(3/10) Lionel Atwill and his hardy troop of bit-part players and slumming has-beens bravely fight their way through an inane and disjointed script on a shoestring budget. Director Joseph H. Lewis adds touches of class to this odd mad scientist/South Seas adventure horror screwball comedy.
The Mad Doctor of Market Street. 1942, USA. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Written by Al Martin. Starring: Lionel Atwill, Una Merkel, Richard Davies, Claire Dodd, Nat Pendleton, Noble Johnson, Ray Mala, Anne Nagel. Produced by Paul Malvern. IMDb: 5.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Universal’s 1942 B-movie The Mad Doctor of Market Street has a bit of a ramshackle reputation, to put it mildly, and not necessarily without good reason. Allegedly filmed in only three weeks, it must have been even cheaper than the studio’s cheapest 1941 film, Man Made Monster (review). The common denominator between the films is that they both feature Lionel Atwill as a mad scientist. On paper, things don’t look too bad: it’s a Universal horror movie, it’s got Lionel Atwill, Noble Johnson and Anne Nagel in the cast, as well as later Oscar nominated comedienne Una Merkel, and it is directed by B-movie auteur Joseph H. Lewis.
But Lewis, who made his directorial debut in 1937, was still honing his skills, and was probably picked up by Universal for this movie thanks to his 1941 Monogram picture Invisible Ghost, featuring Bela Lugosi. Lewis brought along his screenwriter for that film, Al Martin, to concoct the script for The Mad Doctor of Market Street, then under the working title of Terror of the South Seas. Not only is this a mad doctor film, it is also a South Sea romance, as, according to film historian Tom Weaver, Universal suddenly took an interest in said genre after John Ford’s Oscar winning hit The Hurricane (1937). And Al Martin just so happened to have some experience with this genre as well, having written the no-budget independent exploitation film Island Captives just months after The Hurricane came out.
The film opens on a stormy night of Expressionist shadows on Market Street in San Fransisco, as the deeply indebted Mr. Saunders (Hardie Albright) seeks out the shady Dr. Benson (Atwill in a full beard), to take him up on his offer to be a guinea pig for the reward of 1,000 dollars. The gleefully mad Benson explains to the audience of his experiments in suspended animation, how they have succeeded in animals, and the time has come to experiment on humans. The goal is noble enough, to be able to eradicate disease. But at the surprise of no-one, poor Mr. Saunders dies on the slab, just as the police come knocking on the door along with Mrs. Saunders (Anne Nagel). Benson, realising the jig is up, escapes out his window.
Cut to a passenger ship on the Pacific, now with an almost clean-shaven (except for the trademark moustache) Atwill/Benson, escaping to New Zealand. On board we also meet the rest of our main cast, which include our leading lady Patricia Wenthworth (Claire Dodd) and her dotty, cackling aunt Margaret (Una Merkel, looking more like Patricia’s sister) and the dimwit boxer Red Hogan (Nat Pendleton), rounding out the movie’s comic relief duo. There’s also our film’s “leading man”, if that is really the right expression, the timid deck steward Jim (Richard Davies), and for good measure a pompous ship’s officer (John Eldredge) who is Jim’s rival for Patricia’s affections, and also a dickhead. Because we have to have someone in the cast who can be killed off by the natives without the audience getting upset.
It just isn’t Dr. Benson’s week. Not only is has his experiments failed and he is wanted for murder back in the States, he also just happens to set foot on that one ship to New Zealand that sinks in the middle of the Pacific. But as chance would have it, he winds up with the rest of our cast of nitwits on a life boat that floats ashore on an island inhabited by your usual tribe of loincloth-wearing Pacific natives, led by Chief Elan (Noble Johnson). Benson’s bad luck seems to have no end in sight, as the chief is convinced that the white men bring evil spirits, and have them all consigned to the flame on the spot. But just as fate would have it, the chief’s wife (Rosina Galli) has had a heart attack and died just minutes before they arrive, and Benson is able to revive her using a syringe of adrenaline. The natives thus believe him to be the God of Life, and spare his and his fellow travellers’ lives.
Benson now sets up shop again in his hut, and orders the natives to keep the rest of the white people locked up, as they are now on to his identity. And he bluntly tells our heroes and heroines that they will all be guinea pigs in his experiments, which will make him the God of Life not only to the natives but to all the peoples of the world. Along the way he decides to make Patricia his wife, which naturally doesn’t go down well with Jim. And in order to blackmail Patricia into marriage, he puts Jim into suspended animation and buries him in a cave, vowing not to bring him back to life until Patricia marries him. Said and done. When Benson now “brings back Jim from the dead”, it’s only further proof to the natives that he really is the God of Life. However, Dickhead comes in handy, as he tries to escape in a canoe and drowns both himself and the chief’s son Barab (Ray Mala) in a struggle. When our intrepid team of heroes discover the dead Barab on the shore, they realise that this is one body that Benson can’t “bring back to life” — thus exposing his fraud to the natives …
If nothing else, this is an odd film. It feels like three different scripts artificially spliced together. The first part promises a moody, fog-drenched Victorian horror piece, and is easily the best part of the movie. It has been speculated, by Weaver and others, that the beginning was actually tacked on as an afterthought, perhaps because the rest of the material didn’t hold up for an hour-long movie. This would make sense, as Weaver points out in his book Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films 1931-1946, as neither Anne Nagel nor Hardie Albright — who only appear in the first segment — are mentioned in the film’s early production notes. This would also explain why the film’s title was suddenly changed. Furthermore, the segment aboard the passenger ship begins with a detailed exposition dialogue explaining exactly who Dr. Benson is and what he has done, as if the audience hadn’t seen the first part of the movie. It would also explain why there’s a sort of built-up reveal of Benson’s identity on the island: Without the first segment, it is never actually confirmed that Atwill is in fact Dr. Benson until somewhere in the middle of the movie.
Anyway, after the Expressionist horror beginning, the film abruptly changes gears. As soon as we get to the ship, we’re suddenly in a sort of light-hearted goofball romcom with a touch of mystery thriller. The tone reminds us more of the old dark house mystery comedies of the twenties than the dark Universal horrors of the thirties. Then, just as we get used to this, the movie briefly turns into disaster film with the aid of a barrage of stock footage, until we’re suddenly in a South Sea adventure movie with natives in leopard skins and bongo drums. Not only are we thrust flailing from one film to another, it also feels like large chunks of the movie are missing. There’s no segue from Benson escaping out his window to the scenes on the ship — we’re just suddenly aboard the boat, almost as if beginning a new movie. There’s no real build-up or reason given for the sudden fire in the ship’s engine room. It just suddenly happens and then — boom — we’re on the beach. There’s no scene in the life boat, no crawling out of the water, we’re just suddenly there. And the capture of the heroes by the natives is likewise taken care of off-screen during a single cut. One second Benson tells the chief to capture them and — boom — the next thing we see is our heroes behind bars. It’s impossible to tell if the film takes place in a single day or over the period of a month.
And the rest of the script is no better. Michael Popham at Horror Inc. writes: “Martin, in fact, is such an inept screenwriter that he apparently forgot to provide us with a protagonist; Benson is far too unsympathetic to serve as an antihero, and his fellow castaways are so bland that we have no interest in what happens to them whatsoever.” It’s true. With Dickhead out of the picture, we’re stuck with the chronically unfunny comic relief duo and the two “romantic leads”, which Dan Stumpf at Mystery*File describes as “admirably stiff as cardboard cliches”. It’s yet another one of those cases where the format prescribes a romantic lead in a story that really has no room for such a thing. And so uncomfortable is Martin with romance, that he makes King Kong’s (1933, review) “Gee, I guess I’m in love with you” seem almost poetic in comparison.
Richard Davies, playing the “lead” should not be confused with the Welsh character actor Richard Davies, nor the Australian actor Richard Davies. US-born Davies must have seen his role in The Mad Doctor of Market Street as a godsend, as the Universal stock player was usually stuck doing bit-parts in B-movies, sometimes uncredited. And boy does he try to act his heart out in this one, but there’s just nothing he can do with the material, even if he would have had the talent. Again, it’s like the script doesn’t mesh. Aboard the ship he’s almost the third comic relief character, sort of playing a Harold Lloyd-type shy doofus, only to suddenly become a man’s man on the island — the script even tries to acknowledge this sudden character change by having Jim apologise to Patricia for being a doofus before. But at least Jim’s character has some kind of character, which is more than can be said for Patricia’s. She’s just there as a plot convenience. It doesn’t help that Claire Dodd was a talented actress, as she simply has nothing to work with.
That leaves us with the odd couple of Una Merkel and Nat Pendleton. What Merkel does in this film is anyone’s guess, and she was probably more confused than anyone else. With a background in theatre, Merkel was a very popular supporting actress during the thirties, often playing wise-cracking, bad girl second leads opposite stars like Ginger Rogers or Jean Harlow, but also managed a number of leading lady roles, primarily in comedies, opposite the likes of Jack Benny and aforementioned Harold Lloyd. She is perhaps most famous for her vicious cat fight with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939). As soon as the party hits the shores of the South Sea Island in The Mad Doctor of Market Street her character has no function whatsoever, but Merkel bravely cackles her way through her inane dialogue, consisting mostly of quips that are dead on arrival.
The same thing goes for Nat Pendleton’s braindead but jovial boxer. He doesn’t get enough screen time aboard the ship to even suggest what his role might be in the movie, but at least when he gets to the island he functions as some sort of identification factor for the audience, reacting with the very natural instinct of wanting to smash both Dickhead and later Benson over the head. Oddly enough, the only ones who seemingly possess any sort of brains in the latter part of the movie are the comic relief characters, who early on come to the conclusion that the best way out of the situation is to simply get rid of Dr. Benson: they are, after all, five against one. Pendleton was a former Olympic medallist and professional wrestler who turned to acting in the early thirties, and spent two decades playing “kind-hearted lunkheads, goons, henchmen and Joe Palooka-like buffoons”. And while he is sympathetic in his role, he really couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag.
The fact that none of our “heroes” really seem to fit into the latter part of the film further enhances the feeling that this was a cut-and-paste job. My theory is that Al Martin had a half-finished or unused script for a mystery screwball romcom taking place aboard a ship, and that he was rushed by Lewis into putting together a mad doctor/South Sea adventure script on a short notice, whereby he simply transplanted the characters from the one script to a completely unrelated story. And when Lewis realised that it didn’t quite hold up, he had Martin write the prologue to boot.
Noble Johnson was the king of the Hollywood native savages during the twenties and thirties, an often used character actor that played almost any role that called for an exotic chieftain, medicine man or villain. A fairly light-skinned African American, the black and white photography allowed him to play almost any ethnicity fairly convincingly. His imposing build and stern face, as well as an iron-clad professionalism, made him a go-to guy for almost all studios. He was also one of the most important pioneers for so-called race films, as the founder of the first studio producing films by black crews for a black audience. His role as the chieftain in The Mad Doctor of Market Street was probably his biggest in a mainstream movie, at least as far as the number of lines he has. Johnson keeps a straight face through the absurd proceedings, and as one reviewer put it, proves worthy of his given name.
The chief’s wife is played by Italian American bit-part actress Rosina Galli, and his son by Alaskan Inuit Ray Mala. Mala, who used his last name as an artist name, was something of a minor star in Hollywood in the thirties, as one of the few Native Americans with name recognition and leading man roles in the industry. He is probably best remembered for his lead role as a Polynesian government agent in the 16-part serial Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936).
Leading this ragtag cast of bit-part players and minor stars on a downward career trajectory is, of course, Lionel Atwill, perhaps the only mad scientist of the Golden Age able to hold a candle to Boris Karloff. The Mad Doctor of Market Street went into production in July 1941, as Atwill had already been hung out in the press over an infamous 1940 Christmas party involving nudity, porn films and an alleged case of rape. This is probably the reason why Atwill was nudged down to second billing by Una Merkel — a somewhat odd choice, considering her inconsequential role. But after Atwill, she had the biggest name recognition of the cast.
But this is Atwill’s movie, and he is the glue that holds the whole thing together. Richard Davies told Weaver in 1988 that Atwill “was a good enough actor that his personal problems didn’t affect his performance”. And Atwill throws himself head first with “unwholesome glee” into his role of deranged, megalomaniac scientist, never letting on that The Mad Doctor of Market Street is the silliest of movies. Still, not even Atwill is able to keep up with the constantly shifting tone of the film, and for long stretches his character simply runs out of steam. As Michel Popham puts it: “This isn’t Atwill’s fault — any actor pitted against this script will come out the loser”. But Atwill shines especially in the film’s prologue and the “chilling” finale.
The film received murderous reviews when it was released, with The New York World Telegram writing: “The story is so bogus, so labored, so dreary, the dialogue so unfunny and the acting so embarrassing that the whole thing is in a class by itself”. Harrison’s Report continued: “So ridiculous is the story, and so slow-moving the action, that patrons will be bored instead of excited”.
However, the film is not without its small touches of brilliance from Joseph Lewis and cinematographer Jerome Ash. As mentioned, the opening sequence is a little masterpiece of Gothic horror, and here and there spread throughout the film are a few effective uses of subjective camera, as Benson pushes a sedative-drenched rad up to the faces of his victims — at one time even a flower. There are tightly shot, creepy images of Atwill at his finest, and the final scene where Atwill is working on “resurrecting” the dead Barab, with the natives waiting behind him with murder in their eyes, is a masterpiece of suspense. But, alas, these small moments are not enough to save the film from its ramshackle script, it’s no-entity characters and the occasionally dreadful acting.
But all the criticism aside, this is one of those films that can be highly enjoyable to watch if you’re in the right mood and go in with sufficiently low expectations. It’s so bad that it almost becomes charming. Few things pull on your heartstrings as much as seeing a meatheaded wrestler hulking is way through an unprecedented amount of screen time and actual dialogue with the pure joy of being centre-stage for once. It’s a preposterous movie, but definitely a so-bad-it’s-good keeper.
The Mad Doctor of Market Street. 1942, USA. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Written by Al Martin. Starring: Lionel Atwill, Una Merkel, Richard Davies, Claire Dodd, Nat Pendleton, Noble Johnson, John Eldredge, Mala, Rosina Galli, Ray Mala, Anne Nagel, Hardie Albright, Al Kikume, Milton Kibbee, Byron Shores, Tani Marsh, Billy Bunkley. Cinematography: Jerome Ash. Editing: Ralph Dixon. Art direction: Jack Otterson. Set decoration: Russel L. Gausman. Gowns: Vera West. Sound supervision: Bernard B. Brown. Stunts: George Magrill. Produced by Paul Malvern for Universal.