I assume that most readers have not seen Dr. X. Most of you have probably not even heard of it. It is well-made mystery/thriller with some humor thrown in for good measure. The story revolves around a series of cannibalistic murders, with the trail leading to a science academy (it is pretty racy stuff for 1932). The students are away for the holidays, so the murderer has to be one of the teachers still in residence. This leads to the wonderful experience of having a thriller with multiple mad scientists. Lionel Atwill plays the eponymous doctor. Throw in Fay Wray as his daughter (her characters first line is a scream, something that she was justifiably famous for) and add Lee Tracy as an intrepid reporter after a story (not because he is fearless and dedicated to truth, but because his boss threatens his job) and you have the makings of a fun time at the movies.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (who directed classics like Casablanca, and Yankee Doodle Dandy) this is also the first color film to be highlighted as the choice for this blog. Curtiz uses and light and shadow well. Characters are introduced in silhouette, we see very little of the killer, appearing onscreen only occasionally before the climax. Tracy provides the comic relief (such as it is) and the grounding in reality (such as it is). Tracy, it occurs to me, is probably an acquired taste and not for everyone. Personally, I love quick-talking newspaper reporters from the early depression era. But that’s just me I guess.
Dr. X is a wonderful little picture. It isn’t going to change your life, but you are going to have a fun watching it. One of the reasons I’ve highlighted it, however, is that Dr. X and a follow-up released in 1939, The Return of Dr. X, are great examples to illustrate ways the Hayes Code (often also called the Production Code) neutered Hollywood and stifled creativity. Dr. X is a fairly racy picture. The themes include cannibalism and murder, Tracy’s character visits a whorehouse early in the movie (only to use the phone, but being Lee Tracy, he does have other things on his mind). For all its faults, it is a fun and interesting time at the moves.
In 1934, the Hayes Code began to be enforced. This set out guidelines of what was acceptable in the motion pictures industry and seriously hampered what could and could not be viewed on screen (I can’t get into too much detail here, because of my “no research” policy, but if you are interested in seeing some of the particulars, I’m sure looking the code up on wikipedia would provide some insight). Moviemakers were no longer able to portray criminals in any kind of sympathetic light, sexuality was unacceptable, and anything even remotely offensive to the stodgiest of people was considered off limits.
From the advent of sound through the middle of the 1930s, around a half a decade, studios made movies that pushed boundaries and challenged social mores. It isn’t a coincidence that some of the greatest horror, gangster, and social commentary movies of all time were filmed during this brief era. This all stopped rather abruptly and we can see the result in The Return of Dr. X, a film hampered by the limitations of censorship that couldn’t even be saved by the fact that it was Bogart’s only turn in a horror movie. Dr. X’s return (I say this loosely, because clearly they are not connected story-wide in any way but title) lacks the sizzle of the original. Even though it is a more recent film, The Return of Dr. X feels older than Dr. X.
I’m not arguing that great movies weren’t made during the censorship era (which lasted for 30 years). Some of the greatest movies ever were produced during this time and the argument can be made that they ways they circumvented the censors (coded references to sex, off-screen deaths that were even more chilling because they were not seen) made for even better movies. But can you imagine if some of the actors and directors working during this period had more creative control over their work?
I do love Dr. X and it is definitely worth a look, but it is also important to understand the background of censorship in Hollywood that made The Return of Dr. X so different from it predecessor. The Pre-Code era in Hollywood is one of the most exiting and interesting times in the history of cinema and I encourage you to watch as many of these wonderful films as you can.
If you’re interested in this subject, there are two books Dangerous Men and Complicated Women about actors in the pre-code era that are worth checking out of your local library. There’s also a series of DVD sets that feature pre-code movies called Forbidden Hollywood. If you’re interested in seeing Dr. X and The Return of Dr. X you can get both of them in the Hollywood Legends of Horror DVD box set.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1932 worth seeing):
1932 was another very strong year for movies. Grand Hotel is a truly grand piece that features one of the first “all-star” casts that I can think of. I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang stars the incomparable Paul Muni in a wonderful work of social commentary that sheds a light on the troubles of the Great Depression. Muni also starred in the original version of Scarface, as an Italian gangster who made his money with booze rather than a Cuban gangster who made his money with drugs (I would bet that most of my loyal readers didn’t know that the version of Scarface starring Al Pacino was a remake).
Once again, the Marx Brothers are in top form with Horse Feathers, a great place to get starting watching their movies if you haven’t seen any of them yet. It’s all about the laughable farce that big-time college football is amateur football. The Most Dangerous Game, starring Joel McCrea and Fay Wray is well-paced and fun take on the famous short story.
The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff and Murders in the Rue Morgue starring Bela Lugosi, are two great horror films from the era. Rue Morgue is particularly jarring and is a great example of some of the possibilities in horror before the enforcement of the Hayes Code. Tod Browning made Freaks fresh off his success as director of Dracula . The movie stars real carnival performers and demonstrates that goodness is not necessarily tied to physical beauty. It is still a strange movie decades later. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr is an endlessly interesting take on the vampire movie and feels like an ongoing dream sequence.
Three on a Match features Warren William, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, and one of Humphrey Bogart’s earliest gangster/tough guy roles. I know that this makes me a little strange, but that cast is enough to make me swoon.
Did you know? (1932 Trivial knowledge)
“What’s the matter with me? Nothin’ at all. Only I spent all last night laying next to a bunch of stiffs, looking at a lot of goofy guys. I let a dame poke a gun in my stomach, and then I let a dumb policeman slip me a trick cigar.”
“Say you want to draw another paycheck don’t you?”
“Certainly, that’s my aim in life, but I’d like to keep our of the bughouse to enjoy it.”
Lee Taylor, Lee Tracy’s character in the movie, talking to his editor.