, I honestly think the artistic intent was to give us another shot of the charismatic Badgley.
Of course, many decades have passed since this film was released and in the intervening years, many a scary killer doll film has been released. And the cute creature with terrifying powers has similarly been introduced to pop culture. (You could see the doll as a predecessor to Anthony in It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby, which was adapted for the screen as an episode of The Twilight Zone.)
A modern viewer will approach The Spoiled Darling’s Doll very differently from a viewer of 1913. When discussing films, we are often met with the bromide that we must “see it from the perspective of the time.” This truism sounds appealing but is both impossible (we can’t unknow what we know and take back our experiences and memories) and, frankly, simplistic and unappealing. You don’t need to believe in the divine right of kings to appreciate the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully, for heaven’s sake. Yes, certainly, trying to understand the mindset of the original viewers is essential but we are modern people watching older entertainment and I think this case demonstrates how a movie can be enriched by viewing it from a modern perspective.
Critics of 1913 certainly did not read anything sinister into the film. In fact, it was specifically recommended for audiences of women and children. Films were marketed in a highly gendered manner and I have run across reviews over the years warning women off from movies that were seen as too intense and exciting. (Our poor, weak little hearts.)
The Spoiled Darling’s Doll is interesting as an example of the lesson-via-dream trope but it becomes fascinating when you turn it over, squint and realize that with a few tiny tweaks here and there, this is a full-blown horror film. The parallels to Caligari are also fun to tease out and mull over. All in all, much, much more to this picture that at first meets the eye.
Where can I see it?
Stream it for free courtesy of EYE’s YouTube channel. The titles are in Dutch but the film is short and easy to follow and there are only a few. Unless you speak Dutch and then, carry on!
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