CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Return of Doctor X and the Return of Classic Hollywood Horror

Our current post is part of the May 15-17, 2011, Classic Movies of 1939 Blogathon being sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. The CMBA (of which we are proud members) has invited classic-film bloggers to write and post articles on movies made in the year 1939, as a way to commemorate the films of that year. (For more information, and to see a list of movies and their bloggers, please visit: http://clamba.blogspot.com/)

Why celebrate 1939? By common consent, 1939 is the annus mirabilis of Golden-Age Hollywood. This was the year that climaxed with the premiere of the movie perhaps most closely symbolizing the era of the great Hollywood Studio System: Gone With The Wind. But GWTW is only the most prominent film in what was, by any measure, a smashing year for movies. If GWTW had not been made, we still would have had Judy Garland tripping down the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz, as well as James Stewart tripping down to the U.S. Senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Need more convincing? What about: Garbo laughing, and making us laugh, as Ninotchka; Charles Laughton making us cry as The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Bette Davis expiring beautifully in Dark Victory; Gary Cooper expiring heroically in Beau Geste; Claudette Colbert conquering Paris in Midnight; and Jean Arthur conquering Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings? Or maybe, Laurence Olivier in love with Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights; Irene Dunne in love with Charles Boyer in Love Affair; and everyone in love with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again? Then there’s Cary Grant battling thuggees in Gunga Din; Edward G. Robinson battling Nazis in Confessions of a Nazi Spy; and Norma Shearer battling Joan Crawford in The Women. There’s also Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles; Bette Davis (again) as QE1 in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach; Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan at Treasure Island; William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora in Another Thin Man; Humphrey Bogart as a vampire in The Return of Doctor X

We pause here to grab hold of the nearest bolted-down object, so as not to be (to coin a phrase) gone with the wind that’s just swept over us, caused by so many heads in cyberspace snapping back to re-read that last line:

Humphrey Bogart as a what?

Well, not exactly a vampire. He plays a man revived from the dead who needs constant blood transfusions to survive, which makes him a sort-of vampire…

His blood runs cold: Humphrey Bogart as Doctor X

Yes, dear readers, 1939 is the year Humphrey Bogart made his one and only horror film: Warner Bros.’ The Return of Doctor X. While we wouldn’t be so bold as to claim that this singular occurrence is what makes 1939 stand out above all other years of golden-age Hollywood, it does add to that year’s unique quality. Humphrey Bogart the gangster we know. Humphrey Bogart the existential film-noir hero we honor. Humphrey Bogart the cynic-with-a-heart-of-gold we love. Even Humphrey Bogart the cold-blooded killer we acknowledge.

But playing a character whose blood is literally cold—that was a stretch even for Bogie.

Humphrey Bogart needs no introduction to classic-movie fans (and if he does, then you seriously need to bone up on your classic movies). He was voted the number one male movie star in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Stars” Poll, ahead of—well, ahead of everyone else, actually, since he’s first in line. But Bogie, to address him by his affectionate nickname, wasn’t always an A-list movie star. In 1939 Warner Bros., where he was under contract, still considered him a supporting actor, usually casting him as the foil to such then-bigger stars as James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. The few leading parts he did have (such as in Black Legion in 1937) were in B-level product. His most prominent role at this point had been as the Dillingeresque gangster Duke Mantee in 1937’s The Petrified Forest, recreating his stage success (and for which he had to fight to get cast in the film). It would not be until 1940, playing another Dillinger-type gangster, ‘Mad-Dog’ Earle in High Sierra, that Bogie would be elevated to star status. In the meantime, he continued to play gangland types in Invisible Stripes, The Roaring Twenties, You Can’t Get Away With Murder, and King of the Underworld—and this is still just for 1939.

Horror returns: The Return of Doctor X

But before anyone had thought of casting Bogie in a horror film, there was the question of film horror itself. For classic-horror film fans, 1939 may be memorable as the year that horror returned to Hollywood. While the idea of such a genre staple as horror being absent from the screen may sound strange, horror-movie output was actually significantly diminished in the late 1930s. Year-by-year horror listings in The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror show that only seven horror films came out in 1936, one in 1937, and none in 1938. Why the gap? According to Bryan Senn in his entertaining Golden Horrors, beginning in 1935 local British lobbying groups, as well as British censors, protested against what they described as the “moral decay of Hollywood product,” referring specifically to horror. Much of this indignation, says Senn, was aroused by Universal’s 1935 Karloff-Lugosi collaboration, The Raven, and its “themes of torture, madness, and sexual aberration.” (It’s a charming little film; we highly recommend it.) In response to such cinematic depravities, the London City Council created the ‘H,’ meaning ‘horrific,’ certificate, not allowing any child under 16 to view a film labeled thus—in effect, banning the horror film. With the decline of the U.K. market (which had represented over 40 percent of foreign distribution income), Hollywood also declined making more horror, viewing it as a financial risk. After 1936, writes Senn, “a cataleptic trance” overtook film horror for almost two years.

In 1938, however, all that changed, when a theater owner, facing bankruptcy, presented a triple bill of cheaply acquired prints of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Son of Kong. Lines ran around the block, and Universal (which itself had faced bankruptcy just two years earlier), sensing a trend, nationally re-released Frankenstein and Dracula to big box office. Capitalizing on this success, says Senn, Universal then released the big-budget Son of Frankenstein in January 1939 , which also became a box-office hit. The country definitely had an appetite for horror; in February, Senn notes, Look magazine headlined an article: “‘Nightmares for Everybody’ is the Hollywood slogan for a more horrible 1939.” In keeping with the slogan, more successful big-budget horror items came out that year, such as Tower of London and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The surge was on, and horror once more filled the nation’s screens, creating a second horror-film cycle that lasted until 1948.

Synthetic blood: Lya Lys revived with same in The Return of Doctor X

According to Steve Haberman on The Return of Doctor X’s DVD commentary, Warner Bros. had actually been planning this film since at least 1938, originally to star Boris Karloff and to be directed by Michael Curtiz, as a Technicolor sequel to its successful 1932 two-strip Technicolor horror flick, Doctor X. Senn notes that Warners seems to have conveniently forgotten the original film’s story; 1932’s title character (‘X’ for ‘Xavier’) not only was that film’s good guy, but he had not been killed off, as Warners’ sequel-marketing publicity claimed. But the link between the two films is synthetic anyway—in several senses. Both films have characters named Dr. X/avier, both involve medical experiments, and both, notes Haberman, concern synthetic production of an organic product, flesh in the first film, blood in the second. TRODX seems like a classic case of sequelitis: luring audiences into theaters on a catchy title that promises a follow-up to a previous, popular classic, and counting on most viewers not having seen or not remembering enough of the first film, or, if so, not caring.

Restored to life: Bogie applying his Doctor X make-up

The film that eventually emerged was a black-and-white B-product directed by a first-time director, Vincent Sherman, and starring a rising crop of young Warners contract players—Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, Rosemary Lane—as well such veterans as Bogart and John Litel. The story follows the efforts of a young reporter, Garrett (Morris), and his doctor friend, Rhodes (Morgan), to discover who’s been murdering people who all have the same rare blood type. Their search leads them to Dr. Flegg (Litel), a famous blood specialist (“Interesting stuff, blood,” he clinically observes), and his extremely creepy assistant, Quesne (pronounced ‘cane’) (Bogie), a pasty-faced, cold-skinned, rabbit-caressing researcher, his hair dramatically streaked by a white quiff, à la Diaghilev. There’s a good reason why Quesne is cold to the touch: It turns out he was once the notorious Doctor Xavier, who starved a child to death as part of a ‘scientific’ experiment and who was executed for his crimes. But here he is, alive and mobile and very interested in the subject of blood composition. Xavier’s presence is due to Dr. Flegg having restored him to life with synthetic blood in order to utilize his scientific brilliance. Belatedly, Flegg admits he’s made a mistake; since the synthetic blood does not renew itself like real blood, Xavier must keep on killing for a fresh blood supply, and must be stopped. But Xavier instead stops Flegg, shooting him dead, and then kidnapping Rhodes’ girlfriend Joan (Lane) to extract her blood (she has the same rare blood type as the other victims, which Xavier needs). The film races to a quick finish, with the police and our two heroes cornering Xavier in his lab for a final shoot-out and rescue.

What Bogie fans probably associate with TRODX today is the actor’s own assessment of the film as “this stinking movie.” In remarks to a reporter, he vividly expressed his unhappiness at making a picture about a vampiric revenant needing infusions of blood: “If it’d been Jack Warner’s blood or Harry’s…I wouldn’t have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine.” Vincent Sherman recalled in his autobiography that Jack Warner himself told him that Bogie was to be in the film, admonishing Sherman to “see if you can get [Bogart] to play something besides Duke Mantee.” However, Sherman found Bogie cooperative and hard-working, noting how they both came up with ideas for Bogie’s character, including the white make-up and hair streak (to suggest electrocution). And indeed, Bogie, in spite of exuding a faintly depressed aura, like that of a man facing root canal in the morning, gives a real performance, creating a character of quiet, twisted creepiness. “Bogie and I were both from the theater,” Sherman wrote, “and were used to working seriously on whatever was handed to us.” Even, it seems, grade-B horror.

Xavier with Friend: Bogie and Bunny

Sherman felt his own theatrical background (he’d been an actor and playwright) helped him in structuring the story’s dynamics and in working with the actors. Xavier’s first entrance even seems set for a stage; he appears in extreme long shot in a doorway, a white shaft of light on his face (you almost expect the surrounding lighting to darken). But it’s Xavier’s next shot that gives us the full impact of what Senn calls his “strikingly unwholesome” appearance: The camera cuts to a low-angle traveling shot, retreating before Xavier’s advancing figure, giving us a good view of the dead-white skin with its oily sheen and the madly glinting eyes. Few other shots match the effect of this first close look at Doctor X; much of the rest of the film, as William Everson says, suffers from an absence of style, particularly the kind of grotesque stylization that we associate with golden-age horror cinema. Aside from a few expressionistic touches (menacing shadows on the wall, the use of low-angle lighting), as well as a small-scale Frankenstein-revival scene, complete with a Strickfaden-like apparatus of tubes, beakers, wires, and electric sparks, Sherman’s direction does not call attention to itself. It lacks the baroque flamboyance James Whale brought to his two Frankenstein films, nor does it exhibit Curtiz’s wacky grandiosity from the 1932 Doctor X. What flair the film does have is probably due to Sherman’s experienced cinematographer, Syd Hickox (whom Sherman acknowledges as teaching him the fundamentals). Senn remarks how Hickox’s staging adds depth and contrast to the mise-en-scène, his “fluid camera and varied lighting bring[ing] a rich visual sense to the strange proceedings.”

Strange doings: Doctor X in his lab

And the proceedings are definitely strange. Bogie’s horror villain is a pathetic, shambling creature, endowed with a lisp and a limp, his voice a sibilant whisper, his gloved hand clutching a rabbit. He lacks the grand madness we associate with Bela Lugosi’s fiends; nor does he have Boris Karloff’s elegance and coiled tension; and in no way does he come close to the sublime depravity of Lionel Atwill. No, Bogie’s Xavier is a one-of-a-kind horror creation, a distinctly weird, clammy, unsettling presence. More than anything, he looks like something not quite alive; you have the feeling that, if you ever did meet a vampire, this is what it would really be like—a thing of mould and slime and the cold, dank earth. Even though Xavier dresses impeccably throughout the film (in one scene he even sports an ascot), he reeks of the unclean. There’s nothing romantic about this vampire. You wouldn’t watch a TV series made about him.

Bogie’s unnatural monstrousness as Xavier brings up an aspect of horror movies that we had discussed in our earlier article on Night of the Demon, on homosexuality and horror. Harry Benshoff’s remarkable analysis of horror cinema, Monsters in the Closet, deconstructs the horror film genre’s manifestation of a dominant, heterocentrist, “monsterizing” cultural perception of homosexuality. Looking especially closely at Hollywood’s horror cycles of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Benshoff distinguishes a number of queer signifiers in horror movies (violence, low-key lighting, bizarre make-up) that equates monsters with the monstrously constructed homosexual Other, arguing that “the figure of the monster throughout the history of the English-language horror film can in some way be understood as a metaphoric construct standing in for the figure of the homosexual.” So, too, with TRODX. Xavier can be figured as the “queer Other” through both his name—‘X’ as a marker of the unknown and the uncanny—and his monstrous appearance—his sickly pallor and twisted torso—as well as the spooky lighting used in his scenes (as Rhodes remarks to Flegg about Xavier, “Strange-looking creature, isn’t he?”). Further, Xavier is marked with queer-associated signs: He speaks in a soft, whispery voice (almost sounding like Peter Lorre), dresses in a dandified manner (ascot and dinner jacket, pince-nez, black cloak), and cuddles a bunny rabbit. In his first meeting with Morgan’s Dr. Rhodes, Xavier (or Quesne, as he’s then known) identifies with his rodent friend, remarking that he and his floppy-eared companion are both “victims.” At this moment Flegg enters and interrupts the conversation, directing a stony-eyed glare at Quesne. “Victims of what?” he asks. “Circumstance,” finishes Quesne with a queasy smile.

Queer happenings: Dennis Morgan, Bogie, John Litel (seated)

Flegg’s entrance highlights another queer filmic construct indicated by Benshoff: The queer, monstrous couple engaged in experiments that, as Benshoff puts it, are “re-imagining procreation.” The classic queer monster couple are Frankenstein and his dwarf assistant Fritz, who, says Benshoff, “se[t] out to create life homosexually—without the benefit of heterosexual intercourse.” Flegg and Xavier, TRODX’s queer couple, are also involved in a procreative experiment, to produce synthetic blood that can replace the real thing (“His interest in blood almost equals my own” says Flegg of Quesne). However, as Flegg later acknowledges, the experiment has failed because of a procreative lack—his synthetic blood does not “recreate itself,” as does normal blood. Flegg also is marked with queer, foppish signifiers, such as dressing gowns, old-fashioned wing collars, a goatee, and a monocle (which he apparently wears even during an operation). He, too, is identified with Quesne’s bunny; in one shot he holds a lab-revived rabbit (as Xavier had been revived), in a pose similar to the above-mentioned shot of Xavier with his furry pal. Even Flegg’s motives in restoring Quesne to life are queerly tinged: He wanted Quesne not only for his scientific expertise, but for what he cryptically alludes to as “further research,” leaving audiences to imagine what that research can be.

Object of desire: Dennis Morgan as Dr. Rhodes

Moreover, Quesne and Flegg’s desire is, in Benshoff’s phrase, “triangulated,” or displaced onto another character as a way to deflect the homoerotic implications of their partnership. Here the third party is the heterosexual couple of Rhodes and Joan, who both figure in Flegg and Quesne’s relationship. Joan, as mentioned, is a potential blood source for Xavier; but it’s Rhodes, as embodied in Morgan’s Arrow-Collar-ad good looks, who’s the real focus for the two scientists. He’s figured both as a potential partner in their experiments (Flegg encourages Rhodes to study blood, while Quesne keeps hinting that he would like to discuss “blood composition” with the younger physician) and as an object of desire: Quesne’s reaction to meeting the handsome Rhodes is to issue an almost Franklin-Pangborn-like expression of quivery delight: “Oooh—Doctor Rhodes.” Sherman stages their meeting as a two-shot, the men facing each other in profile. Then Flegg enters the scene, standing in the background but situated between the two facing men, actually forming, as Senn points out, the third point of the triangle. When Quesne leaves the shot, Flegg literally takes his place; he moves into Quesne’s position, facing Rhodes, his identification with Quesne’s own queer desire inscribed into the filmic text.

Buddy-Buddy: Wayne Morris and Dennis Morgan join forces

But perhaps another reason for the triangulating queerness emphasized in the Flegg-Xavier relationship is to deflect queer implications from the film’s other male/male liaison, the investigative team of Garrett and Rhodes. Haberman describes TRODX as a “male-bonding film,” and much of its action revolves around Rhodes and Garrett racing around the city for clues to the murders. Rhodes is so caught up in Garrett’s journalistic fervor that he barely has time for Joan; when he tries to take her out for a romantic evening of dinner and dancing, Garrett intrudes (“This is no time for dames!” he whines), persuading Rhodes to make a few stops beforehand. Poor Joan is then forced to wait in the car while Garrett and Rhodes rush in and out of hotels and morgues in pursuit of evidence (in return for her patience, the boys take her out for a hamburger). The ‘heterosexual’ Garrett-Rhodes-Joan trio is mirrored in the film’s queer trio of Flegg-Quesne-Merrova, the last-named character an actress murdered by Quesne for her blood, and then revived with synthetic blood by a remorseful, and busy, Flegg. Like Quesne, Merrova (Lya Lys) has the same sickly pallor and exhausted air; and she’s also queerly signified by her profession, foreign accent, and exotic clothes (including a black veil). That the film attempts to ward off any queer taint from its heroes by highlighting another, strongly coded queer group, may betray its own uncertainty about the ‘straightness’ of its male-bonded duo.

This won’t hurt a bit: Bogie threatens Rosemary Lane

TRODX’s queer, as it were, mixture in its characterizations is reflected in its odd mix of genres: Within its compact 62 minutes it manages to compress horror, comedy, murder mystery, newspaper picture, and a typical Warners gangster movie, with fast-talking cops and a bullet-blazing climax (in the shoot-out with police at film’s end, we half-expected Bogie to snarl out, “C’mon and get me, coppers!”). In this sense TRODX is similar to the original Doctor X, which also tossed together, like an eclectic salad, horror, comedy, mystery, and a snooping reporter for good measure. However, as the Film Encyclopedia notes, TRODX’s plot is less a follow-up to Doctor X than it is a copy of another Warners horror film, the 1936 The Walking Dead: A solemn film starring Karloff as an unjustly executed criminal brought back to life, who then, like a personified conscience, confronts the gang of crooks that had him put to death. Both TWD and TRODX seem the vanguard of a new mini-genre, the revived-executed-criminal film, in which gangland clichés alternate with those of horror. 1939 saw another criminal-brought-back-from-beyond film, again starring Karloff, as The Man They Could Not Hang, an executed doctor revived by his own life-restoring invention—only to go on a killing spree of his own, revenging himself on the jurors who ruled against him. Then there’s the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Decoy of 1946, a film noir-cum-science fiction opus, in which scheming Jean Gillie restores her gas-chambered lover to find out where he’s stashed the stolen loot (our favorite bit is when the just-revived ex-dead ex-con lights up a cigarette). But the craziest of these films, we think, is 1956’s The Indestructible Man, the title referring to Lon Chaney, Jr. as a restored-from-the-grave murderer going after his old gang members who ratted him out, bumping them off in inventively nasty ways. All these films succeed in fashioning a nutty hybrid of gritty crime drama and truly weird science that both entertains and astonishes.

The Genre Mash: Doctor X shot down in gangster-style finish

If TRODX continued the practice of genre-fusing in its horror plot, it also foresaw a new era in the Hollywood horror film. David Skal writes in The Monster Show that 1939’s first horror release, Son of Frankenstein, was less the start of a new wave of horror than a look back at the early-to-mid-1930s horror cycle, recapturing that era’s themes and style. Whereas, as Senn points out, TRODX, not released until November (the last 1939-released horror film), “marks an effective end to the moody style of the Golden Age of Horror and serve as a fitting transition into the quicker-paced, action-oriented craftsmanship of the 1940s.” The 1940s’ ‘Silver Age’ of horror comprised the Universal B-level “monster-rally” movies (the fun House of Frankenstein and of Dracula), as well as the sequels to 1932’s The Mummy (The Mummy’s Hand/Tomb/Ghost/Curse), and the even cheaper programmers starring Lionel Atwill or Rondo Hatton (The Mad Doctor of Market Street, House of Horrors); but it also saw the subtler horror productions of Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie) and even some nifty A-level thrillers such as 1944’s The Uninvited. Book-ended by two classics, SOF and TRODX, 1939 was both a renewal and a re-imagining of classic Hollywood horror. For us classic-horror buffs, that’s a great reason to celebrate the year and its glorious cinematic efflorescence. No doubt, 1939 was a very good year.

Bonus Clip: Below is the trailer for The Return of Doctor X, “who lives to kill and who must kill to live!” The trailer includes scenes that were not in the finished film. Note the stress on both horror and shoot-’em-ups in its montage. “It’s Memorable–Exciting–Different!” 

Sources:

Benshoff, Harry M., Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997

Everson, William K., More Classics of the Horror Film, Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1986

Haberman, Steve, and Sherman, Vincent, “DVD Commentary,” The Return of Doctor X, Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2006

Hardy, Phil, ed., The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, London: Aurum Press, 1985, 1997

Senn, Bryan, Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography of Terror Cinema, 1931-1939, Jefferson, NC, London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1996

Sherman, Vincent, Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996

Skal, David J., The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, New York: Norton, 1993

Sperber, A.M., and Lax, Eric, Bogart, New York: William Morris & Company, Inc., 1997

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