Wednesday, May 05, 2021

TCM Classic ’21: Doctor X

Thirty years before the first appearance of Professor X, there was Doctor X. The “X” did indeed stand for Xavier, but Dr. Jerry Xavier was not a superhero—just super smart. He also oversees his own school, in this case a leading medical school. Unfortunately, one of his faculty members could very well be the notorious “Moon Killer,” so he sets a trap for the psychotic—or vice versa—in the great Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X, which screens in its restored 2-color Technicolor as part of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival (to be broadcast over the network this year, for pandemic reasons).

Every full moon, the Moon Killer takes another victim. He doesn’t just strangle the bodies, he also slices the base of their skull with a surgical scalpel and partially cannibalizes the corpses (this is pre-Code, remember). Wise-cracking but dumb-as-a-post reporter Lee Taylor has followed the story to Doctor X. The gangster-like cops finally noticed all six of the murders took place within a close radius of Xavier’s school (currently on a semester break), so naturally they want to turn the place upside. Instead, Dr. X convinces them to let him conduct his own investigation, using his mad scientist apparatus to measure his still-present faculty’s responses to a re-enactment of the latest murder.

In some ways,
Doctor X feels dated, especially Lee Tracy’s yukkedy-yuk humor as the gadfly reporter. However, Anton Grot’s sets are wonderfully atmospheric. For some reason, Dr. Xavier decides to conduct his experimental inquiry in a creepy old mansion overlooking a cliff. Maybe you have to be a genius to understand that one, but it is a good setting for mayhem. Counter-intuitively, the 2-color Technicolor might even make it eerier than the black-and-white print (that was how fans knew the film for years), because it has a weird, ethereal vibe, like a Guy Maddin film without Udo Kier.

Of course, Lionel Atwill is a blast to watch bellowing scientistic mumbo-jumbo, like an early forerunner to Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein. This time, Atwill gets to play a good guy. It also represents the first of three collaborations with Fay Wray (and also with Curtiz). Plus, this would be Wray’s first screen scream as Dr. X’s daughter Joanne. It is not exactly a richly-written character, but she plays it with saucy pre-Code energy. You can see why her performance was a stepping stone to bigger and more iconic roles.

George Rosener adds to the creepiness as Dr. X’s off-putting butler Otto and Preston Foster brings great dimension and ambiguity to his conflicted colleague, Dr. Wells. John Wray, Harry Beresford, and Arthur Edmund Carewe add plenty of weird color as the faculty under suspicion, but unfortunately Leila Bennett adds to the cringiness as the comic relief maid.

Curtiz is under-heralded as a horror filmmaker, but he skillfully helms this genre hodgepodge. He masterfully creates a mood of foreboding (which meatheaded Taylor all-too often punctures). Despite the unnecessary humor and romance, the film is great fun as an old dark house romp. It is nice to see Curtiz get his horror due from TCM with this screening and the premiere of a short (but insightful) documentary survey of his three 1930s horror movies, featuring biographer Alan K. Rode. Highly recommended as an old-fashioned entertainment and a historically significant early film from its soon-to-be-popular stars, the restored
Doctor X airs tomorrow (5/6) as part this year’s TCM fest.