(4/10) The only real reason to watch this clumsily plotted gangster/horror/SF mashup is to witness a reluctant Humphrey Bogart play a ghoul. This 1939 effort from Warner is a mad scientist yarn about medical vampirism and synthetic blood, based on a novella by William Makin.
The Return of Doctor X. 1939, USA. Directed by Vincent Sherman. Written by Lee Katz, William J. Makin. Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, Rosemary Lane, John Litel, Lya Lys. Produced by Hal Wallis and Jack Warner. IMDb: 5.8/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
For a number of reasons, the horror (and with it SF) genre was in the ruts in 1937 and 1938. Europe had more or less quit producing science fiction. Germany and the USSR had been the most prolific producers of SF on the continent, but this came to an abrupt halt around 1935 as Stalin’s demand for social realism within the arts strengthened, and the Nazis took power in Germany. The Italians and the French had long since abandoned the genre, and British producers became disillusioned after the box office failure of H.G. Wells’s and Alexander Korda’s hugely expensive Things to Come (review) in 1936. In Hollywood matters were not much better. Partly because of misinformation spread by censors about a “British horror ban” (which was actually a new rating system with recommended age limits) and partly because of mounting pressure from religious and conservative parent groups, studios thought that horror films just weren’t worth the trouble. That is, until a struggling exhibitor made a gamble and booked Universal’s original monster movie juggernauts Dracula (1930) and Frankenstein (1931, review) as a double bill — resulting in ticket lines around the block. The enduring popularity of the monsters encouraged Universal to fish up old Frankie from the formaldehyde and mount a third entry into the franchise, Son of Frankenstein (review) in 1939. The film became an enormous hit and kicked off the second wave of the classic horror movie era.
Warner, never a big player in the horror business, signed a three-picture deal with the master of monsters himself, Boris Karloff, in 1937, but when the second wave hit in 1939, they had used up all three movies on non-horror fare. They had, however, developed a horror script for Karloff which they never used, called The Return of Doctor X, with the role of the sinister Doctor X especially written with Karloff in mind, which they wanted to get out on the market as quickly as possible, as not to miss the momentum. But Karloff’s role now had to be filled by someone else, preferably another tall, gaunt actor who might perhaps evoke the image of Mr. Mad Scientist. Apparently Warner also approached Bela Lugosi, but found he wasn’t available. The task then fell to a 40-year old stock player by the name of Humphrey Bogart, an actor with some box office draw as the lead of numerous gangster B-movies and a reliable second man to James Cagney. And of course, Bogie’s the reason as to why this film is remembered today — not so much for anything he does with the role, but for the simple reason that he is in it. This was his only entry into the realm of the fantastic. Unless you count as fantastic that he was still wooing 20-year-old starlets on screen in his fifties toward the end of his career.
Just to make it perfectly clear: This film has nothing to do with the excellent colour production Doctor X (review) released by Warner in 1932, the title is just a clever marketing ploy. However, according to Bryan Senn’s book Golden Horrors, Warner did toy with the idea of bringing Lionel Atwill’s Doctor X back, even if he was killed in the previous film (it had worked for Frankenstein’s monster, hadn’t it?), but eventually dropped the idea, possibly when they stumbled upon a novella on which to base the story — more on that in a while.
The Return of Doctor X has a pretty simple premise which it goes about unravelling in an unnecessarily convoluted way. It takes its cue from another Karloff film Warner made in 1936, called The Walking Dead (review), which was directed by Doctor X’s helmsman Michael Curtiz, who would famously team up with Bogart in 1942, with Casablanca. In The Walking Dead Karloff was pianist framed for murder, who was executed and brought back by the means of science to avenge his killers. I am now getting ahead of things, but for the sake of clarity, let’s just reveal from the get-go that in The Return of Doctor X Bogart is playing a scientist executed for killing a girl in an experiment, who is brought back to life, not so much to avenge his killers but to continue his blood research. While the film doesn’t reveal that Bogart is in fact the infamous child murderer Doctor Xavier until the middle of the proceedings, his portrayal doesn’t leave the viewer much doubt about who Doctor X is, as he walks around with a ghostly pallor, a white streak in his black hair, petting a white rabbit with his seemingly stunted arm in classic Blofeld style. However, the story initially presents him as the shy and somewhat effeminate research assistant Quesne, although throughout the film I thought his name was Kane. The real doctor here is Dr. Francis Flegg, played by John Litel in a devilish goatee and a monocle, doing his best to evoke Lionel Atwill’s Doctor X from the original film in order to throw the viewer off.
The premise of the film is that Dr. Flegg has brought Dr. Xavier back to life so that they can continue their work with creating a synthetic blood, which would guarantee a never-ending supply of blood for life-saving blood transfusions. Flegg has managed to create a blood prototype, which is what he has used to bring Doctor X back to life. The only problem is that the stubborn synthetic blood refuses to reproduce, leaving its recipients pallid and languid, and soon in need of a refill. Doctor X has lost faith in Doctor Flegg’s ability to correct the flaw in the synthetic blood, and is therefore on the hunt for the real thing — the only problem is that he’s got a rare blood type. He finds out, though, that a famous dancer, Angela Merrova (Lya Lys), has his blood group, so he breaks into her apartment, stabs her to death and drains her of all her blood. And this is where the film actually begins, as wise-cracking reporter Walter Garrett (Wayne Morris) is out for a scoop on Miss Merrova, but gets more than he bargained for as he finds her dead on the floor. Instead of notifying the police, he calls his editor to make a headline for tomorrow’s paper. The problem is that when the paper comes out, a ghastly pale Miss Merrova pays a visit to the newspaper’s office, noting that the rumours of her death have been greatly exaggerated.
Suspicious, Garrett seeks the advice of his pal, a hunk of a doctor called Michael Rhodes (Dennis Morgan), who also happens to be a student of Doctor Flegg’s, and awkwardly enough brings Flegg in to help solve the case of the woman that his assistant murdered and he helped revive, and who is now, like Doctor X himself, dependent on regular refills of synthetic blood, only she isn’t aware of this, which naturally makes it rather difficult to supply said refill without plots and schemes. Now, all this isn’t at all clear from the get-go, but rather unfolds along the way as the intrepid duo of journalist and doctor go about solving the case of the mysteriously dead and then undead dancer who also happens to bleed what is obviously some sort of artificial blood.
The thing about this film is that it has all the ingredients of a good horror/SF B-movie. The premise — medical vampirism — is original enough to make it stand out, it’s got fine actors and director Vincent Sherman provides slick and stylish direction with some very nice Expressionist lighting and camera setups. But the script just goes about it in such an awkward way. Instead of focusing on the matter at hand, screenwriter Lee Katz and instead turns the movie into a detective story, and all the juicy parts are related to us as narrated by the people involved after the fact. Everything exciting happens off-screen, and we’re just left with the results as the two bumbling heroes spend most of the film arguing with the police and the newspaper editor about investigating the Merrova case. The ending promises to have some proper horror movie ingredients as Doctor X kidnap’s Garrett’s girlfriend (Rosemary Lane) and straps her to a slab in order to extract her blood, but it culminates in a rather disappointing gangster-style shootout (with some nice stuntwork). However, Bogart gets a funny one-liner in the end.
Plus, as the venerable Steve Lewis writes at Mystery*File: the movie is “heavy-duty stupid. How so? Well for starters, we get a front-page headline of a murder out on the streets before the police can even get to the scene of the crime. Later, a detective tells Dennis Morgan that the coroner has ruled a death by natural causes — while the body is still lying on the floor! Further on, our persistent heroes, investigating the supposed death of Dr Xavier, go to the cemetery in the middle of the night and simply have the caretaker dig up the grave, which he does as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Xavier’s coffin turns up empty of course, whereupon the cops compound the stupidity by showing up to arrest Morris and Morgan for stealing the copse! (sic) Faced with all this, the notion of raising the dead seems but another improbability, and hardly noticeable.”
A fact that is almost always overlooked in regards to this film is that it is has literary origins, which may be one of the reasons for the somewhat lopsided script that gives us the explanations and most of the action in narrated flashbacks — a style that works fine for a book but is almost always problematic in a film, as film is a visual medium that works from the assumption of action taking place in the present. The novella in question is one that’s called The Surgeon’s Secret or The Doctor’s Secret, written by William Makin and published under different titles in Thriller Magazine in 1935 and Detective Fiction Weekly in 1938. It is one of those many pulp fiction stories that has slipped into almost complete obscurity over the years, but to my surprise I was able to track down an online republication of the novella, and to my further surprise realised that the film actually follows the story rather faithfully. The story has a lot less wise-cracking, though, and gives us more answers earlier on than the film does. While The Surgeon’s Secret, I must admit, isn’t particularly well written, it may be one of the very first “medical vampire” stories out there, just as the film is probably the first medical vampire film. And lo and behold, in the novella the “vampire” actually spells his name Cane and not Quesne. There is no Doctor X involved in the story, of course.
British journalist, author and adventurer William Makin was quite a remarkable man, almost like a character from one of the adventure novels he wrote, albeit almost completely forgotten today. The information I found on him is available only in an introduction to one of he republished books. A veteran of and wounded in the battle of Somme in WWI, he later reported as a foreign correspondent from two different uprisings in India, before moving on through Burma and Malaysia, to China where he joined Sun Yat Sen’s rebel army, moved on to Mongolia, where he worked with an American famine relief agency, and then travelled through Japan over the Pacific, through America and then across the Atlantic home to England. But before long he got the Wanderlust again, and moved on to Africa, where he explored with the Prince of Wales, travelled the entire length of Africa from Cairo to the Cape, and was part of the first expedition of white explorers to cross the Kalahari desert. He then “lost himself” in the area around the Red Sea, exploring many parts of Arabia. It was this period in his life that inspired his most famous stories, those of the hero Red Wolf of Arabia, a British pulp adventurer inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, whose stories were primarily published in the Blue Book magazine, and later compiled into anthologies.
In the late twenties Makin settled down home in Britain and moved away from journalism into authoring, becoming a prolific and widely read pulp writer, who also wrote a number of non-fiction books, including an unauthorised biography on Greta Garbo. He took some time off for reporting from the revolt in Portugal, where he was shot in the neck, and then did a bit of reporting from the Spanish Civil war, before returning home again. He dabbled a bit in science fiction, but left no discernible mark on the genre. His Red Wolf stories were compiled into a single volume by Black Dog Books in 2017 and are available on Amazon. Makin also continued working as magazine editor, and for some time edited a film magazine in London. Unfortunately Makin never got to see The Return of Doctor X, as he had already volunteered as an intelligence officer and war correspondent in WWII when it was released in theatres. After nearly five years serving in the war, he was gunned down by German troops in France in 1944, and died a few days later in an American field hospital.
Humphrey Bogart rarely spoke about The Return of Doctor X, and when he did he showed little love for the film, arguing that he had been miscast in a role that was supposed to have gone to someone like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. And he was absolutely right. While he isn’t bad as Doctor X, as the Horror Incorporated Project points out, he simply wasn’t the right actor for the job; “he can’t project the vague sense of unease that you get from Boris Karloff or Vincent Price. There’s no real menace behind the character, and as a result the whole movie seems rather slack and perfunctory.”
There are different versions as to why Bogart was actually cast in the role. Throughout his career he had a reputation of being a difficult actor for producers and studio management to work with, and according to himself, the role was a way for studio head Jack Warner to punish him for asking for more money. However, in an interview in Films in Review, as related by Bryan Senn, director Vincent Sherman said that Warner had approached him complaining that he “couldn’t do anything” with Bogart as “all he can do is play gangsters”. So according to Sherman, he attached Bogart to the role in order to give him a chance to prove he could do something else. Apparently the gesture was not much appreciated, as Bogart complained he was “stuck making this stinking movie”. Adding insult to injury, one story goes that Perc Westmore’s makeup was so flammable that the chain-smoking Bogart had to use a 12-inch cigarette holder to get his dose of nicotine. However the credibility of the yarn is strained by the fact that we have a photograph (see below) of Bogie in makeup smoking away just as usual.
Lya Lys as the undead dancer could, as one reviewer wrote, probably have done the role in her sleep. However, the French-German-American actress’ reputation rests almost entirely on one single role, that of the female “lead” in Luis Bunuel’s and Salvador Dalí’s surreal art film The Golden Age (1930), in which Lys ends up licking the toe of a statue for erotic pleasure. She did a handful of films in France and Germany before relocating o Hollywood in 1933, without finding much success, mainly appearing in uncredited bit parts, partly due to her thick accent. Not seeing her fortunes improve much, she dropped out of acting in 1940. Unlucky in both love and finances, she survived three divorces, a personal bankruptcy and a suicide attempt, and worked odd jobs like club singer and fashion columnist until settling down as a housewife in a stable marriage in California, where she lived until her death in 1986.
Dennis Morgan had better luck, as he made it on the A-list after a success in Kitty Foyle (1940) opposite Ginger Rogers. The “twinkly-eyed handsome charmer” with his good manners and eternal smile was describes as “the antithesis of Humphrey Bogart“, and at one point in the forties he was the highest-paid actor on Warner’s roster. As opposed to Bogart, Morgan could sing, having toured with an operatic company, and so was castable in musical comedies. He was often cast as romantic lead, but just as often as the “likeable, clean-cut, easy-going but essentially uncharismatic young man who typically loses his girl to someone more sexually magnetic”. In the mid-forties Warner teamed him up with Jack Carson, seeing them as a potential Bing Crosby-Bob Hope duo. They made eleven films together.
John Litel, a prolific character actor, later turned up in Invisible Agent (1942), Flight to Mars (1951) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961). The cemetery caretaker is played by Ian Wolfe, who turned up in small roles in a slew of science fiction films and TV series, perhaps most notably in George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971).
The original Doctor X is a classic for a reason: In its best moments it is actually quite chilling even to a modern audience and has a surprisingly high yuck! factor for a 1932 major studio movie. The Return of Doctor X has none of this, as Glen Erickson notes at DVD Savant, it’s more of an “amusing Hardy Boys-type tale”. Still, the savant gives the movie 4/5 stars, writing that it’s sad to see the thirties horror cycle end on such a note as The Return of Doctor. X, “but as light entertainment the movie isn’t at all bad”. Conversely, 20/20 Movie Reviews gives the film 0/4 stars, calling it “a stinker”. TV Guide awards it with 2/4 stars, Moria with 3/5, Argentinian Cinefania with 2/5 and AllMovie with 2,5/5.
Despite giving the script a bit of a ribbing, Steve Lewis is actually not that negative, noting that “Return is done with typical Warners polish: elaborate sets, glistening photography and the usual cast of Warners bit players”. According to Richard Scheib at Moria, the film is “well directed by Vincent Sherman with resort to German Expressionism. Almost every closeup and medium shot comes underlit, with huge bloated shadows thrown onto blank walls. All the gruesome scenes – Angela’s [Merrova] death, the hooking of her up to the blood transfusion – are shown entirely in shadow. The world presented in the film has a stylised unreality to it – the streets are without people and have a glossy studio-bound dream-like quality, while Lya Lys is photographed in a lustrous black-and-white to appear as a gorgeous vamp.” Still, he concludes that “Wayne Morris’s hero is one of the smart alec reporter types popular during the era and his ‘gee-golly’ performance wears on the nerves today”.
With a release date of December 2, 1939, The Return of Doctor X was the last science fiction/horror movie released in the thirties, and with that I am closing the book (at least for now) on one of the most influential and interesting decades in SF film history. Then again, I suppose that can be said for most decades, except for the one I’m coming up on next, the forties, almost exclusively dedicated to lesser imitations of the SF horror films of the thirties (some of them are admittedly a lot of fun). In a sense The Return of Doctor X is symptomatic for things to come. It has a misleading, attention-grabbing title covering up a rather uninspired cash-grab of a film. The movie is enjoyable enough if you are in the mood for some breezy, stylish, lowbrow entertainment and don’t set your expectations to high. And as TV Guide rightly points out; “The chance to see tough-guy gangster Bogart play a ghoul is worth the price of admission.”
The Return of Doctor X. 1939, USA. Directed by Vincent Sherman. Written by Lee Katz, William J. Makin. Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, Rosemary Lane, John Litel, Lya Lys, Huntz Hall, Charles C. Wilson, Vera Lewis, Howard Hickman, Olin Howland, Arthur Aylesworth, Cliff Saum, Creighton Hale, John Ridgely, Joseph Crehan, Glenn Langan, William Hopper, Ian Wolfe. Music: Bernhard Kaun. Cinematography: Sidney Hickox. Editing: Thomas Pratt. Art direction: Edras Hartley. Gowns: Milo Anderson. Makeup supervisor: Perc Westmore. Sound: Charles Lang. Stunts: Buster Wile. Produced by Hal Wallis and Jack Warner for Warner Bros.