Let’s dust off a pre-Code mad scientist picture. And, as an added bonus, let’s choose one filmed in two strip Technicolor and directed by Michael Curtiz, of Robin Hood, Casablanca and Mildred Pierce fame. Even better, let’s choose one that has horror veteran Lionel Atwill and scream queen Fay Wray.
Doctor X is a fun little horror gem. It starts out as a mad scientist/murder mystery but then turns into an Old Dark House picture for its final act.
Plus, it has one of the best horror lines in history:
Sound movies had only been dominant for three years at this point so there is an abundance of silent performers to be found in this film. I have chosen to focus on Mae Busch (of Laurel and Hardy fame) and Arthur Edmund Carewe (of Phantom of the Opera fame) this time around. I will give some attention to the silent careers of Michael Curtiz and Fay Wray in later reviews.
Now let’s take a look at Doctor X!
Doctor X is a slithery little film. It merrily hops genres, mixes and matches tropes and generally has a mad good time. The basic plot concerns the efforts of an intrepid reporter to track down the Moon Killer, a cannibal who preys when the moon is full. I told you this was pre-Code.
The reporter, played by Lee Tracy, is hot on the trail of Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill), who runs the medical academy that seems to be the key to the whole mystery. Xavier’s colleagues are a collection of not-at-all-suspicious fellows who study cannibals and may have even dabbled in a bit of cannibalism. As one does.
Xavier, however, insists that each and every one is innocent and he begs the police to allow him to conduct his own investigation.
Lee has been spying on the good doctor and follows the merry party out to the doctor’s country house. He goes partly because he needs a scoop and partly because he has fallen for Xavier’s daughter, played by Fay Wray. It is the law of movies. Mad scientists and homicidal dictators produce the loveliest daughters.
Of course, death stalks the mansion and anyone could be the killer. Goodness knows they are all nutty enough.
Doctor X is a fun little film as long as you don’t pick apart the plot holes. It is a solid entry into the mad scientist genre. The entire cast is excellent and Fay Wray’s lungs get their exercise. It is macabre but not graphic, though it may frighten younger children. I recommend it as a fun popcorn flick. Ideal for a dark and stormy night.
The film was made in both color and black and white versions. For years the color version was thought to be lost but it was uncovered and restored. I am a pretty big fan of early technicolor. It has this watercolor quality to it that is very attractive and it is pleasantly muted compared to the eyeball-searing Technicolor of the late 30’s and 40’s.
Doctor X was released as part of the Hollywood Legends of Horror box set, which is stuffed with obscure horror and sorta-horror films.
If you like Laurel and Hardy, you have probably seen Mae Busch. The brassy comedienne usually played Oliver’s overbearing wife or fiancee, most memorably (to me) in the wonderfully sick 1934 short Oliver the Eighth. All told, she appeared in 13 Laurel and Hardy films.
Busch was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1891 and entered motion pictures under the Sennett banner in either 1912 or 1915 (her alleged 1912 film appearance is listed as “unconfirmed” on IMDB).
By the 1920’s, the “versatile vamp” was working with Erich von Stroheim (The Devil’s Passkey, Foolish Wives) and Lon Chaney (The Unholy Three). However, she suffered a nervous breakdown and her career began to sputter.
Signing on with Hal Roach Studios set the groundwork for the roles that would ensure she would be remembered for decades. She was first cast with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the 1927 short Love ‘Em and Weep!
Busch continued her career in comedy films and supporting parts. She died in 1946 after a long illness.
Mae Busch’s role in Doctor X occurs near the beginning. Credited as Cathouse Madame (oh boy are we ever pre-Code), she banters and talks tough with the reporter hero who needs to make use of her telephone. She looks fantastic in the Technicolor, considerably younger than her 41 years. The part may be small but it is certainly memorable.
Arthur Edmund Carewe
Arthur Edmund Carewe was born in the Ottoman Empire in 1884 as Hovsep Hovsepian to an Armenian family (online biographies alternately list his birthplace as Turkey or Armenia). He came to the United States at the age of ten and made his motion picture debut in 1919.
Carewe is mostly remembered for one role: The Persian in Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera. His dark good looks, height and ability to look vaguely (and not so vaguely) sinister ensured that he would remain in demand for horror and mystery roles.
Carewe turned in another creepy performance as one of the suspects in the horror comedy The Cat and the Canary and he had a part in the 1927 adaption of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Talkies and Carewe suited one another just fine. He had a pleasant speaking voice with a soft accent that gave his characters that exotic flair so beloved in movie bad guys.
His life ended tragically. Paralyzed by a stroke and unable to work, he committed suicide in 1937. However, his film legacy lives on.
Carewe plays one of the suspicious colleagues in Doctor X, a possible cannibal who matches the description of the murderer that witnesses have given the police. Carewe is one of four suspicious academics but he makes the most of his scenes, practically oozing menace.