After the Silents: The Return of Doctor X (1939)

This is wonderfully entertaining film for all the wrong reasons. Here is what we are in for:

Humphrey Bogart plays a zombie doctor who must steal the blood of the living so that he (and his white rabbit!) can survive. Also, he has wire spectacles and a skunk stripe in his hair.

Isn’t it wonderful? Released in December of 1939, The Return of Doctor X has been pretty well forgotten. I don’t really blame anyone for that. After all, just 13 months later, Bogart would begin his ascent to top-tier stardom with High Sierra and then followed up with The Maltese Falcon.

Bogie is not the only interesting thing about this film. It also has some familiar faces for silent film enthusiasts.

Quick! Name a D.W. Griffith leading man!

I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that you didn’t name Creighton Hale. Well, we’re going to discuss Mr. Hale’s career a bit. As an added bonus, The Return of Dr. X also has Vera Lewis, a silent-era character actress who continued her work in the talkies. (As usual, I will not be scouring the credits for everyone who worked in the silents; I will just be focusing on these two silent veterans.)

But before we talk about the silents, let’s review the film!

Film Review:

(via blogspot)

The story meant was for Boris Karloff but what with one thing and another Humphrey Bogart received the dubious privilege of playing a movie monster/mad scientist (his first and last, um, stab at the genre). It has very little to do with the original Doctor X, save the goofy reporter and the synthesized organic material (flesh in the original, blood in this film). While the original was a Technicolor feature (color being a pricey commodity at the time), the follow-up is most definitely a B picture with a budget to match.

One of the stranger bits of miscasting in classic Hollywood.
One of the stranger bits of miscasting in classic Hollywood.

The plot concerns a series of mysterious murders. The victims were killed with surgical precision and drained of blood– they all shared the same blood type. A zany reporter and a handsome doctor set out to discover just who is behind these grisly murders. The investigation leads them to Humphrey Bogart, decked out in white makeup and the aforementioned skunk stripe. Is he the man they are after? What do you think?

One of the main flaws of the film is that it does not dwell on the campy horror. Instead, it interests itself in comedy and romance. Now both those things are all right in themselves but when you have a villain with a white bunny, it’s ridiculous not to let him chew the scenery as much as possible. I mean, the whole story is so over-the-top that the only thing to do is to accept it and run with it as far as possible.

Unfortunately, our ghoulish Bogart is off-screen for an unforgivably long time and we are left with middling humor and a tepid romance. Meh.

The film was released as part of the Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection along with Dr. X, The Mark of the Vampire and several other more obscure titles. You can also enjoy some swell clips on TCM’s website.

Here is a GIF of Humphrey and his bunny. You’re welcome.

return of dr. x Humphrey Bogart and Rabbit

Creighton Hale

Creighton Hale
Creighton Hale’s youthful features ensured a long career. (Wikipedia)

Even if you do not recognize him by name, you have probably seen Creighton Hale if you have seen even a small selection of silent films. He won roles in two of the more enduring classics of the period: The Professor in Way Down East and the cowardly leading man of The Cat and the Canary. He was also the prince in the 1916 version of Snow White.

He was born Patrick Fitzgerald in County Cork, Ireland in 1889 and entered motion pictures in America in 1914. Besides his parts in Way Down East and The Cat and the Canary, he can also be spotted as the saintly missionary who vies for Clarine Seymour’s red hot cutie in the island-set Griffith-directed potboiler, The Idol Dancer, and as one of the leads of The Marriage Circle, Ernst Lubitsch’s second Hollywood film.

The diminutive Hale was usually either cast as the comedy relief of a film or the second male lead. Some biographers like to blame the coming of sound for his stalling career. Actually, Hale’s voice was just fine. What did him in was age. He turned forty in 1929, the same year that sound completely took over the motion picture industry. Not an easy age in an industry obsessed with youth. Hale had been a recognizable star but he was not a big star and his parts got steadily smaller. His career actually follows a familiar pattern for lower level silent performers: Mid-size parts in the silents with increasingly minor parts in sound as they aged.

In The Return of Dr. X, Hale has a part quite similar (albeit smaller) to what he played in silent films: He is the fussy hotel manager, horrified that a murder may have sullied his establishment.

Hale kept going in movies and television until 1959, an impressive 45 years. He passed away in 1965.

return-of-dr-x-creighton-hale
Creighton Hale in The Return of Doctor X

Vera Lewis

(Los Angeles Times)

Vera Lewis and Creighton Hale have a few things in common. Both entered motion pictures in 1914 and both were veterans of D.W. Griffith’s films. Lewis’s features ensured her casting in character parts and she worked prolifically.

Lewis was cast as Mrs. Jenkins in the modern segment of Intolerance, the Duchess of Donegal in Nurse Marjorie (one of the few surviving films of Mary Miles Minter), Ma Cinders in Ella Cinders, and Madame Peronne in The Iron Mask, the final silent film of Douglas Fairbanks.

As a stage veteran, Lewis had no fear of sound and made over sixty sound pictures before retiring in 1947. She passed away in 1956.

Her role in The Return of Doctor X is quite typical for her: the efficient head nurse. Vera Lewis always gave the impression that she was very much in charge.

Vera Lewis as Miss Sweetman in The Return of Dr. X
Vera Lewis as Miss Sweetman in The Return of Dr. X

I hope this little examination of some more minor silent performers was enlightening. As you can see, many silent players survived into the talkies, just in smaller parts.

6 Replies to “After the Silents: The Return of Doctor X (1939)”

  1. I had prepared myself to really dislike this film, but ended up loving it! Director Vincent Sherman went on to do a few more movies with Bogart in different genres – All Through the Night (Gangster Comedy) and Across the Pacific (Espionage Thriller) – and he really seemed to enjoy turning each genre’s conventions on their heads. This being his directorial debut, I now think he purposefully goofed around with making it more “camp” than horror because he was just beginning to work out his style of twisting film convention. Did it work? I think what we’re left with is a very well directed horrible script.

    All that being said, despite everything I’ve heard and read about how much Bogart didn’t like this film, he seems to be throwing himself into the role! We never got to see Cagney, Grant, or Stewart play a zombie, so I just sit back and enjoy it!

    I appreciated your writeups on the silent stars too as that’s the kind of info that’s out of my wheelhouse, so I wouldn’t even think to put it in my review. Thanks for a GREAT post, Fritzi!

    1. Gasp. I’m an idiot. Vincent Sherman didn’t direct Across the Pacific! He only finished up the ending – post climax escape – after John Huston went off to war. Sorry for the mistake! How dare I take credit away from Huston! It’s been a few months, so my faulty memory only retained the Sherman bit, so he just did two with Bogart!

  2. Heh. This one’s been a guilty pleasure since saw it as a kid. I think Bogie looked like a teacher I had or something and that bunny made me crack up. Yes, it’s not as good and weird as the original, but it’s funny in that way a bad film is when it hits the proper notes of badness…

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