Doctor X

Doctor XDoctor X (1932) — Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Leila Bennett, George Rosner, Robert Warwick.

After the screaming success of Universal’s groundbreaking films Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, competing Hollywood studios rushed in to join the new wave of horror fun. Paramount brought us the great films Island of Lost Souls and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Warner Brothers, through the recently acquired First National Pictures company, tapped prolific director Michael Curtiz to direct the thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum and the horror-comedy Doctor X.

Lionel Atwell stars as the title character, Doctor Xavier, a prominent surgeon who heads the Academy of Surgical Research in New York City. The police have asked him to examine one of the victims of a recent series of horrible murders, each taking place under the light of a full moon and thus dubbed the “Moon Killer Murders”. Witnesses who have seen the Moon Killer describe his face as horribly disfigured. Upon examining the corpse the doctor finds that the killer stabbed his victims at the base of the brain with a surgical scalpel and then cannibalized the body. The police then reveal the clue they’ve been hiding from Xavier; the scalpel used has been traced to a type of instrument found exclusively at his school, putting its members under suspicion.

Doctor X questioned by the police

The shocked Dr. Xavier convinces the lawmen to allow him 48 hours to conduct his own investigation so that he might exonerate the members of his school. They visit the academy and Xavier introduces the police to the faculty who quickly comprise our list of suspects. We meet amputee Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), the surly and wheelchair bound Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford), the scarred Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), and Dr. Haines (John Wray) who was previously stranded on a boat with Dr. Rowitz and another unnamed doctor who mysteriously disappeared during their ordeal, perhaps as a necessary meal for the survivors.

How exactly does the doctor plan to reveal the killer? With science, of course. Well, with an over the top, Hollywood version of science that includes strapping the suspects to chairs and connecting them to an electrical contraption. Xavier predicts that when the killer witnesses a recreation of the latest murder the device will measure his heart rate and trigger an overflow of liquid from a tall glass tube. I’m sure there are easier ways to track down a murderer but they would lack such a delicious theatricality. It’s like an elaborate version of the blood test in John Carpenter’s The Thing.

In the middle of it all is daring, wise-cracking reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) who is earnestly pursuing all leads to bust this story wide open. He frequently crosses the path of Dr. X’s daughter, Joan Xavier (Fay Wray a year before she starred in the film that made her famous, King Kong), who tries to keep him from interfering in her father’s investigation. Tracy is all over this film but, with the exception of one or two plot points, his character does little to move the story along. He’s mostly there for the brand of snappy, energetic comedy that apparently made him famous. I eventually grew weary of the comic portions of Doctor X. Maybe Tracy was the cat’s meow in all the swell flicks back then and he is good at what he does but he grated on my nerves here. I mean, the guy has a damned hand buzzer for Pete’s sake.

I found Doctor X more enjoyable during its serious moments. The cinematography in these portions holds more interesting compositions with characters framed by laboratory equipment or silhouetted on walls or behind sheets. The color of the film has an unusual beauty as well. It’s one of the last films made using a two tone Technicolor process  that was soon abandoned when it turned out not to be very popular. It’s not a vibrant look but the pastel tones create a surreal atmosphere. The actors’ faces glow with unusual pinks and greens. I imagine this would work even better for Mystery of the Wax Museum, which was also filmed with this process.

The high point of Doctor X is the “transformation” scene during which the killer gleefully smothers his head in the goop that becomes his mask. He’s surrounded by many of the mad scientist laboratory tropes– glass globes, flasks with boiling water, a steaming vat of liquid, and a high voltage arc, the sound of which dramatically dominates the sequence.

It’s a fun scene but it may not be worth sitting through the entire movie for. Overall I can’t really recommend Doctor X. It’s not a bad flick but the comedy outweighs the horror too much for my tastes. It also seems to drag on in spite of its short 75 minute length. But if you can stomach the type of kooky comedy that dominates the film, have at it. I think I’ll move on to something a bit more modern for the next round.


2 Responses to “Doctor X”

  1. How have I never seen this movie!? I am a huge Lionel Atwill fan! He is one of my very favorite character actors from this period. I would pretty much watch him in anything. After the whole sex-party scandal (old Atwill was pretty wild) he was stuck doing some pretty wretched stuff…ALL worth watching for it’s pure Atwilliness.

  2. He’s a pretty cool cat in this movie, something I probably should have mentioned in the review. I noticed mention of the sex scandal in Wikipedia but couldn’t find any juicy details elsewhere online…

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