Doctor X (1932)

Feature Article Film Review

DOCTOR X

Release Date: 3 August, 1932

Studio: First National Pictures

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Lionel Atwill (Dr. Xavier), Fay Wray (Joanne Xavier), Lee Tracy (Lee Taylor), Preston Foster (Dr. Wells), John Wray (Dr. Haines), Harry Beresford (Dr. Duke), Arthur Edmund Careme (Dr. Rowitz), Leila Bennett (Mamie) and George Rosener (Otto)

Writers: Earl Baldwin, Robert Tasker (based on a play by Howard Warren Comstock and Allen C. Miller)

Cinematography by Ray Rennehan

Synopsis

The movie opens (in its strange, but eerily effective, two-strip Technicolor) on a full moon shining over a foggy city, where reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is lurking outside the morgue. He watches Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) enter, but the policeman at the door bars his entry. He goes to call his paper, informing them of the murder of an old scrubwoman, who seems to be another victim of the mysterious 'Moon Killer.'

Inside, Dr. Xavier performs an autopsy, while the police watch, and discovers the old woman was strangled by powerful hands, before an incision was made at the base of her brain and her left deltoid muscle was removed, presumably for cannibalization. This is the sixth such murder, all under a full moon and all in the vicinity of Xavier's Academy. Due to this proximity and the skilled use of a scalpel, the police suspect one of the professors at the Academy. Xavier begs them to let him conduct an internal investigation without publicity, and the men leave to see the Academy and meet the professors.

At this point, in a gruesomely nifty trick, Lee pops up from where he has been hiding as a corpse on a slab, taking off a tag on his big toe with a convincing moan. He immediately leaves to report what he has heard and then heads to the Academy.

Meanwhile, at Xavier's school, which is formally called "Xavier's Academy of Surgical Research," Joanne Xavier (Fay Wray) finds her father skulking in the dark. She lets out one of her trademark screams, before turning on the light to reveal him skimming through his bookcases. She asks him to rest, but he insists he must clear the name of his school first. And what a school! Xavier shows the police around what must be the least inviting school, taught by the creepiest set of men, in the history of the movies. First, there's Professor Haines (John Wray), who experiments with brain grafting. He asks eagerly after Joanne, showing a distinct tendency towards being a creeper. Also, according to Doctor Xavier, Professor Haines was part of an expedition that got shipwrecked, and he and two colleagues were adrift in a lifeboat. When they were picked up, only two were still present with no trace of the third.

Interestingly, the other person left alive in the lifeboat was Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), who also works at the academy and studies the effects of the moon on people's minds. He rhapsodizes quite lyrically at the moon, while the light beams down on his scarred face from the skylight above. Eventually, his grumpy, wheelchair-bound partner, Professor Duke (Harry Beresford) interrupts his rambling.

The only one seemingly incapable of the murders is Professor Wells (Preston Foster in one of his best performances) because he is missing a hand. His research is not fully explained, but he has a beating heart stashed in a tank, and is a student of cannibalism. Such is the cheery nature of the professors of Xavier's academy. After meeting the staff, the Police Commissioner (Robert Warwick) allows Dr. Xavier 48 hours to conduct his investigation.

Meanwhile, Joanne catches Lee prowling around the grounds and threatens him with a gun. Despite his attempts to charm her, she successfully chases him away. As he sulks in the dark, grumpy about his failure to enter the school, a mysterious figure stalks him. He lights a cigar given to him by the cop from the morgue and puffs at it angrily as the figure creeps nearer. Suddenly, just as the man's hands are near his neck, the cigar explodes and chases the strangler off, unnoticed, even as Lee angrily throws away the cigar stub and growls, "Dumb cop!"

Lee sneaks into the Xavier house, where Joanne catches him stealing photos of herself and her father. She is further angered when she learns that he wrote the story about Dr. Xavier in the morning's paper, but lets slip that the whole group is headed to the Black Shoals and the Xavier summer home to conduct the internal investigation. Despite being thrown out and having the maid, Mamie (Leila Bennett), toss water on his head, Lee follows the group to the gloomy, old mansion in Long Island.

Once there, Xavier confess to the others the reasons for their move. He has set up, with Professor Wells' assistance, a psychoneurological test to determine which, if any, of them is the guilty party. He himself will also be subject to the test. If one of them is proven guilty, that man is encouraged to kill himself. The test will begin in ten minutes, despite the protests of the professors. Lee has snuck into the house and receives fright after fright as he tries to figure out what is going on. He eventually makes his way into a closet with a view of the room where the experiment will take place. Amusingly, the closet is full of skeletons, which Lee begins to play with as he waits. However, one of the skeleton's arms moves, and exposes a hole in the wall, through which gas floods into the room, causing Lee to collapse.

For the experiment, the servants, Mamie and Otto (George Rosener), dress up as victim and killer to reenact one of the murders under the light of the full moon. A tableau of all of the murders has been set up, and Xavier recites them one-by-one for the enjoyment of all. Each of the professors, except Wells, who is assisting, are handcuffed to a chair and hooked up to a strange set of tubes that monitors their heartbeat. Each beat causes a reddish liquid (very similar to blood), to surge in the tubes. The quicker the beating, the higher the liquid goes, showing how excited (or afraid) the person is getting. If the tube overflows, that will prove the guilt of that individual. (Oh, the amazing things that can be done in the movies.)

Mamie is understandably nervous about her role in the experiment, and her fears are confirmed as the lights go out, and pandemonium ensues. Rowitz's scream pierces the yells and scuffle, and as the lights go on, he is found dead, murdered like all the others. His tube is gruesomely overflowing. A crash signals Wells falling through a window, apparently struck in the head, remembering nothing. Lee is found in the closet, unconscious, and confesses to being a reporter. Joanne charms him into waiting to tell the story until they are done with the experiment, but only by agreeing to spend the next day at the beach with him. Which she does, even while Professor Haines watches them through a telescope.

During the previous night, Xavier catches the same Professor Haynes fiddling with Rowitz's body, which has been cannibalized. Despite this horrible event, Xavier is determined to continue with the experiment and catch the killer.

Unfortunately, Mamie is too hysterical to go through with her role, so Joanne volunteers to take her place. Joanne is dressed as one of the victims, a young girl in the hospital, and Otto plays the killer. Lee has wandered off to examine the house and locates a secret passage to one of the professor's labs. (Yes, the summer home has labs for all the professors. Don't question it.) In his room setting up the experiment, Wells begins to act strangely at the sight of the full moon. He removes his wooden arm and begins crooning something about "synthetic flesh," even as he begins applying the substance to his stump. He can use this hand just like a normal hand, but it's much stronger. He also coats his face until he looks horribly disfigured, all the while crooning the same litany about "synthetic flesh."

Wells sneaks up on Otto and strangles him, before heading after Joanne, grabbing her throat and revealing himself. As the professors struggle helplessly against their bonds, Wells taunts them with his new strength and puts his insanity on full display. But Lee springs from the shadows, disguised as one of the tableau, and takes on the madman. Joanne runs to free her father and the others. The killer is powerful, but just as Lee appears to be losing, he grabs a lantern and flings it at him. The synthetic flesh lights on fire, and Wells plunges through the window to the ground far below. Joanne and Lee embrace joyously.

Discussion

Doctor X is a strange combination of ingenuity and cliché wrapped up in one bizarre, but good, film. The film contains a lot of scary moments, enhanced by the spooky atmosphere and elaborately macabre sets. The overall plot is interesting and unusual, though there are definitely some moments of awkward comedy, especially with the maid. The elements of cannibalism and implied rape (of Joanne Xavier, as Wells pins her helplessly down in front of the chained scientists) are uncommon, even pre-code. In fact, the notion of chaining all of the scientists to chairs and forcing them to watch the reenactments of horrific crimes, while hooked up to a strange machine that will measure how excited they are by the scenes is pretty disturbing.

The film's views on science and scientists, however, were already on the way to stereotype. All of the 'men of science' are beyond strange (with the notable exception of Dr. Xavier himself), interested in the perverse (Wells and his synthetic flesh, Rowitz and the moon), involved in unsavory events (Rowitz and Haines and the disappearance of their fellow survivor, Haines spying on Joanne), and just plain ugly (including Preston Foster, whose youthful good looks are carefully covered even in his 'normal' state).

The cast is one of the strongest elements of the film.

Lionel Atwill, an excellent English actor with a distinguished voice, made his first foray into horror films here, a genre in which he would spend a lot of time. He brings a great deal of believability to the role of Doctor Xavier, convincing the audience that he is a respected man of science (especially compared to the weirdos with whom he works). However, his desperate desire to hide the investigation and the somewhat dangerous aspects of his countenance and behavior also make him a possible killer (though the presence of a loving daughter rather reduces his likelihood as potential murderer). He effectively displays love and worry for her, and yet, he is menacing enough that you can see him still having the ability to kill her, not to mention mere strangers.

Lee Tracy plays one of his typical fast-talking characters, written to fit into the plot. He's brash and rude, but also inventive and with a strange sense of humor. He spends a lot of time sneaking into places he doesn't belong, which often lands him in trouble. When the moment comes, however, he shows his worth and battles Wells to the death. Tracy played these kind of roles the way the rest of us breathe. The setting and story were rather different from his regular gigs, but he took to horror without any bumps in the road. It's a shame he never went back.

Fay Wray does not have a lot to do in the proceedings, except worry about her father and be a convenient potential victim for the movie's dramatic climax. However, she does get to demonstrate some spunk and intelligence in her scenes with Lee Tracy, threatening him with a gun when she catches him lurking and tossing him from the house when he's snooping around. Their romance is somewhat forced, though you can't really blame her for being interested in the only 'normal' male around. And she does get to do a trademark scream because a horror movie with her in it would not be complete without one.

Perhaps the most interesting member of the whole cast is Preston Foster, in one of his first major roles (he played Edward G. Robinson's best friend in the very interesting Two Seconds, also 1932). He was the lead in both major and secondary films, winning the likes of Barbara Stanwyck (Ladies They Talk About, 1933) and Kay Francis in some of them. However, the word that best fits the majority of his performances is 'weak.' Well, he's not weak in Doctor X. In fact, Foster is remarkably convincing as the lunatic Wells, driven to murder and some really disgusting practices with his victims' corpses by the vision of the moon. His strange, garbled, choking noises and heavy breathing when moonlight strikes his face are eerie, and his crooning at the messy concoction he calls, "synthetic flesh" is, well, skin-crawling. Where this striking actor went in his other films is a mystery of its own.

Another consummate professional involved in the film was director Michael Curtiz. By 1932, Curtiz had been directing films for 20 years, which may explain the lack of stiffness in this early talkie. He had directed Lee Tracy just prior to this movie in the unusual The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932). The horror genre was not new to him, and he directed several over the course of his career. The best known is The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which was made as a follow up for Lionel Atwell and Fay Wray, due to the popularity of Doctor X. Curtiz directed 173 films over the span of 50 years, and horror was just one of many genres he explored.

In 1932, Technicolor was uncommon, and it is particularly unusual in horror films. However, the color scheme of this film is very effective in enhancing the creepiness of the scenes. The opening scene of the full moon very slightly lighting the foggy streets effectively sets the mood from the very beginning. Only the beach scene, which is the lightest part of the movie, is bright and cheery. A black-and-white version of this film was made at the same time as the color, and the color version was thought to be lost, until rediscovered in 1978 and restored by The UCLA Film and Television Archive. Due to the popularity of Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum was also shot in the same two-color Technicolor process. Interestingly, the black and white version has an added scene between Lee Tracy and Mae Busch in a whorehouse. Mae Busch has no scenes in the color version. Also, in the color version, the skeleton scene with Lee Tracy is longer, as he ad-libbed some fun and games with his bony friends.

Cosmetics company Max Factor designed the make-up for Wells' transformation into a monster, which Preston Foster slops on his face and hands with gleeful abandon. The end result of the application is a very convincing horror mask, complete with dark brows, grooved forehead, thick lips and flattened nose. He also builds himself a pair of giant, murderously strong hands. No other movie monster looks anywhere near the same. It is especially impressive since Max Factor was and is primarily known for their glamorous make-ups. In fact, they were involved in theatrical make-up from the early 1910s and many of Hollywood's stars used their products.

There is some small relation between this movie and the very inferior The Return of Doctor X (1939), a bizarre foray into horror for Humphrey Bogart, including a wise-cracking reporter, played by Wayne Morris, a character named Xavier and another synthetic product (blood) designed by the film's bad guy. It is strange that seven years after making the original movie, the studio decided to try a sequel, even if in name only.

Reviews

The New York Times Film Reviews: Doctor X, by Mordaunt Hall. August 4, 1932.

The reviewer praises almost every aspect of the film — acting, directing, storyline, Technicolor and sets. Indeed, he considered the film chilling enough to "almost make Frankenstein seem tame and friendly, particularly in its penultimate glimpses." The reviewer is particularly fond of Lionel Atwill, calling him "master of his role," and noting his excellent diction, and Lee Tracy, labeling his performance as "splendid and the timing of his comedy is shrewdly accomplished." Indeed, the reviewer has kind words for almost the entire cast. He sums up his review saying, "This parcel of thrills streaked with fun was directed by Michael Curtiz, who always keeps his eyes open wide for chances for striking camera work…"

Variety Film Reviews: Doctor X. August 9, 1932.

The reviewer is much less impressed with the film that Mordaunt Hall, calling parts of it routine and occasionally reliant on old tricks. While pretty much dismissing Lee Tracy, praise is given to Lionel Atwill, saying he "overshadows everything," and Fay Wray, calling her "a greatly changed personality, but for the better." The only other real good words go to the sets, with everything else generating only mediocre notice at best. However, the reviewer thinks the movie might "top recent house averages."