Saturday, October 13, 2018

Stubs - Doctor X

Doctor X (1932) Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin. Based on the play The Terror by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller (New York, 9 Feb 1931). Producer Uncredited.  Runtime 80 minutes. USA Color. Horror.

With the success of Dracula (1931), other studios wanted to get in on the surge of horror films. Warner Brothers did not want to be left out. The studio stayed true to their roots and set their film in a modern urban setting, the sort of place their more famous gangster films might be based.

Looking for content, the studio paid $5000 for the rights to the play The Terror written by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller. I can’t find anything about it making it to the Great White Way but it must have made enough of a splash for it to garner the studio’s notice and see it as a viable vehicle.

The film was shot using a two-strip Technicolor process, making it the first color horror film. The color prints, however, were only shown in the big theaters while a black and white version was sent to the small towns. There are apparently slight differences between the two versions. (The color version was thought lost until 1978 when a copy was discovered in the personal collection of Jack L. Warner.)

Reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is investigating a series of murders at the beginning of the film.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film opens with reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) investigating a series of murders that had taken place in New York. Lee watches as three men visit the morgue to examine the sixth body in a series of "moon murders” which involve cannibalism and always take place during a full moon. Two of the men are with the police, Police Commissioner Stevens (Robert Warwick) and Detective O'Halloran (Willard Robertson).

The third man, Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill), who has been brought in to do the autopsy, pronounces the murders to be the result of a fixation. Because the murders all occurred in the vicinity of his Academy of Surgical Research and utilize an imported scalpel only used there, the police are interested in interrogating his staff. Dr. Xavier, who is worried about the reputation of his institute, asks the police for permission to conduct his own investigation and they reluctantly give him forty-eight hours.

However, they do insist on looking around.

Father Xavier (Lionel Atwill) and daughter Joan (Fay Wray).

The academy is between sessions, so there are no students, only faculty and the doctor’s daughter Joan (Fay Wray). The professors are all there working on their own research. There is Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), a student of cannibalism. He’s ruled out as a suspect since he is missing one hand, no doubt as a result of his research. Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford) is also initially ruled out because he’s a cripple.

Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), one of Dr. Xavier's colleagues.

Dr. Haines (John Wray), who might have engaged in cannibalism when he was shipwrecked along with Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and a third man, but only two of them survived. Now Dr. Haines displays a sexual perversion with voyeurism. Dr. Rowitz, who has a notable scar on the side of his face, is conducting studies of the psychological effects of the moon.

The location shifts to Cliff Manor high on the cliffs.

Only Wells appears to be beyond suspicion because his missing arm makes it impossible for him to strangle anyone. Snooping outside the academy, Lee meets Joan. When he calls on her the next day, she tells him that his news stories have made it impossible for her father to conduct his experiments there. They all leave for Cliff Manor at Blackstone Shoals, Long Island, and Lee follows them.

Dr. Wells slathers himself with a synthetic skin.

During Xavier's first attempt to find the murderer, the lights go out and Rowitz is killed. Joan volunteers to participate in the second experiment. This time, all the men except Wells are chained to their chairs. He secretly attaches synthetic flesh to his arm and face, which enables him to attack Joan, but he is stopped from killing her by Lee, who sets him on fire and pushes him out the window to the cliffs, where he burns to death.

Dr. Wells tries to strangle Joan before Lee stops him.

Part of my interest in the film was the involvement of director Michael Curtiz.  The Hungarian-born director had helmed some of the great films from the studio era, including Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Sea Wolf (1941), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), This Is the Army (1943), White Christmas (1954), and We're No Angels (1955). He seemed to be able to move from drama to comedies to musicals without ever missing a step. So, I was anxious to see what he could do with the horror genre.

I hate to say it but I was disappointed. It may have to do with the material and the subject matter but I could never really get into the film. The staging is claustrophobic, even the scenes that are supposed to take place outside are obviously done on a soundstage. And the pacing is slow, to say the least, with all of us getting bored while watching.

Fay Wray as Joan Xavier.

The acting is rather wooden with none of the actors really distinguishing themselves. Fay Wray, who was a year away from her best-known role as Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933), is perhaps the only one who is memorable in her role. Some of that may be due as much to her looks as her acting. She had been in films since the silent era, including her first lead role in Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (1925). Even though the film was a financial failure, Wray stayed at Paramount Pictures for more than a dozen films before leaving the studio, after which she signed for various film companies. She starred in Stowaway (1932) at Universal before making Doctor X at Warner Bros. the same year.

Lee Atwill as Dr. Xavier.

The star of the film, Lionel Atwill, gives a very stagey performance as Dr. Jerry Xavier. An English stage actor, this is only Atwill’s second sound film. You can tell why he might have been considered for the lead but he’s not really all that engaging.

Lee Tracy is the hero as well as providing comedic relief.

Lee Tracy is supposed to provide both a hero for the story and as well as comedic relief. The film needs both. A stage actor, Tracy is the one who originated the role of Hildy Johnson in the Broadway production of The Front Page in 1928. When he arrived in Hollywood, he continued to play newspapermen as he does here. He’s all right in the role.

Cannibalism as a subject matter is rather risky as it is a real turn off. Thankfully, no one is eaten, though Dr. Wells seems to be the worse for having studied it. And the synthetic flesh that he plasters over his face is also off-putting. I’m sure the idea wasn’t to gross out the audience but to take the horror genre somewhere new. It’s too bad it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to be taken.

The two-strip Technicolor process gives the film a rather sickly tone which enhances that queasy feeling you might be having. The film has a rather dingy green tone throughout.

When the film was originally released it received good reviews and was enough of a box office hit that Warner Bros. made Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which would reunite Atwill and Wray with Curtiz directing again.

While I have read some very positive reviews that talk about the imaginativeness of the film, I have a dissenting opinion. I’ll give the film credit for being the first color horror film and picking a subject matter that must have been considered genre-expanding at the time, but there’s not much else to recommend the film. I am not a huge fan of the horror genre, you’d have to be one to get much out of this film.

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