Doctor X (1933): Michael Curtiz’s Pre-Code Mystery Horror in Color, starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray. Lee Tracy

“A routine nightmare, intended for avid patrons of synthetic horror rather than for normal Cinemaaddicts,” wrote Time magazine in its (unfair and misguided) review of Doctor X, Michael Curtiz’s terrific pre-Code mystery horror movie, starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Lee Tracy.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Doctor X
Doctorx.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Produced jointly by First National and Warner, it was based on the 1931 play originally titled The Terror by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller.

As Doctor X was produced before the Production Code was enforced (in 1934), the text could contain risqué issues, such as murder, rape, cannibalism and prostitution.

The film was one of the last produced, along with Warner subsequent Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), in the early two-color Technicolor process.

Separate black-and-white prints were shipped to small towns and foreign markets, while color prints were reserved for major cities.

Lee Tracy plays Daily World newshawk Lee Taylor, who is investigating a series of pathological murders in New York City. The murders always take place at night, under full moon, and each body has been cannibalized after the murder. Witnesses describe a horribly disfigured “monster” as the killer.

Doctor Xavier is called in for his medical opinion, but the police have an ulterior motive. They want to investigate Xavier’s medical academy, as the scalpel used to cannibalize the bodies of the victims is exclusive to that institution.

Aside from Xavier, the other suspects are Wells, an amputee who conducted a study of cannibalism; Haines, who displays  sexual perversion with voyeurism; Duke, a grouchy paralytic; and Rowitz, who conducting studies of the psychological effects of the moon.

The police give Xavier 48 hours to apprehend the killer in his own way, during which reporter Taylor investigates the doctor’s intentions. In the process, he meets Joanne Xavier, the doctor’s daughter. Joanne is exceedingly cold to Taylor, after finding out that it was his story that pointed a finger at her father and ruined his attempt at locating the killer. Taylor takes a romantic interest in Joanne, despite her strong dislike of his behavior.

At Xavier’s beach-side estate, the suspects gather for unorthodox experiment. Each member is being investigated except Wells, because the killer has two hands and Wells one. Each man is connected to electrical system that records his heart rate.

When reenactment of the cleaning woman’s murder will be shown, the detector will expose the guilty man. Dr. Xavier’s butler and maid, Otto and Mamie, carry out the reenactment.

During the experiment, a blackout occurs. When power is regained, it’s discovered that Rowitz has been murdered by use of scalpel to the brain, and his body cannibalized.

Xavier asks Otto and Mamie to reenact another murder. When Mamie is too frightened to play her part, Joanne takes her place.

All of the men, save for Wells, are handcuffed to their seats, and the doors are locked to keep Wells at the recording cabinet.

We find out that Wells who is the killer, entering a secret laboratory where he transforms himself with “synthetic flesh” into the monstrous Moon Killer.

After strangling Otto, Wells reveals to his handcuffed “guests” that he’s invented a “synthetic flesh” composition, and that he has been creating artificial limbs and horrific mask to carry out his crimes, in order to collect living samples of human flesh for his experiments.

As Wells is about to strangle Joanne, Taylor – concealed among wax figures representing the killer’s victims – jumps Wells.

After an extended fight, Taylor hurls kerosene lamp at Wells, setting him on fire. Wells crashes through a window and falls down a cliff in flames to the ocean shore.

In the happy ending, Taylor tells his editor to make space in the marriage section for Joanne and himself.

Doctor X was the second Warner feature to be shot in the improved Technicolor process, which managed to remove grain. This process had initially been used on The Runaround (1931) and resulted in color revival by some studios. However, facing public apathy, the studios retreated from color films in 1932.

During production, an alternative black-and-white version was shot and still exists–comparison shows that most takes between the two are the same. Differences are minor, such as Tracy’s ad-lib with skeleton in the closet, and Mae Busch’s dialogue as madam at a brothel. The black-and-white version was offered to exhibitors (much to Technicolor’s dismay) as alternative.

After the commercial success of Doctor X, Warner followed up with Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which also starred Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill and was directed by Curtiz. Mystery of the Wax Museum was again shot in Technicolor to fulfill Warner’s contract with Technicolor Inc., which ensured that no black-and-white cameras were present on the set. The film became the last two-color Technicolor released by major studio.

Anton Grot designed the sets for both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. The makeup was designed by Max Factor, who was then associated with beauty makeup.

Doctor X was the first of three Curtiz films with Lionel Atwill, along with Mystery of the Wax Museum and the 1935 Errol Flynn adventure Captain Blood.

Doctor X was also the first of three films that costarred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. They would star together in The Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat.

However, Doctor X was well-received by many critics and proved to be a success at the box office. Because of the popularity of the film, Warner Bros. followed it with Mystery of the Wax Museum.

Despite the title, The Return of Doctor X (1939) is not considered a sequel. However, the 1942 Universal horror movie Night Monster, which also co-stars Atwill as doctor, has similar plot and the same ending.

The film earned $405,000 domestically and $189,000 foreign.

By the late 1950s, when the black-and-white version was included in a package of older films syndicated to television, the Technicolor version was thought to be lost. No print could be found, and Technicolor had discarded most of its two-color negatives on December 28, 1948.

After the death of Jack L. Warner, on September 9, 1978, a print was discovered in his personal collection. It was then safely copied for preservation, distribution to revival theaters, and transfer to video.

The original nitrate print was donated to the UCLA Film & TV Archive, which has allowed limited public screenings at properly equipped and licensed facilities.

A superior digital restoration was conducted by the archive in 2020 and debuted on Blu-ray disc in April 2021.

In the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show and its film adaptation, the opening song, “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” references classic sci-fi/horror films. Among them is the line “Doctor X will build a creature,” despite the fact that Doctor X notably does not build a creature in the original film.

In homage, the metal band Queensrÿche featured a character named Doctor X (known as Dr. X in the lyrics) as main antagonist of the band’s 1988 concept album “Operation: Mindcrime.”

Cast
Lionel Atwill as Dr. Jerry Xavier
Fay Wray as Joanne Xavier
Lee Tracy as Lee Taylor, Daily World reporter
Preston Foster as Dr. Wells, Academy of Surgical Research
John Wray as Dr. Haines, Academy of Surgical Research
Harry Beresford as Dr. Duke, Academy of Surgical Research
Arthur Edmund Carewe as Dr. Rowitz, Academy of Surgical Research
Leila Bennett as Mamie, Dr. Xavier’s maid
Robert Warwick as Police Commissioner Stevens
George Rosener as Otto, Dr. X’s butler
Willard Robertson as Detective O’Halloran
Thomas Jackson as Daily World editor
Harry Holman as Mike, waterfront policeman
Mae Busch as Madam
Tom Dugan as Sheriff
Raoul Freeman as Morgue Detective (uncredited)
Selmer Jackson as Willard Keefe, night editor (uncredited)
Charles McMurphy as Detective at headquarters (uncredited)
Ky Robinson as Morgue Detective (uncredited)

Credits:

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin, based on Terror, the
1928 play by Howard W. Comstock

Allen C. Miller, produced on stage as Doctor X (1931)
Produced by Hal B. Wallis; Darryl F. Zanuck (both uncredited)
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan (Technicolor version); Richard Tower (black-and-white version)
Edited by George Amy
Music by Leo F. Forbstein, Bernard Kaun
Production company: First National Pictures
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date: August 3, 1932 (NYC)
Running time 76 minutes
Budget $224,000
Box office $594,000