Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: R is for The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Looking for a hot scoop, recently transplanted newspaper reporter, Walt “Wichita” Garrett, uses his Kansas-bred hayseed charm to secure himself an interview at the Park Plaza Hotel with stage actress Angela Marova, a poor-woman’s Greta Garbo, recently returned from a triumphant tour of Europe. But when Garret (Morris) arrives at her suite, he finds the door unlocked, lets himself in, and finds Marova is dead, murdered, and bled white on the floor of her bedroom. Noting both the large knife wound right underneath the victim’s breastbone and the strange lack of blood evidence, you’d think Garrett would notify the police but, nope; he calls his curmudgeonly editor (Crehan), who becomes less of a grump when his novice reporter files a story on Marova’s murder, scooping every other paper in town.

However, things get a little complicated when the cops read the afternoon edition of The Daily Dispatch and a Detective Roy Kincaid (Wilson) leads a contingent of the Homicide Squad to the hotel, where he finds Garrett waiting for him in the hall, hoping for a statement. But Kincaid belligerently blows right past him, brushes off the fussy hotel manager, and tries to inspect the body -- only there ain’t no body. Thinking Garrett is trying to play them for suckers, Kincaid tears him a new one despite the reporter’s insistence Morava was dead and couldn’t have just gotten up and walked away. Could she? But Kincaid’s wrath is nothing compared to Garrett’s boss at the paper, especially when Marova (Lys) shows up in his office, right as rain, with her lawyer in tow to serve papers saying she will be suing the paper and Garrett for an obscene amount of money for damages due to the libelous story they published. And if Garrett wasn’t fired already, the boom definitely drops when the Park Plaza also sues for damages.

Despite this strange turn of events, Garrett decides to keep digging to both vindicate himself and get his job back because, obviously, something very screwy goes on here and he’s determined to get to the bottom of it. First, he consults with his friend, Dr. Mike Rhodes (Morgan), to see if anyone could possibly survive the type of deep laceration he saw. Rhodes says it would be impossible with such a major artery severed, and he also has no answers for the exsanguinated condition of the corpse-that-wasn’t but promises to ask his esteemed colleague, noted hematologist, Dr. Francis Flegg (Litel), for a second opinion when he assists Flegg with a surgery later that afternoon. But a major complication arises when the “professional blood donor” (!?!) with the rare Blood Type I (reclassified later as AB) fails to show. Luckily, one of the student nurses, Joan Vance (Lane), is also Type I and volunteers for the needed transfusion, which saves the patient when the surgery proves a success and wins herself a date with Dr. Rhodes.

But after the surgery, Rhodes consultation with Flegg gets cut short by a call from the police, asking him to stop by the residence of the missing blood donor. (And it wasn’t really a request.) Garrett decides to tag along, and they find Kincaid waiting for them, standing over the body of the donor, Stanley Rogers, who was also stabbed under the breastbone and completely drained of blood. (Yes, Tim. Completely drained of blood.) Seems Kincaid was curious as to why the victim had Rhodes’ name and number written down and accepts the doctor’s explanation. What he can’t figure out is where all the victim’s blood went as only a few traces can be found in the apartment. And stranger still, when Rhodes later tests this blood it comes back as the more common Type IV (O), meaning it couldn’t belong to the victim but must be from the attacker. Further study shows the blood has peculiar properties Rhodes cannot identify -- in fact, he’s not even sure it’s human, and once more seeks out Flegg at his home for a second opinion.

But Flegg quickly quells any suspicions over the blood, saying its nothing more than normal coagulation. And while Rhodes would like to discuss things further, feeling the blood sample showed signs of artificiality, they’re interrupted when Flegg’s cadaverous assistant, Dr. Marshall Quesne (Bogart), who was intently listening in, shatters the beaker in his hand at the mere mention of artificial blood. Rhodes sees himself out as Flegg tends to the sullen Quesne’s wounds. 

And when another patient arrives, Quesne is sent out of the room so Flegg may attend to her. Now, this other patient turns out to be Angela Marova, who isn’t looking so hot. In fact, her pale pallor resembles that of Quesne. It should also be noted at this point that Garrett tailed Rhodes to Flegg’s home and has been spying through a window this whole time. And he certainly gets an eyeful when Flegg places Marova on an examining table, fires up a strange apparatus, and prepares to plunge a very large I.V. needle into his patient, just below the breastbone, for a rapid blood infusion.

The next day, Garrett reveals to Rhodes what he saw happen at Flegg’s and convinces his friend to let him hijack his date with Joan just long enough for a talk with Marova. But once at the hotel, they discover Marova has suffered another catastrophic relapse. After Rhodes revives her, the actress confirms she’s Type I and realizes she may have been the victim of a serial killer, who is targeting people with that rare blood type, as she confesses Garrett was right all along, and then recounts what little she can remember of her “murder.” She remembers someone grabbing her from behind, and remembers being stabbed, but can’t recall what happened next, or how she was revived, or how she wound back in her hotel room. She didn’t reveal this to police because she feared a scandal and bad publicity because who would believe it?

The two men want to press her further but she’s too weak. However, Marova promises she will resume their talk tomorrow and will reveal everything once Dr. Flegg gives her another treatment. But Quesne shows up for the house call, not Flegg. Meantime, Garrett continues to interrupt his friend’s date, dragging them both to his editor’s house to corroborate the unraveled truth about Marova’s murder and resurrection. With Rhodes backing him up, old Picklepuss calls the paper and orders to hold the front page for the Marova confession tomorrow morning -- only Marova won’t be confessing to anything because word just broke she’s been found murdered for a second time...

The man who is credited with figuring out human beings possessed varied blood types was an Austrian physician by the name of Karl Landsteiner. Before this eureka moment dated around 1900, it was widely believed all human blood was the same. In 1907, Czech serologist Jan Janský introduced a classification system for these recently identified four blood types, using Roman numerals, making them Type I (O), II (A), III (B), and IV (AB). Meantime, American physician William Moss also proposed the same numbered classification; only his four numbers meant something completely different than Jansky’s; Type I (AB), II (A), III (B), and IV (O). This caused some confusion and potential danger as Moss’s classification was adapted in the U.S., France, and Britain, while the rest of Europe went with Janzky’s.

To resolve this chaos and avoid any hazards, the American Association of Immunologists, the Society of American Bacteriologists, and the Association of Pathologists and Bacteriologists made a joint recommendation in 1921, stating the Jansky classification, based on seniority, should be adopted everywhere. But Moss's system was already fairly entrenched by then in some areas. And so, in 1927, Landsteiner suggested they just scrap the numbers and start over with the letters O, A, B, and AB. This new system was gradually accepted around the world and by the early 1950s, it was universally followed.

Now, what does this history lesson in serology have to do with the Warner Bros. movie, The Return of Doctor X (1939)? Well, nothing, really, aside from pointing out the movie oddly used the European Janzky method when discussing blood types. But that discovery was a surprise to me. And frankly, I just wanted to talk about something else first before addressing or bringing up the giant elephant in the room when talking about this movie: the presence of Humphrey Bogart as the film’s villain, undead mad scientist, and faux vampire, Dr. Quesne (pronounced Kane) / Xavier.

Back n 1939, Bogart, a contract player at Warners, hadn’t broken out yet. He was close, judging by what audiences had seen in the likes of Black Legion (1937), Dead End (1937), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and especially in The Petrified Forest (1936), with his character, Duke Mantee, setting the template for many Bogart pictures to come. And as his profile grew, Bogart started to get a little vocal about his salary and the parts he was being assigned. Now, there’s always been a secret (and sometimes not so secret) battle going on behind the scenes in Hollywood between the studios and their stables of stars. For while the stars were the face of the franchise, and the ones really bringing in the money, they were not the ones in charge and these tinpot tyrant moguls used all kinds of dirty tactics to keep them in line and remind them who controlled their fate and who was the boss.

And around this time when Bogart was making a fuss, there was an old axiom floating around the Warner’s lot, which stated working for the Warner Brothers was like [having sex with] a porcupine because you had to deal with a thousand pricks -- and Jack Warner was the biggest one of all. According to film producer Gottfried Reinhardt, Jack Warner "derived pleasure" from humiliating subordinates. "Harry Cohn (Columbia) was a sonofabitch," Reinhardt said. "But he did it for business; he was not a sadist. Louis B. Mayer (MGM) could be a monster, but he was not mean for the sake of meanness. Jack was." Jack Warner was also quick to fire people. However, he was smart enough not to purge the studio of talents like Bogart or Bette Davis. Instead, he would punish them and keep them in line by assigning roles below their standing or out of their comfort zones. For if you think Bogart looks out of place in The Return of Doctor X, just check him out in the hillbilly musical comedy, Swing Your Lady (1938), or as the Mexican bandit in Virginia City (1940), where his off again on again accent makes him sound like he’s auditioning for the Frito Bandito.

And at first glance, it is a bit of an adjustment watching Bogart’s take on Quesne, as his wardrobe, stark makeup, and skunk-stripe’d hair kinda makes him look like Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein in drag. When he first appears, stroking the bunny, and his effeminate speech patterns come off as a bad Peter Lorre impersonation, it’s understandable if this bogeyman does not compute. "This is one of the pictures that made me march into Jack Warner’s office and ask for more money again,” Bogart later recalled when asked about the production. “You can't believe what this one was like. I had a part that somebody like Lugosi or Karloff should have played. I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner's blood or Harry Warner's or Sam Warner's maybe I wouldn't have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie."

You have to give Bogart credit, though. He could’ve easily mailed this in or hammed it up. Instead, he played it straight and his talent shows, bringing some actual menace to a fairly threadbare character despite his soon to be revealed macabre origins as Quesne kills Marova for a second time. And turns out the actress was dead for good this time, too, necessitating Rhodes and Garrett to bluff their way into the mortuary, where they can snag a blood sample from the body. And while Rhodes analyzes the blood, Garrett decides to finally play out a hunch he’s had ever since laying eyes on Quesne, sure he recognizes the man from somewhere.

And so, he risks life and limb by sneaking into The Dispatch’s morgue, where his friend, Pinky (Hall), helps him pull clippings until he comes upon a stack dedicated to the grisly case of Dr. Maurice Xavier, a crackpot who wanted to know how long an infant could go without eating for … reasons? SCIENCE! Ah, who the hell knows for sure. What we do know is the test subject died, Xavier was caught, tried, found guilty, and executed in the electric chair for his heinous crime. And sure enough, all the photos of Xavier sure look like a healthier Quesne.

Further checking shows Flegg claimed Xavier’s body at the prison, so it doesn’t take much to convince Rhodes, who’s since discovered Marova’s blood was no longer Type I but the same strange Type IV, to go dig up Xavier’s grave to be sure it’s empty. And after they unearth a vacant coffin, they confront Flegg with these unearthed facts, who makes a full confession, saying he’d been experimenting with bringing the dead back to life with a modicum of success and found a perfect human test subject when Xavier was executed. And through a combination of chemicals and a galvanic jolt, Xavier was brought back to life. Here, Flegg demonstrates the process by reanimating a dead lab rabbit. But this process wasn’t perfect and the ressurected’s blood did not oxygenate properly, requiring constant blood transfusions to remain alive.

Xavier, of course, was Type I, and its rarity convinced Flegg that he needed to develop a universal synthetic blood for his revenants but these experiments have yet to provide anything that will remain viable for more than a few days. Thus, to stay alive, Xavier/Quesne needed a fresh supply of blood and was willing to kill for it -- first Marova, whom Flegg was able to resurrect for a time once he figured out what his assistant was up to, but the synthetic blood could not sustain her, and then Rogers. With that, Rhodes and Garrett leave to inform the police who the murderer is, but they run right into Kincaid on Flegg’s steps, who’s been looking for them, thinking they’re grave robbers. (How he found out about that adventure is just one of this film’s many little unsolved mysteries.) Meantime, back inside, the unmasked Xavier overhead Flegg’s confession and demands he hand over his medical book containing the names and addresses of all the Type I donors. When Flegg refuses, Xavier shoots him, steals the book and sneaks out the back.

Hearing the shots, Garrett and the others storm inside, where Flegg reveals Xavier stole the book before he expires. Rhodes realizes Joan’s name is in that book, too, and gets Kincaid to haul ass to the hospital so they can warn her. But it’s already too late as Xavier coaxes Joan into a cab under false pretenses. It doesn’t take Joan long to figure out this was all a ruse, resulting in a face full of ether. Meanwhile, the others arrive at the hospital, where Garrett grills a very observant newsie, who saw Joan get into a cab with a guy who looked like a ghost. He also overheard they were heading to Jersey. Here, Garrett remembers one of the clippings mentioning an old abandoned building where Xavier conducted his experiments and figures that must be where they’re headed. (Wow. Now that was convenient -- and bordering on a contrivance. But, eh, forget it. The movie’s almost over.)

And so, as they race to the rescue, Xavier reaches the very same hideout featured in the newspaper clippings, where he restrains Joan and prepares to give her a total phlebotomy. But just as he’s about to plunge the needle in, the cavalry arrives in the nick of time. And in the resulting shoot-out -- and who the hell gave Garrett a gun?, Xavier is herded outside and onto the roof, where he takes a shotgun blast from Kincaid, falls to the ground and expires, bringing this sordid and grisly affair to an end.

It should be noted that The Return of Doctor X has absolutely nothing to do with the earlier Warner Bros. film, Doctor X (1932), a salty Pre-Code, which told the salacious tale of the Moonlight Cannibal Killer and the highly contrived scientific means used to unmask who that killer was -- who, for the record, was not Dr. Xavier. Nope. It was some kook who lathered himself up with a kind of synthetic skin to go on a murder rampage because he needed more human flesh to further his scientific studies of … something, while the most whangdoodliest whangdoodle of a lie detector is employed to ferret him out with Fay Wray once more making with the lung-butter -- all in glorious Two-Strip Technicolor.

The finished film also apparently has nothing to do at all with the trailer used to advertise it, which suggests several dropped subplots, discarded plot twists, and an unused climax. According to several sources, The Return of Doctor X had a highly convoluted production history. It was based on a story by William J. Makin, which was bought by Warners at the suggestion of producer Bryan Foy as a vehicle for Boris Karloff. An early version of the script was set in Victorian London to match Makin’s macabre tale. And in 1938, Warners announced the film would star Karloff and Claude Rains, and be shot in Technicolor. But a director couldn’t be settled on and Karloff proved unavailable, which sent the studio into negotiations with Universal for a loan of Bela Lugosi. When that fell through, the film fell out of favor, lost the Technicolor, and James Stephenson was set to star as Dr. X only to finally be replaced by Bogart before the cameras at last rolled. And then rolled again, when the film went through extensive reshoots to “fix” it.

The film also marked the directorial debut of Vincent Sherman, who did the best he could under these trying circumstances. Luckily, his cast helps sell all this nonsense as Wayne Morris and Dennis Morgan make a pretty good two-punch combo as the protagonists. (I love the scene in the graveyard after they unearth the coffin, and then tell the caretaker to put it back where they found it.) Sadly, Rosemary Lane didn’t get much to do except get damsel in distressed. But at least she wasn’t the object of yet another insipid love triangle between the two men. Still, despite all their efforts, The Return of Doctor X does kind of mark an ignominious end to the cinematic horror of the 1930s. As even Universal, who was gearing up for another wave of horror titles, were obviously aiming for a more juvenile matinee crowd with their resurrected Mummy franchise with the release of The Mummy’s Hand (1940).

And there’s elements cribbed from Universal’s recent glory days of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), which are then mashed up with elements of Warner Bros. own stock in trade: their gangster movies and newspaper comedies, resulting in a bit of a tonal mess, making it easy to see why The Return of Doctor X is pretty much only remembered for out of place Bogart’s hybrid horror and sci-fi one off. As for Bogart, he would be fine as They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1942), and Casablanca (1942) were just around the corner, where even Jack Warner could finally see what he had all along.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 18 reviews down with 8 to go! Up Next: It’s nothing like the Monkey. It’s isn’t funky or anything that’s junky. It’s something swella! The jilla-jalla-jellyfish monster!

The Return of Doctor X (1939) A First National Picture :: Warner Bros. / EP: Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner / AP: Bryan Foy / D: Vincent Sherman / W: Lee Katz, William J. Makin / C: Sidney Hickox / E: Thomas Pratt / M: Bernhard Kaun / S: Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, Lya Lys, Huntz Hall, Charles C. Wilson

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