THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X [1939]

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Directed by:
Written by: ,
Starring: , , ,

USA

AVAILABLE ON DVD

RUNNING TIME: 62 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera

 

Newspaper reporter Wichita Garrett finally gets an interview with stage star Angela Merrova, but when he goes to her apartment, she’s been stabbed to death and drained of blood. When he calls the cops, the body has disappeared – and then Angela shows up, alive but pale. Garrett is given the sack, but still continues to investigate, and visits his doctor friend Mike Rhodes. He’s awaiting a blood donor, but then he’s found dead too, and a blood sample taken from him doesn’t seem to be the blood of any living creature? What links the two victims? And where do Rhodes’s mentor Dr. Francis Flegg and his pale assistant fit in to all this?

Humphrey Bogart said of this film, “This is one of the pictures that made me march in to Jack Warner [Warner Bros. studio chief] and ask for more money again. You can’t believe what this one was like. I had a part that somebody like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff should have played. I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner’s blood or Harry Warner’s or Sam Warner’s maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie”. Well, it’s not as bad as all that. Not knowing much about it, I assumed that it was a sequel to Doctor X, but I was struggling to see the connection between the two for ages in this 62-minute movie, and even when we learn that one of the characters is a Dr. Maurice J. Xavier, it can’t be the Xavier of Doctor X because that person certainly wasn’t a nasty scientist who starved a child to see how long a kid could survive without water, and someone who’d be executed in the electric chair. The mention of “synthetic blood” nicely links with the “synthetic flesh of Doctor X, but otherwise this is really only a sequel in name only – though what the hell, I’ve posted it a few hours after the my review of the other film anyway. The Return Of Doctor X doesn’t even seem to want to be a horror film for most of the time despite having gruesome murders, mad scientists and vampires. Usually looked down upon by Bogart fans and lambasted by the man himself, it’s still a reasonable, unremarkable ‘B’ quickie, with a fast pace and a few decent ideas which maintain interest despite fairly bland handling.

Warner’s The Walking Dead with Boris Karloff closed the first sound horror cycle, but after a few years which saw no horror due to there having been much campaigning against it, the genre returned, but generally in a much tamer, simpler form. First off was Son Of Frankenstein, and Warners thought of doing a Doctor X sequel starring Karloff, Penny Singleton, Patrick Knowles and Beverley Roberts, to be directed by the first film’s Michael Curtiz on a decent budget in Technicolor, but it was soon demoted to a ‘B’ picture and Karloff”s busy schedule made him unable to do it. It was based on a short story in ‘Detective Fiction Magazine’ called ‘The Doctor’s Secret’ by William J. Makin. Crane Wilbur’s script maintained the 1885 setting and retained its structure of presenting the back story of Dr. Flegg and Quense at the beginning, but then Joe Pogeno and the only credited screenwriter Leo Katz revised this so it was more of a mystery, and changed the detective hero to a typical snappy reporter. According to legend, Jack Warner was outraged that Bogart was bad-mouthing him at every opportunity, so he called his casting director and said “What’s the worst role on the lot for a star?” The answer was the role of Marshall in this movie. Warner wasn’t pleased when they saw that debuting director Vincent Sherman was shooting ten takes a day instead of the usual three. He added some touches himself, including the exchange, “the grave is empty”, “I’ve been robbed”. At the first preview, the audience broke out in laughter at this bit, but only after a few seconds. The Return Of Doctor X was a commercial success.

We have another reporter hero, but Wayne Morris’s character is less annoying than his predecessor in Doctor X despite being given a few comedy beats and even copying a scene from Doctor X when he leans against what he thinks is a locked door and it opens so he falls through the doorway and on to the ground. In fact it happens twice in this one. He’s introduced trying to get this interview on the phone while the office boy brings him a bag of peanuts and tips it on his desk when Garrett doesn’t pay him. The woman at the end of the line then sees the shadow of a man with a hat, screams, and has a hand go over her mouth. Her disappearing and then reappearing corpse cause Garrett to lose his job, but he can’t be going mad, can he? His doctor mate Mike Rhodes has problems of his own, though when a man who’s supposed to be giving blood doesn’t turn up because he’s also been murdered, he rather likes his replacement, nurse Joan Finch. A dissolve from just before the procedure to after it shows how tame this movie will be in comparison to its predecessor, but then they really had to be careful of the censors at this time. Rhodes’s mentor Dr. Francis Flegg carries it out and says some odd stuff immediately following it about one day being able “to transform the entire future of surgery” and how “the time will come when mankind will able to control blood”. Why is it so many scientists performing highly unorthodox operations in these films say stuff that ought to cause suspicion? But then Flegg isn’t really a bad scientist, even if you could say that he’s mad – that’s Bogart’s character Marshall Quesne, supposedly Flegg’s assistant when he gets his rather good entrance, carrying a white rabbit as he says to Garrett, “looking for something? perhaps I can help you”?

It’s quite obvious who this killer is even before Flegg glances at Quesne when the second murder is mentioned. He’s quite unhelpful to Garrett and Rhodes, but then they notice a striking resemblance between and the late Dr. Xavier in old press cuttings. Our boys think nothing of digging up a dead body, and then casually telling the graveyard caretaker to “put it back”, but it doesn’t really matter, the tone is deliberately quite light with the macabre elements mostly taking a back seat. Saying that, its conversion of what was usually material concerning the supernatural into more scientific realms is interesting and looks forwards the subgenre of medical horror defined by Eyes Without A Face, even if the blending of the vampire and the Frankenstein myths was done better three years before in The Vampire Bat. I don’t really understand why Flegg says how he intends to do good with his new method of resurrection when the first person he revives is a very nasty person indeed. And, when he finds that the synthetic blood that he’s created can’t replace itself and human victims with the rare Type One blood type must be sought out, surely he must have realised early on that it would be easy for others to make links and find him out? But then there are a lot of questions raised, such as the exact nature of these vampire/zombies. Apart from their pale complexion and need for blood, they don’t seem very vampiric; there aren’t even any fangs. I do like how, seeing as she wasn’t a bad person like Xavier in her past life and even helps the good guys when she’s a walking corpse, Angela does not kill to take blood and needs to be administered it by Xavier.

With less continual straining for laughs than as Doctor X ,the humour is less intrusive and at times I even chuckled, like when Garrett says to a mortuary owner, “hope to see you again some time” and he replies, “I’m sure you will”. This moment is part of a section where Joan, whose been looking forward to being taken dancing by Rhodes, is instead dragged from place to place by Rhodes and Garrett so they can do their investigating while continuously leaving her to wait in the car. Seeing as we never see Rhodes apologise to her, she should have given him a piece of her mind. Speaking of minds, one thing that’s sticking in mine are the curiosities in the credits. Wayne Morris might be called Walter Garrett in the film, but the titles say that he’s playing Walter Barnett. Charles Wilson is billed as Detective Ray Kincaid, but he is called Roy throughout. The characters played Howard Hickman and Arthur Aylesworth never even show up, which isn’t the only sign of heavy editing in a film where we never even learn how a corpse disappears. The trailer has a lot of footage that’s not in the movie., even though in the audio commentary Sherman says that hardly anything was removed. Oh well, a 99-year old can have faulty memory. This was Sherman’s first directing assignment and he already proves himself capable of creating a decent-looking piece. He doesn’t seem interested much in the macabre aspects, but then they were never intended to be the emphasis anyway, at least in the film as finished.

And then there’s Bogie, who may not even appear until half way through [I get the impression that some of his material was cut] but is the obvious standout amongst a decidedly non-horror movie cast. Sporting a white streak in his hair like the Bride of Frankenstein and a monocle, he looks a little uncomfortable, but this does somewhat suit his character and I certainly don’t think he’s terrible. He speaks in a slightly effeminate manner which is effectively odd, and he shows that his character is suffering as a resuscitated corpse. I love Bogart, but you have to admit; he rarely showed great range even in many of his classics. His parts tended to present more of a persona [and a very cool one] more than anything else. So, for that reason alone, The Return Of Doctor X shouldn’t be totally dismissed, even though it may disappoint many horror fans; Xavier is only allowed to be fearful in the final reel and even then things end up with a gangster movie-style shootout. Cinematographer Sidney Hickox shoots some scenes in deep focus and uses giant shadows at time, though the only scene with lots of atmosphere is the one that takes place in a cemetery, which makes a rather rushed-looking painting of a hut in a forest stuck out even more. But there were many far worse ‘B’ programmers of the period. This one has its interesting aspects and shouldn’t be a total waste of time.

Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

About Dr Lenera 3058 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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