“Short 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 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.[1]  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,[2] 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 plays his daughter, Joanne Xavier. Lee Tracy (1898-1968) plays 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.

This is a pre-Hays Code film production and that shows in two ways. The Moon Killer is 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 call in a story to his newspaper from a business establishment that is clearly a brothel.

Doctor X 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.

Doctor X’s idea of rigging up a machine that will monitor the heart-rate 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 heart-rate 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 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.[3]

Despite the supposed genius of Joanne’s father, he continues with this plan when one of the suspects 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 villain dies one of the most spectacular deaths in cinematic history.

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.

Doctor X was made by First National Pictures and released by Warner Bros. four years after Warner Bros. had acquired First National.  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 color print was long thought to be lost.  The very last film to be made with this process was The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).  [It was remade as the 3D horror film House of Wax (1953), which starred Vincent Price (1911-1993).[4]]  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.  To capitalize on the popularity of this film, Warner Bros. later in the decade made The Return of Doctor X (1939), which starred Bogart 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.

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.  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 Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum, Curtiz went on to direct the classic swashbucklers Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), 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), the adventure film The Sea Wolf (1941), the war film Casablanca (1942), the biographical musical Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), the wartime musical comedy This is the Army (1943), the film noir Mildred Pierce (1945), the comedy Life with Father (1947), the Christmastime romantic musical comedy White Christmas (1954), and the Christmastime comedy We’re No Angels (1955).

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 StudiosSon 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,[5] and Atwill played various roles in three of those Frankenstein “B” movies.  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).

American-Canadian actress Fay Wray was a silent film star who was lucky 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 (1933).  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 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 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.[6]  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.


[1] I have never read or heard Stan Lee mention this film when he discussed how he developed the character of Professor Charles Xavier or the X-Men, but it would not surprise me if consciously or unconsciously he had this movie at the back of his mind.

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

[3] 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.

[4] That film, in turn, was remade as House of Wax (2005), which starred Elisha Cuthbert.

[5] “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.

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

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