Saturday, November 29, 2014

Dr. X (1932)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                     Writers: Robert Tasker & Earl Baldwin
Music: Bernhard Kaun                                       Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Robert Warwick and George Rosener

This is actually the first of five horror films that Fay Wray made in a row that essentially cemented her image as Hollywood’s first scream queen. It’s also one of the first sound films to use the two-strip Technicolor process and, as such, is the first color horror film. In essence, however, Dr. X is really more of an old dark house picture than anything else, but that makes sense as the story began as a Broadway play called The Terror. The film stars Lionel Atwill as the title character, Dr. Xavier, and Fay Wray as his daughter, with Lee Tracey as the wisecracking reporter and comedy relief. Though Atwill had done a previous film for Fox, this was the beginning of a long and distinguished career, first at Warner Brothers, and then at Universal, before he became typecast and languished in poverty row productions until his death. The other notable member of the production is Michael Curtiz, a brilliant director who would go on to become one of the most prolific and artistic directors in Hollywood. The opening credits were composed by Berhard Kaun, who also penned the opening title song for Universal’s Frankenstein the previous year.

The film begins with Lee Tracy as a newspaper reporter hiding on the docks where a mortuary is located. He follows a car containing police detectives and a doctor, Lionel Atwill, but can’t gain access to see what it’s all about. He thinks it’s another victim of the Moon Murderer who kills every time there’s a full moon, and so does Atwill who performs an autopsy on the latest vicitm. But police commissioner Robert Warwick is convinced that the murderer is connected to Atwill’s private medical school because of the use of a scalpel to dispatch the victims. Atwill, of course, is outraged at the suggestion, but offers to conduct the investigation himself to avoid the publicity. Meanwhile Tracy, unnerved after hiding in the morgue, manages to get all of the story. Fay Wray is Atwill’s daughter and lives at the school with him. All of the students are gone on vacation but his faculty are eccentrics who have rather suspicious backgrounds, which makes them prime suspects in Warwick’s mind. Nevertheless, he gives Atwill forty-eight hours to find the killer or he’ll come into the school and arrest all of the professors and conduct his own investigation. Tracy follows the group out to a desolate location on Long Island as Atwill commences with his psychological testing of his staff.

The great Michael Curtiz is behind the camera in one of his early films, and a precursor to The Mystery of the Wax Museum, also in color. As always, even early in his career, Curtiz has a deft hand and has wonderful shot selection. One of his favorite techniques is the use of shadow in a number of ingenious ways. He also has a unique way with close-ups. While some people don’t particularly like the two-strip Technicolor, the pastel greens and reds are perfect for creating a sepia atmosphere that couldn’t be better for a horror film. The pre-code aspects of the film are incredibly forced as Tracy goes into a brothel to make his first phone call to the newspaper, and then runs across a still in the old dark house, and a completely bizarre beach scene seemingly tacked on so that Fay Wray can wear a swimsuit that rides well up her thighs exposing her bottoms underneath. One of the character actors is Harry Holman as a beat cop, recognized primarily for his penultimate film role as the high school principal in It’s a Wonderful Life fifteen years later. Leila Bennett plays the slightly dim housekeeper who is forced to reenact the last murder while Atwill conducts his experiment. Assisting Atwill are his henchman George Rosener and another professor, Preston Foster, who has only one arm and is therefore above suspicion. Dr. X is a rather tepid horror film, and the comedy is unwelcome most of the time, but the color photography and Curtiz’s direction made it a hit at the time and an enjoyable period piece to watch today.

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