“Analytical Film Review: Doctor X (1932)” by S.M. O’Connor

Doctor X (1932) Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Lee Tracy.  Directed by Michael Curtiz.

      Doctor X is a pre-Hays Code science fiction/horror/mystery movie. It stars Lionel Atwill (1885-1946) as Professor Gerald Xavier, a rich scientist who comes to realize one of the scientists at the research institute he heads, the Academy of Surgical Research, is a cannibalistic serial killer when the police determine the Moon Killer, so-called because he murders his victims under the light of a full moon, is using a kind of scalpel that is only used at his academy.  Witnesses have seen a ghastly figure in the vicinity of the crimes.  The idea that the police would give Dr. X forty-eight hours to figure out which of his colleagues was the Moon Killer to avoid bad publicity is, of course, ridiculous, but this film came out at the time when Agatha Christie’s contemporaries were still writing mystery novels and short stories with gentlemen-detectives,[1] so audiences may have been more willing to accept this absurd scenario.

This was the first horror movie for “scream queen” Fay Wray (1907-2004), who played his daughter, Joanne Xavier. Fay Wray would late be a blonde for King Kong (1933), and she looked smashing, but she looked even better as a brunette in Doctor X and other films she made before King Kong. Lee Tracy (1898-1968) played heroic reporter Lee Taylor. He also provides the comic relief. It’s strange to have a character who’s essentially a monster-killer who also walked around with a joy buzzer on his right hand.  Some of the film’s humor is slapstick physical comedy and some of it comes from Taylor being over his head when he deals with people from the upper strata of society and the Moon Killer.

The suspects are Doctors Wells, Hayes, Luke, and Rowitz.  American stage, screen, radio, and television actor Preston Foster (1900-1970) played Dr. Wells.  Prolific American stage-and-screen actor John Wray (1887-1940), who was not related to Fay Wray and whose real name was John Griffith Malloy, as Dr. Hayes.  English stage actor Harry Beresford (1863-1944), who had only recently transitioned to the motion picture industry, played Dr. Luke.  Armenian-American stage-and-screen actor Arthur Carewe (1884-1937), whose real name was Hovsep Hovsepian, played Dr. Rowitz.

      Doctor X was made by First National Pictures and released by Warner Bros. four years after Warner Bros. had acquired First National.  The film is an adaptation of the mystery play The Terror by Howard Warren Comstock (1899-1938) and Allen C. Miller (not to be confused with the later playwright known as Allen Miller). The producers were Hal B. Wallis (1898-1986) and Daryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979).  The studio purchased the rights to adapt the play for $5,000.

This is the second-to-last film made in an early two-tone Technicolor process, which is the version shown now on television, though in small town theaters audiences saw black-and-white prints.  The two-tone Technicolor film does not make for the kind of brilliant colors seen in big-budget films from the late 1930s such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Gone with the Wind (1939).  Rather, it makes for dream-like imagery where whites, greens, and oranges are vivid, and White or Caucasian people from Northern Europe or whose ancestors were from Northern Europe have flesh tones that are believable without being true-to-life, but dark colors are very dark and many other colors are muted.  Earlier horror films made by Universal StudiosDracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) – were black-and-white, which made Doctor X distinctive.  The very last film to be made with this two-tone Technicolor film was The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).[2] Both films were horror/mystery films that were directed by Michael Curtiz (1886-1962) and which starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.  Notably, both films had villains who developed artificial means of replacing or covering up missing or badly scarred flesh.  Reportedly, Curtiz shot Doctor X twice, once on Technicolor film stock and once in black-and-white film stock, with most, but not all, shots being exactly the same.  The color print was long thought to be lost until a copy was discovered in 1973.

Anton Grot (1884-1974), a Polish immigrant who, as Art Director headed the Warner Bros. Art Department from 1927 until his retirement in 1948, designed the sets for Doctor X.  He collaborated with Curtiz on fifteen films, starting with Noah’s Ark (1929).

This is a pre-Hays Code film production and that shows in two ways. Generally speaking, the film is too lurid to have been made later in the decade under the Hays Code.  Specifically, the Moon Killer is what we would now call a serial killer, and a cannibal, as well, and the idea of a cannibalistic killer on the loose of modern New York City would likely have made for too repulsive a villain for the filmmakers to have depicted a few years later under the Hays Code.  The movie also has risqué things like Lee wanting to borrow a phone to call in a story to his newspaper, which is how newspapermen conveyed breaking stories to editors for most of the 20th Century, in a business establishment that is clearly a brothel and the gag at the end where, after he calls his paper from Doctor Xavier’s mansion to report the Moon Killer is no more and space should also be reserved in the wedding announcements section (clearly for himself and Joanne), he tells Joanne he wants to know where she likes to be touched with his buzzer and turns out the lights.

Doctor Xavier having a mansion in New York City, an estate on Long Island, and two domestic servants indicates the character inherited wealth, married into wealth, or somehow made a fortune with his medical research.  Having him move his colleagues to the estate to figure out which one of them is the Moon Killer is the setup for the dénouement, but also makes the final act like an extreme version of the setup for so many mystery books and short stories of the era (and later film and television adaptations) written by Agatha Christie and her colleagues where Hercule Poirot or an amateur detective is an invited for a week-end party at a country estate where someone is murdered despite the presence of the celebrated detective.

In an essay on Doctor X published online in 2006, Nate Yapp pointed out that Doctor X is an inversion of the Old Dark House subgenre of films from the second-quarter of the 20th Century.[3]  “In your normal old dark house flick, a group of people gathers at some remote, sinister mansion or castle.  Some force which can only be supernatural stalks and/or kills them, but the culprit is revealed to be perfectly human before the end credits roll.  The cartoon series ‘Scooby–Doo, Where Ae You?’ would later appropriate the format for its own, more comical purposes.  In Doctor X, a group of people gather in a remote, sinister mansion, but they assume that the force that stalks them must be completely natural – after all, this is the real world.  It is only at the end that the killer is revealed to be something more bizarre than just human.  In a way, Doctor X, along with James Whale’s The Old Dark House (also 1932), would be the horror genre’s farewell to a hoary old cliché (although it did stick around, the films were more appropriately marketed as mysteries for the most part).”[4]

He makes a good point about the Old Dark House genre and Scooby-Doo, and I would add the subgenre was spoofed in the Bob Hope (1903-2003) comedy The Cat and the Canary (1939), but the Old Dark House is also a common setting of real supernatural horror films (as opposed to a subgenre of thrillers with monsters that are revealed to be fake in the end).  All of the Amityville Horror films are Old Dark House films.  James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), a story that involved Ed and Lorraine Warren like the Amityville Horror, is a superb Old Dark House film.

Few people can watch Doctor X now without thinking of Professor X from Marvel’s X-Men comic books, cartoons, and live-action movies.[5]  I have never read or heard the team of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby (1917-1994) mention this film when he discussed how he developed the character of Professor Charles Francis Xavier – the character played by Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy in live action X-Men films made by 20th Century Fox – or his Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, which is housed in his family mansion in Westchester County or his band of superheroes the X-Men, but it would not surprise me if consciously or unconsciously Lee had this movie at the back of his mind.[6]

Doctor Xavier’s idea of rigging up a machine that will monitor the heartrate of the suspects, connecting it to all of them simultaneously, and in re-enacting one of the Moon Killer’s crimes in  front of them to see whose heartrate is suspiciously high, hoping the guilty party will confess is like a combination of Prince Hamlet’s play within Shakespeare’s play Hamlet to see if he re-enacts the way his father’s ghost says he died in front of his uncle-and-stepfather, King Claudius, as a test to see if he has a suspicious reaction, and a polygraph lie detector test, which is interesting because that was cutting-edge technology that was still under development when the film was made.

The love scene (not to be confused with a sex scene) between Joanne and Lee was filmed on Laguna Beach.  When she spots a dark-clad figure watching them from up on the cliff, it raises the specter of her being stalked by a voyeur.[7]

The audience learns (before the heroes and heroine) that the one man whom Doctor Xavier concluded absolutely cannot be the Moon Killer because he is missing a hand, Dr. Wells, actually is, in fact, the Moon Killer when we see him grafting on an inhuman hand with what he later tells his horrified colleagues is “synthetic flesh” he developed after getting samples of real human flesh from African cannibals. In an amazing scene in which the synthetic flesh has an unnatural orange color, we see him apply layers of the stuff over his head to give himself a visage that will terrify his victims (and, of course, prevent witnesses from recognizing him or accurately describing him to police sketch artists).  The villain’s use of a Tesla Coil to stimulate his synthetic flesh (or whatever he’s doing) of about the size of the one Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) used himself in a demonstration in 1891 is because Tesla Coils were a staple of science fiction/horror films of the 1930s.[8]

Dr. Wells/the Moon Killer is a villain from science fiction in the vein of Victor Frankenstein and his monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and its many film adaptations.  He is also a forerunner of many villains from Batman comics, such as Clayface and Man-Bat,  as well as the villain the Dr. Curt Connors/the Lizard from Spider-Man comics, all of whom are rooted in science fiction but have an aspect of weirdness (in the literal sense of being supernatural and evil) not found in every villain or monster in science fiction/horror stories like The Thing from Another World (1951)[9] where the villains or monsters are definitely evil but are supposed to come across as having arisen naturally.

Despite the supposed genius of Joanne’s father, he continues with this plan when Dr. Rowitz is murdered (and later eaten) during the first re-enactment, and tries it again, which is what leads to the harrowing scene of Joanne being menaced on the table by the Moon Killer while her father and two of his colleagues are handcuffed in chairs.  The highlight of the film is the sequence that begins with Dr. Wells transforming into his Moon Killer persona; through the scene were Joanne is strapped to a gurney and menaced by the Moon Killer while her father, Dr. Hayes, and Dr. Luke are handcuffed to their chairs, struggling vainly to get out; and culminating in the knock-down-drag-out fight between Tracy and Wells.  [In a 2008 essay John McElwee noted, “Besides modern settings in lieu of old-world Universal monster surroundings, both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum emphasized their women bound and vulnerable to assult by all too human fiends.  Sexual dimensions implied by Fay Wray lying prostrate before the Moon Killer was the stuff of exploitation dreams.”[10]]  It is safe to assume if Tracy had not rescued Joanne and she had not released her father and the others after Wells murdered her, he would have murdered her father and the others.  At the end of the electrifying climax, the villain dies one of the most spectacular deaths in cinematic history as Tracy feels compelled to both set him ablaze and then defenestrate him when Wells is slow to ignite.

Tracy does well enough in their climactic confrontation, but the filmmakers undercut this dramatic moment with a shift on tone as we see the nervous state to which Tracy is reduced after his triumph over the villain.  The English poet, translator, and literary critic Alexander Pope (1688-1744) coined the term bathos to describe this kind of shift in tone, whether deliberately or accidentally, from pathos to humor, which currently is all the rage in theaters as the hallmark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

According to McElwee, Doctor X was made on a budget of $224,000, earned $405,000 at the domestic box office, earned $189,000 at foreign box offices, and made a profit of $72,000.[11]  To capitalize on the popularity of this film, Warner Bros. later in the decade made The Return of Doctor X (1939), which starred Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) as Dr. Maurice Xavier.  Aside from both being science fiction/horror movies, having the phrase “Doctor X” in the title, and having characters with the surname Xavier, the films are unrelated.

On a five-star scale, I’m giving Doctor X three stars.  To whom will it appeal?  Film buffs, horror film fans, fans of Michael Curtiz, and fans of Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill.

Born into a Jewish family in the Kingdom of Hungary, Michael Curtiz worked successively for Hungarian, German, and American film studios and became one of the most celebrated directors to have ever worked in the motion picture film industry.  [His real name was Manó Kaminer, although in Hungarian he would have been called Kaminer Manó.]  However, for some reason, he is never mentioned in the same breath as Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) or John Ford (1894-1973), Howard Hawks (1896-1977) or Orson Welles (1915-1985).  He directed multiple films that are frequently cited on Top 10 and Top 100 Best Films Ever Made or Favorite Films of particular film critics and film historians.  After he made Doctor X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Curtiz went on to direct the classic swashbucklers, Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood, both of which starred Errol Flynn (1909-1959), Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone (1892-1967).  He also directed the crime drama Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), which starred James Cagney (1899-1986), Pat O’Brien (1899-1983), The Dead End Kids, Bogart, Ann Sheridan (1915-1967), and George Bancroft (1882-1956); the adventure film The Sea Wolf (1941), which was an adaptation of a Jack London novel that starred Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973), Ida Lupino (1918-1992), and John Garfield (1913-1952); the war film Casablanca (1942), which starred Bogart, Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982), Paul Henreid (1908-1992), Claude Rains (1889-1967), Conrad Veidt (1893-1943), Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954), and Peter Lorre (1904-1964); the biographical musical Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), which starred Cagney as Broadway impresario George M. Cohan (1878-1942); the wartime musical comedy This is the Army (1943), which had an ensemble cast that included future U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004); the film noir Mildred Pierce (1945), which starred Joan Crawford (1904-1974); the comedy Life with Father (1947), which starred William Powell (1892-1984) and Irene Dunne (1898-1990); the Christmastime romantic musical comedy White Christmas (1954), which starred Bing Crosby (1903-1977), Danny Kaye (1911-1987), Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002), and Vera-Ellen (1921-1981); and the Christmastime comedy We’re No Angels (1955), which starred Bogart, Aldo Ray (1926-1991), Peter Ustinov (1921-2004), Joan Bennett (1910-1990), Rathbone, and Leo G. Carroll (1886-1972).  Cutiz was married three times and had many affairs.  He had both legitimate and illegitimate children.

Atwill was an English star of stage and screen whose real life was almost as strange as one of the many characters he played. He often played villains, so this was a rare chance to be the hero.  Atwill re-teamed with Fay Wray in The Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat (1933).  He appeared in two Sherlock Holmes films that starred Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce (1895-1953) as Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), produced by 20th Century Fox, and Sherlock Holms and the Secret Weapon (1942), produced by Universal Studios.  In the latter film, Atwill played the archenemy of Holmes, Professor Moriarty.  Son of Frankenstein (1939), which starred Rathbone as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, Boris Karloff (1887-1969) as The Monster, Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) as Ygor, and Atwill played Inspector Krogh, the character Kenneth Mars (1935-2011) parodied in Young Frankenstein (1974).  This was the last Frankenstein movie Universal Studios made that was not a “B” movie,[12] and Atwill played various roles in three of those Frankenstein “B” movies: The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), and House of Frankenstein (1944), as well as House of Dracula (1945).  He was married four times.  His second wife was the socialite Louise Cromwell Brooks MacArthur (1890-1965), the first wife of General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964).

Fay Wray was born in Canada to an English Mormon father and an American Morning mother.  She was a silent film star who was so fortunate as to be able to make the transition to talkies.  Her first starring role was in Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (1926), which was a box office flop for Paramount.  Majestic Pictures, a Poverty Row studio, borrowed Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray from Warner Bros. to capitalize on their work on Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum to make The Vampire Bat, a low-budget science fiction/horror film.  At RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. Fay Wray starred in the thriller The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and the monster film King Kong.  Millions of people who’ve never seen King Kong (1933) in its entirety know Fay Wray’s name.  She was never a huge star in the manner of Ingrid Bergman or Rita Hayworth (1918-1987) or Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), but starring in King Kong gave her a kind of immortality.   English actress Naomi Watts played her part in Peter Jackson’s remake King Kong (2005).  Fay Wray was married three times (twice to writers and once to a neurosurgeon) and had three children.

Lieutenant Lee Tracy was a veteran of the First Great World War who became a Broadway star and was the first actor to play Hildy Johnson in The Front Page.  Tracy returned to the U.S. Army during the Second Great World War.  In the postwar years, he mostly worked on television.  From 1952 to 1953, he starred in the eponymous role on Martin Kane, Private Eye, on both radio and television shows.[13]  He is best remembered because later in his career he received Oscar and a Golden Globe for his performance as a former president loosely modeled on Harry Truman in The Best Man (1964) Henry Fonda (1905-1982) and Cliff Robertson (1923-2011) as rival politicians pursuing the presidential nomination of their party and vying for his blessing to get it.

      Doctor X is available on D.V.D. in the box set “Legends of Horror,” which is a compilation of horror films released by M·G·M and Warner Bros.  The other movies in the box set are The Return of Dr. X, Mad Love (1935) with Peter Lorre and Colin Clive, The Devil-Doll (1936) with Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954), Mark of the Vampire (1935) with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi, and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy (1905-1993). Tod Browning (1880-1962), who had directed Dracula, reteamed with Lugosi for Mark of the Vampire, though to be fair to vampire film fans I should point out this is one of the fake vampire films produced in that era where the police use an actor posing as a vampire to spook a murder suspect.  Browning also directed The Devil-Doll, which has Barrymore play a man use miniaturizing technology in a revenge scheme.  Someone is offering this for sale, second-hand, through Amazon Marketplace for $134.89.  A Hollywood Legends of Horror Double Feature D.V.D. with Doctor X and The Return of Doctor X also exists.  Someone is offering this for sale, second-hand, through Amazon Marketplace for $59.99.  T.C.M. shows it occasionally.



[1] An example is Lord Peter Wimsey, the hero of eleven novels written by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957).

[2] Another pre-Hays Code mystery/horror film, it was remade by a fellow Hungarian-American director, Andre DeToth (1913-2002), as the 3D horror film House of Wax (1953), which starred Vincent Price (1911-1993)That film, in turn, was remade as House of Wax (2005), which starred Elisha Cuthbert.

[3] Nate Yapp, “Doctor X (1932),” Classic-Horror.com, 20 October, 2006 (https://classic-horror.com/reviews/doctor_x_1932) Accessed 11/09/18

[4] Ibid

[5] 20th Century Fox purchased the rights to make live-action X-Men and Fantastic 4 films in 1994 and was not about to give up those rights, which is why The Walt Disney Company, which had acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009, acquired the studio’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, in 2017 for $71,000,000,000.  The deal is subject to the approval to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  It does not include the Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Television Stations, the Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, and the Big Ten Network.

[6] The character Charles Xavier is physically modeled on the movie star Yul Brynner (1920-1985).  It was writer Scott Lobdell who later added the middle name Francis.  The name Charles Francis Xavier comes from the Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the Basque Jesuit missionary who traveled to Portuguese India (Goa) and the Japanese Empire and died on Shangchuan Island while waiting for permission to enter the Chinese Empire.

[7] In the real world, women and teenage girls need to take it seriously if they discover signs they are being spied upon.  While many voyeurs never move beyond spying on women, some rapists start out as voyeurs.

[8] If you would like to see a real Tesla Coil, several science museums all over the world have them.  There is a large one to simulate lightening in the physics exhibit Science Storms at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

[9] The Thing from Another World (1951), produced by Howard Hawks (1897-1977), and released by RKO, was an adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”  John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is his adaptation of “Who Goes There?”  Carpenter used animatronics and stop-motion animation to simulate the alien’s shape-shifting abilities from the novella, which Hawks did not have the technology to do in the 1950s.  The Thing (2011), directed by Maathijs van Heijningen, Jr. and written by Eric Heisserer, was a prequel and remake of Carpenter’s The Thing with C.G.I. (computer-generated imagery) instead of practical effects to simulate shape-shifting.

[10] John McElwee, “Pre-Code Horror — Doctor X,” Green Briar Picture Shows, 5 April, 2008 (http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com/2008/04/pre-code-horror-doctor-x-actors-often.html) Accessed 11/09/18

[11] John McElwee, “Pre-Code Horror — Doctor X,” Green Briar Picture Shows, 5 April, 2008 (http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com/2008/04/pre-code-horror-doctor-x-actors-often.html) Accessed 11/09/18

[12] “B” movies are low-budget movies that are unworthy of being shown in arthouse theaters.  The original B movies were made by the studios to be the second film shown in double features (back when people would pay to see two films in a row at the theater).  More recently, production companies have made B movies that were never intended to be screen in theaters, but were instead made to be sold or rented on videotape or D.V.D. and now streamed on platforms such as Netflix or Hulu.

[13] The radio show aired from 1949 to 1952 and the television show aired from 1949 to 1954.

1 thought on ““Analytical Film Review: Doctor X (1932)” by S.M. O’Connor

  1. Superb write-up, thank you! I think The Monster from 1925 was probably the first subversion of the old dark house cliché, and in a way one can view Whale’s Dracula as that as well, even if it doesn’t quite follow the outlines of the old dark house movie.

    Liked by 1 person

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