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Once Universal Studios' Dracula was released in 1931, the floodgates of fear were opened as all the major studios rushed to capitalize on the public's insatiable hunger for horror.
Doctor X (1932) was one of Warner Bros.'s first entries in the fledgling genre (after Svengali in 1931). Rather than depicting a supernatural tale in some European kingdom of long ago, Doctor X is a very contemporary, very American, horror film, entirely befitting the studio best known for its snappy, savvy, streetwise big-city dramas starring James Cagney or Warren William.
Lionel Atwill (Murders in the Zoo, 1933) stars as the titular Dr. Xavier, head of a medical academy located near the waterfront of Manhattan's Lower East Side. When evidence in a series of full-moon murders points to one of the employees of the institute, Dr. X moves his staff to his cliffside estate in Long Island. There, he arranges an elaborate reenactment of a murder -- a cross between a seance and a mad scientist's reanimation of the dead -- to unmask the identity of the killer. But the visionary doctor's plan goes awry when the actual killer takes the stage and threatens to kill the doctor's beloved daughter, Joanne (Fay Wray).
Through much of its plot, thick with rapid-fire dialogue, Doctor X betrays its origin as an adaptation of a stage play. However, when it delves into the realm of horror it conjures up sequences that are as visually inventive as they are disarmingly creepy. In the film's most fantastic sequence, the killer -- surrounded by sizzling electrical arcs and bubbling beakers -- masks his face in layers of "synthetic flesh," transforming himself into a misshapen, hollow-eyed brute, before committing his final crime upon Joanne as his colleagues, strapped to their chairs, are forced to watch.
The mask of death was one of the more unconventional creations of legendary Hollywood makeup artist Max Factor, who is better known (then and now) for glamour rather than the grotesque. Although her career had begun several years earlier in the silent era, Wray would forever be known as the cinema's definitive scream queen, primarily due to her work in the following year's King Kong (1933), where she stretched her lungs while being held in the hairy paw of the screen's most famous overgrown primate.
Providing a healthy dose of comic relief is Lee Tracy (Blessed Event, 1932) as the wisecracking reporter who violates every ethical standard in order to penetrate Dr. X's lair and solve the deadly mystery. The film's frequently lighthearted tone helped mask some of Doctor X's more sinister (and censorable) elements and make it more palatable to an audience that may not have been ready for unmitigated shocks. Just below this surface of levity, however, lurked something unmistakably macabre. As Hollywood scandalmonger Kenneth Anger wrote in his book Hollywood Babylon II: "There is something for everyone in this picture: cannibalism, dismemberment, rape, and necrophilia -- and a piquant kinky bonus when Atwill displays erotic arousal at the sight of Preston Foster unscrewing his artificial arm."
Atwill is one of cinema's more fascinating personalities, sitting in on murder trials in his spare time, cultivating a sinister image for himself, offscreen as well as on. "See -- one side of my face is gentle and kind, incapable of anything but love of my fellow man," he floridly explained to one reporter. "The other side, the other profile, is cruel and predatory and evil, incapable of anything but the lusts and dark passions. It all depends on which side of my face is turned toward you -- or the camera. It all depends on which side faces the moon at the ebb of the tide." It was the alternation between the sinister and the sympathetic that allowed Atwill to dominate Doctor X. His comic lines were more effective because they came from the lips of a seemingly diabolical doctor and were, more often than not, tinged with a flavor of morbidity that gives the film its bizarre tone.
During the making of Doctor X, director Michael Curtiz seems to have shown a dark side of his own. He reportedly shot the more frightening scenes late at night, when the studio was quiet and nearly deserted, and told grim ghost stories between setups in order to put his cast in the proper frame of mind. Born Mihaly Kertesz in Budapest in 1888, the talented and incredibly versatile Curtiz proved himself adept at drama (Casablanca, 1942), the musical (Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942), the costume epic (The Egyptian, 1954), the western (The Comancheros, 1961) and all genres in between.
In 1932, Curtiz wrote, "To be sure, stories of the fantastic, the horrible, the bizarre have been told with fullest success in black and white photography. But it has always been a question in my mind whether those very stories would not have been more gripping, more realistic, if they had been photographed in color such as we have employed with such unusual success in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and Doctor X."
Filmed in the early "two-strip" Technicolor process (in which the colors are limited to varying shades of green and orange), Doctor X is endowed with a deathly pallor that enhances the film's creepy morgue-slab tone. Only a few color prints of the film were ever made (most theaters showed Doctor X in black and white), and for decades none were thought to have survived. In 1973, however, an original Technicolor print was found and has since been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin
Based on a play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan and Richard Tower
Production Design: Anton Grot
Film Editing: George Amy
Original Music: Bernhard Kaun
Principal Cast: Lionel Atwill (Dr. Xavier), Lee Tracy (Lee), Fay Wray (Joanne Xavier), Preston Foster (Dr. Wells), Arthur Edmond Carewe (Dr. Rowitz), Mae Busch (Madame).
by Bret Wood