(6/10) In a nutshell: This early colour film directed by Casablanca-maker Michael Curtiz is a stylish and atmospheric old dark house thriller with a sci-fi twist. Decent acting and Fay Wray add to the allure, but too much comedy slapstick and slow pacing ultimately hamper the film.
Doctor X. 1932, USA. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin. Based on the play The Terror by Howard Warren Cornstock and Allen C. Miller. Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Leila Bennett, Robert Warwick, George Rosener. Cinematography: Rey Rennahan, Richard Towers (b/w). Editing: George Amy. Art direction: Anton Grot. Sound: Robert B. Lee. Makeup: Max Factor co. Special effects: Fred Jackman Jr. Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck for First National/Warner. Tomatometer: 71. IMDb score: 6.5
Here’s one that got away. Well into reviewing the forties, I stumbled upon this little semi-classic from First National Pictures/Warner from 1932. This was the year after Universal released both Dracula and Frankenstein (review), starting the craze of creature features. Warner was the first major studio to jump on the bandwagon with this film, followed by Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls (review) later the same year. Warner acquired First National in 1928, and after that FNP mainly produced the studio’s B-films, such as slapstick comedies and crime and mystery thrillers. Neither Warner nor FNP had been big on horror films, and those that it produced mainly fell under the moniker of old dark house. And that is basically what Doctor X is, albeit with a slight sci-fi/creature feature twist at the end.
The film basically follows Doctor Jerry Xavier, played by Lionel Atwill in his first horror role, as he investigates a series of horrendous murders that have all taken place around his Academy of Surgical Research. Four victims have fallen prey to a murderer who first strangled them with his bare hands and then proceeded to carve out pieces of their flesh – cannibalized them. As not to tarnish the institutes’s name, he asks for, and is given, 48 hours by the police to find the killer, and puts the academy in lockdown.
The film also provides one of these bizarre female portraits that would become staples on mad scientist films – a grown up daughter with a rather unhealthy attachment to her father. Fay Wray in her first horror film plays Joanne Xavier, who also happens to live at the university and fusses over her highly vital and energetic father who doesn’t really seem to need any fussing over. The film is one of the first to start the curious practice of fathers refusing to, for example, send their daughters away to, say, their aunt in Iowa, when a crazy serial killer is prowling the grounds.
The third cog in the wheel is the comedy relief character and also nominally the hero of the film, a wise-cracking reporter (why are they always wise-cracking reporters?) Lee Taylor – played by Lee Tracy in his trademark role. Taylor manages to sneak into the university as Dr. X does psychological and “radio-electrical” experiments with a strange machine on his fellow scientists to provoke a neurological response to different stimuli. The main suspects are a fairly eclectic bunch of scientists played by a fairly eclectic bunch of character actors, including horror mainstay Arthur Edmund Carewe (who appeared in the original The Cat and the Canary in 1927) and occasional A-lister John Wray (no relation to Fay). Excluded from Xavier’s suspicions is Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), who lacks one hand, and therefore couldn’t have strangled anyone.
Taylor spends most of his time wise-cracking with police-officers, nightwatchmen, dead bodies and skeletons in closets, burning all of them with his electrical handshake buzzer – a prank that becomes highly tedious as the film moves along, as well as romancing Joanne.
Of course, anyone with any sort of knowledge of these kinds of films will naturally assume that the one-armed man who can’t possible be the killer, is naturally the killer, and in that respect the film doesn’t disappoint. It seems that Dr. Wells has been conducting experiments with ssssynthetic flessshhh – as he keeps repeating as he first attaches a synthetic hand to his stump (although it bears an uncanny resemblance to a rubber glove) and then proceeds to smear goo (sorry, ssssynthetic flesssshhhh) all over his head – transforming him into a creature resembling Lon Chaney’s original Phantom of the Opera, and reveals himself as the killer in the finale, naturally going after Joanne, as he simultaneously explains his motives to Dr. X – motives that, if my memory serves me right, has something to do with superhumans. It’s a bit hazy. Preston Foster is appropriately creepy in one of his first roles, although he would later go on to play more heroic characters in his later movies.
Now, it should be pointed out that the film is directed by Michael Curtiz. At this time the Hungarian, born Mihály Kertész, was still a long way away from his successes with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1941), but was already a highly valued director at Warner, known for his effective filming, good character direction and visually stylish output. Curtiz would go on to make another stylish effort as Warner again ventured into karloffian territory in 1936 with The Walking Dead (1936, review). Set designer Anton Grot helps Curtiz out by creating cluttered laboratory interiors and strange-looking scientifictional devices. Double Oscar-winning cinematographer Rey Rennahan (Blood and Sand, Gone with the Wind) also contributes to the ominous mood with expressionistic shadow plays and limited lighting.
The film is one of a string of movies of the early thirties produced in Technicolor’s new, improved two-strip colour process, that removed grain and speckles as compared to previous efforts. At the same time, it was one of the last to be produced with the two-strip technique, that allowed for red and green colours – the first full colour three-strip film was produced by Disney in 1935. Nonetheless, this is probably the first science fiction film to be released in colour. The red and green gives the film a strange, atmospheric feel, especially when combined with the low lighting, although it’s still a bit grainy compared to black and white and the colours tend to merge in a rather muddy brown. Still, the process makes Fay Wray glow on screen, and one can only imagine the joy of the male audience seeing Ms. Wray’s exposed thighs resting below a revealing swimsuit on the beach in a precarious close-up, awash with fleshy pink. This is one scene, among others, that probably wouldn’t have made the cut under the enforced Hays code two years later.
The late twenties and early thirties did give way for a number of quite touchy subjects. Doctor X deals with, among other things, rape and cannibalism, which were strict no-nos for the Production Code Administration that was set up in 1934. The body count would also clearly have been dialled down in later years, and the scene where Taylor phones his editor from a brothel while eyeing the ”service” would most certainly have been cut.
Despite the colours, the visually striking filming and Fay Wray’s exposed legs, the film has a lot of problems. First of all is the story itself, adapted as it is from Howard Warren Cornstock’s and Allen C. Miller’s 1931 play The Terror. Although it’s only 77 minutes long, it feels like an eternity where nothing really happens, and people just walk around rooms and around street corners talking. Most action takes place off-screen and many times things almost happen, but turn out to be false alarms. This is of course a staple of the old dark house genre, popular on stage and in silent cinema, but slightly anachronistic already in 1932. Basically what this film is, is and old dark house movie, and the play on creature features in the end seems a bit glued on – despite the fact that the sssssynthetic flessshhhh scene is a classic of early horror films, and the goo filmed in dramatic orange light must have startled a lot of movie-goers. The makeup of Wells was designed by the Max Factor company, which at the time specialised in movie makeup, but had at that point just been dealing with ”normal” makeup – this was the first time they created a character for a creature film.
Another problem is the holey logic. The idea that the police would simply hand over a serial killer investigation to an eccentric surgeon, who himself should be on the suspect list, is of course preposterous. As mentioned before, it feels a bit odd that Dr. X keeps his daughter in the locked-down university with a killer prowling about, as well as the fact that he basically uses her as bait in the last scene – where he chains everyone to their chairs and gives the keys to a sole person who then conveniently leaves the room and turns out to be the murderer. It is also strange that Dr. Wells is so readily ruled out of any suspicion – he could after all have had an accomplice to do the strangling.
Holes in the logic isn’t always a problem, but it is a problem when one is portraying a film as a rather brainy whodunnit-mystery instead of as a brawny monster movie. But the script isn’t nearly clever enough, nor is it funny enough to pass as comedy, although Tracy tries his best and manages not to be overly annoying when doing his Abbott & Costello meets the monster skit. Lee Tracy was by this time typecast as the fast-mouthed often comical reporter, and would continue to play the role for at least a decade before his luck started running out. What makes his role in this film bearable is that despite all the wise-cracking there is a sort of humility about him – it seems like we are dealing with a real person and not just a Bob Hope character.
Brilliant character actor Lionel Atwill does his horror and sci-fi debut, and plays the semi-mad Doctor X with a straight face, integrity and gusto. It’s not his best role perhaps, probably because he really isn’t the mad doctor of the movie, but he is the glue holding the film and its disparate elements together. One of these elements is the completely unnecessary romance between Joanne and Taylor, that the scriptwriters have tried to squeeze in between the jokes. Atwill was a staple character actor, often in B-movies during the twenties and thirties. He was absolutely brilliant as the one-armed police detective in The Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), and also turned up in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1941), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review) and The House of Frankenstein (1944, review), and appeared in Man Made Monster (1941, review), The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) and House of Dracula (1945, review). His career took a sharp turn for the worse in 1943 when he was sentenced for an ”orgy” in his house, and was thereafter mostly shunned by all major studios.
Although this was Fay Wray’s genre debut, she was already a veteran in the business, having acted in B films for over ten years, the latter five mostly as a leading lady in western and crime films. Despite her slightly limited range, Fay Wray has a naturalism and a charisma that draws the viewer in, and while staying within her limits, she is actually quite a talented actress. In Doctor X her role consists mostly of being either hysterical or alluring, and she does both well. Kudos most go to both director and writers for not having her faint once, and actually giving her a few hero moments, swinging a gun and rebuffing Taylor’s advances. On the other hand, she was the only person not chained to a chair in the final scene, and had ample opportunity to kick the killer in the nuts during his long harangue about synthetic flesh, but opted for being a piece of shivering flesh instead. Wray also introduces THAT scream – a scream which she would of course immortalize forever just a year later in King Kong (review) – which has made her a timeless legend.
In a small role as ”Cathouse Madame” we see Mae Busch, an actress with a rollercoaster career, best known for playing the female lead in Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three (1925) and Oliver Hardy’s wife in Sons of the Desert (1933). For much of her career she was confined to bit-parts, though. Selmer Jackson appears as the newspaper editor. He was a staple bit part player in over 400 films, and does appear in The Green Hornet (serial, 1940), The Ape (1940) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). Leila Bennett as the maid Mamie is just awful. Genre fans may see a slight resemblance between Harry Beresford’s portrayal of the paraplegic Dr. Duke and Dr. Everett Scott from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973).
Incidentally, the film was filmed as a black and white version alongside the colour version, with Richard Towers in charge of cinematography. One can detect dissimilarities between the two versions mainly in the comical ad-lib scenes. In a lot of theatres, the black and white version was the only one shown. Warner followed up Doctor X with a similar two-strip colour horror film, Mystery of the Wax Museum, just six months later. That film also starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, and is generally considered superior to Doctor X. Despite the name, Warner’s 1939 film The Return of Doctor X is not a sequel, but deals with a different Doctor X. It is, however, one of Humphrey Bogart’s few horror films.
Doctor X. 1932, USA. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin, George Rosener. Based on the play The Terror by Howard Warren Cornstock and Allen C. Miller. Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Leila Bennett, Robert Warwick, George Rosener, Willard Robertson, Thomas E. Jackson, Harry Holman, Mae Busch, Tom Dugan, Selmer Jackson. Cinematography: Rey Rennahan, Richard Towers (b/w). Editing: George Amy. Art direction: Anton Grot. Sound: Robert B. Lee. Makeup: Ray Romero and Perc Westmore from Max Factor co. Hair: Ruth Pursley. Special effects: Fred Jackman Jr. Assistant directors: Al Alleborn, Marshall Hageman. Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck for First National/Warner.