Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Movies is Good: DOCTOR X

 by JB

Sometimes the prescription doesn’t fit the crime.

Sometimes things come together. Sometimes they do not. Sometimes the center cannot hold. Sometimes “the best lack all conviction” and sometimes “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Sometimes you buy some cannabis candy after this is made legal in Illinois, and sometimes you get it at a delightful shop named “Sunnyside” in a nearby strip mall. There is always a line outside of Sunnyside.

When it first opened, I thought it was a new breakfast place or an ice cream shop that specialized in frozen citrus novelties. Then I discovered the truth. Then I bought some delicious THC gummy candy because I believed it could help me with pain management after a minor medical condition resulted in the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. Sometimes people recover from whatever pains them, they have a bunch of cannabis candy left over, and they wonder, “What should I do with these?” and “What exactly constitutes a ‘special’ occasion?”
Perhaps I am part of the generation that needs to rationalize recreational drug use as “medication.” The citrusy CBD gummies (orange and lemon, yum) never did much for the pain, but I have decided they are swell anyway and the kind of thing that a normal human person might enjoy on a random afternoon. Perhaps I ingested one right before screening the terrific new Warner Archive restoration of Doctor X. Perhaps Doctor X was filmed in two-strip Technicolor, an outmoded color process that yields... dreamy dreamscapes and nightmarish hellscapes.

Perhaps.

The Plot in Brief: Newspaper reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) becomes obsessed with a series of horrible murders perpetrated by the “Full Moon Killer,” who eats his victims. Harmless and avuncular Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) is brought in by the police to help solve the crime. Could one of Xavier’s shifty associates be the murderer? It could be cannibal expert and amputee Wells (Preston Foster). It could be wheelchair-bound grump Duke (Harry Beresford). It could be hideously scarred moon enthusiast Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe). It could be pervert “peeping Tom” Haines (John Wray). What about Xavier’s creepy butler Otto (George Rosener)? How scary is it that the scalpel-wielding cannibal is still on the loose? How will Xavier’s delicious-looking daughter Joanne (Fay Wray) remain uneaten?

I began to imagine that the avuncular Lionel Atwill, playing Doctor X, was MY doctor, the very real and far from avuncular Dr. XXX. If I needed to choose a single adjective to describe Real Dr. XXX, that adjective would be “he hates me.” He’s the doctor who put me on a “water pill” that seeks to purge my system of all unnecessary liquid. This makes watching movies like Doctor X difficult, because I must pause the damn thing every 13 ½ minutes to... go. I began to imagine that MY plan to watch this movie in a single sitting was in direct opposition to HIS plan to catch the real murderer. Wait! My real doctor isn’t in the movie! Or is he?

Perhaps.
At this point, I have been wholly transported into Doctor X. It could be because the weird and eerie vibe of two-strip Technicolor, which looks like some crazy Halloween dream, is perfectly matched to this material, which is far more transgressive and ground-breaking than one would expect from a non-Universal horror film of this era (era). I am doing my damnedest to help Fay Wray, but I need to keep excusing myself in the midst of my heroism to go to the bathroom.

FAY WRAY
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

ME
Hold that thought. Where are “the facilities?”

FAY WRAY
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

ME
Yes, this is getting us closer to the murderer! Where is your “little boys’ room?”

FAY WRAY
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

ME
I have figured it out! The Full Moon Killer CAN ONLY BE...
something we will explore when I return from the nearest water closet.

FAY WRAY
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

The plot of Doctor X seems awfully familiar. Am I at the point now that I have seen so many pre-Code 1930s horror movies that they are all starting to run together? Here is a scene in which Doctor Xavier handcuffs suspects to big chairs and shows them life-like tableaux to force one of them to confess. Have I not seen Lionel Atwill do this in another movie? Did I do that one rum-soaked night in college? Who were my suspects? Hollywood made so many damn movies in the 1930s and 1940s that Lionel Atwill played essentially the same part in no fewer than 69 films during the fourteen years from 1932 until his untimely death in 1946. That’s almost five movies a year. It is just the law of averages that he would handcuff suspects to chairs to force a confession more than ONCE.

Hold on, I need to heed the call of nature... Okay, I’m back. Where was I? Where am I?
Who am I?
This is one of the most beautiful film restorations I have ever seen. It even bests Warner’s restoration of Mystery of the Wax Museum from last year. Fay Wray has never been better, though admittedly in a very small part. She and Lionel Atwill were briefly the “Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of Early Horror Films;” they made four films together in only two years. The amazing laboratory sets are by scenic designer Anton Grot, who would come out of retirement 57 years later to design Tim Burton’s Batman.

It’s clear here that Warner Brothers was much more comfortable with “newspaper pictures” than horror, and so we get Lee Tracy playing a wise-cracking journalist and serving as our tour guide through all the spooky-scary stuff. Doctor X was such a sensation at the box office that Warner Brothers virtually cloned the film (same cast, same director, same set pieces, same two-strip Technicolor) for the following year’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. Scott McQueen of the UCLA Film and Television archive provides an astonishing commentary track, citing production dates and original story conference notes from the studio’s vaults.

I’m going to start referring to my home’s guest bathroom as “the studio vault.”
Sometimes our imaginations get pulled and stretched into stunning restorations of pre-code, Fay Wray newspaper/horror films. Sometimes things come together. Sometimes they do not. Sometimes the center cannot hold. Sometimes “the best lack all conviction” and sometimes “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Sometimes you buy some cannabis candy after this is made legal in Illinois, and sometimes you get it at a delightful shop named “Sunnyside” in a nearby strip mall. There is always a line outside of Sunnyside.

2 comments:

  1. I set aside funds each month, just because of this column. It's filed "Movies is good"

    ReplyDelete