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In 1932 MGM and Warner Bros. were quick to jump on Universal's Horror bandwagon, as did Paramount with their The Island of Lost Souls and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Metro bloodied its own nose with Freaks and with only a couple of exceptions stayed away from the genre, only to reappear in 1935 with fresh fright films just as the first horror wave at Universal was coming to a close. The Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection gathers three double bills of less-seen 1930's horror attractions from both MGM and Warner Bros.. Two or three are bona fide classics, the others are still good pictures, and all but one are given new authoritative commentary tracks. The set will make for fine viewing by horror fans of all persuasions.
The Mask of Fu Manchu
1932 / 68 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy, Lewis Stone, Karen Morley, Charles Starrett, Jean Hersholt
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Ben Lewis
Written by Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf, John Willard from a story by Sax Rohmer
Directed by Charles Brabin
Savant ranted a bit about The Mask of Fu Manchu back in a 1997 MGM Video Savant article written in reaction to Image and MGM Home Video's MGM Horrors Laserdisc set. After being seen in a heavily censored version for over twenty years, the Laser presented the first uncut version of this almost pornographically racist Pre-Code horror epic.
Anyone in doubt as to the reality of racism could do with a viewing of The Mask of Fu Manchu, an exciting and well designed exercise in sadism that shows the ugly hatred behind the concept of "The Yellow Peril." Dr. Fu Manchu is a thoroughly evil and repulsive fiend who uses terrible tortures to advance his plan to destroy the entire white race and seize its females. His daughter Fa Lo See is a perverted sexual predator, lusting after her handsome English captive even as she orders her slaves to whip him, "Harder! Harder!" The only opposition to Fu's terrible hatred are the English heroes, who easily escape from their tortures and use one of the maniac's own futuristic inventions (an electrical Death Ray) against his horde of Asian villains.
The Mask of Fu Manchu is pretty exciting stuff. Add some modern martial arts battles and it would probably work just like the modern action adventure movies that invent malicious Third-World villains for its handsome Anglo heroes to best in battle. It looks as if Cedric Gibbons has liberated every prop marked 'exotic' from the MGM art department to make Fu Manchu's secret palace into a bizarre combination of Far East clichés and German expressionist architecture. Fu has at his disposal assassins, snakes, spiders, lizards, a crocodile pit and an impalement device that looks like a giant garlic press. He uses various love potions and chemical mind-stealing methods to access needed information, and give his, uh, vivacious daughter Fa Lo See pretty white playmates to fondle and menace.
The uncut The Mask of Fu Manchu restores about two minutes of censored verbal zingers, dialogue lines in which Karloff (often using his natural lisp to advantage) hurls racial curses at his Anglo victims. The whites are innocent of any malice whatsoever, while Fu screams and rails with dreams of mass rape and racial slaughter.
The film is entertaining, and perhaps a bit depressing, as it confirms the truth behind all the "Yellow Peril" racial hatred: Western pulp tradition has consistently re-assigned the evils of Colonialism to its victims. Fu's excesses of deviousness, violence and perverted sex are a reflection of historical Western attitudes toward China and the Far East. Ian Fleming reinvented the character as a space-age menace in Dr. No.. And today of course, international relations are explained to us with the admonition that an ill-defined Third World "They" Hates America and wants to "Destroy Freedom." Those are almost Boris Karloff's exact words from The Mask of Fu Manchu.
This glossy MGM production gave Boris Karloff his first big speaking role and confirmed him as a master of moustache twirling, fingernail-scraping menace. It's one of Karloff's weirdest performances and the old theater actor must have had great fun with such a wild character. Seeing Myrna Loy as a slinky, sex-obsessed Chinese makes us all the happier that she was able to graduate to more worthy roles -- although it's also a kick to watch her acting wicked. Interestingly, it looks as though both her 'molesting' of her white captive and her final scenes were dropped from the film -- we never find out exactly what happened to her. Karen Morley has the thankless role as the shrinking screamer, while future cowboy star Charles Starrett is laughable as an Englishman ... he may be the inspiration for the cowboy character cast as an English nobleman in the satirical The Loved One. Familiar MGM face Jean Hersholt is given the lucky role of the man in the "silvered fingers" garlic press squasheroo device. He has no trouble appearing distraught.
The Mask of Fu Manchu shares a disc with Mark of the Vampire. Although we've been told that the print on view has been sourced from a newly discovered uncut negative, the previously censored sections of the film still jump into duped material with extra grain and higher contrast. The soundtrack is uniformly clean and fresh, however, which may mean that the uncut recovered element was an audio master.
Prolific author Gregory Mank provides a snappy and entertaining commentary that takes advantage of his extensive research into the subject. Mank pegs the censorship as happening at an odd time -- 1972 -- at the request of some Japanese entity or another. He points out not only the meaning behind the cuts but how they differed wildly between states, cities and countries. Every censor seems to have a diverging opinion as to what constitutes 'shocking material'; Mank's explanation helps us understand that the MPAA's final ratings system were mainly concocted to keep Hollywood from having to customize its films for dozens, perhaps hundreds of different censor boards.
Just to show us that its attitude regarding Asians is fair The Mask of Fu Manchu ends with Nayland Smith being condescendingly polite to a clownish and properly servile deck steward on their sailing ship back to England, where "Chinee" heathen know their proper place.
1932 / 77 min.
Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster
Cinematography Ray Rennahan, Richard Towers
Art Direction Anton Grot
Film Editor George Amy
Written by Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin from a play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller
Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Scott MacQueen's highly-informed commentary on this disc lets us know why Warner Bros. didn't make many horror films: Jack Warner apparently didn't like them. The chillers he did approve in the early thirties usually did without supernatural underpinnings and emphasized the street-smart dialogue of newsmen and other urban smart-alecks, Warners' stock in trade. The advertising campaigns pretended that the highly entertaining Doctor X was a romance and a comedy, with a few thrills thrown into the mix. The movie has its share of slapstick comedy but audiences were almost certainly frightened by its monstrous villain, a cannibalistic serial killer disguising his appearance with something called "synthetic flesh." Somebody call David Cronenberg!
Doctor X is often mentioned in conjunction with The Mystery of the Wax Museum. Both are in excellent 2-Color Technicolor and use the same design scheme, the same director and some of the same actors. Doctor X came first and proved a great success. Based on a stage play, it's a standard 20s-style murder mystery with macabre trimmings. Outstanding camerawork by Ray Rennahan and the consistently exciting art direction of Anton Grot maintain a high level of interest.
Critics of the two pictures often complain that the comic relief, in this case provided by the fast-talking Lee Tracy, negates any serious horror tone. Doctor X is more of a "Boo!" fun-house movie than a serious work of art, and doesn't pretend to be anything else. Lionel Atwill frets about acts of horrible cannibalism but the subject never gets past the talking stage. Tracy's handshake buzzer keeps popping up as a gag, and right before the first test, the reporter has funny encounter with a closet full of (literal) skeletons. Just the same, when the Full Moon Killer reveals himself and begins his disgusting facial transformation over a boiling caldron, 1930s audiences must have blown a fuse.
The play makes sure that there are plenty of suspects afoot. Otto the butler (George Rosener, a contributor to the script) acts like a creepy kook. So does the scarred, one-eyed Dr. Rowitz, played by Arthur Edmund Carewe, the 'drug fiend' of Mystery of the Wax Museum. Two of the professors are revealed to have previous associations with cannibalism, and one confined to a wheelchair suddenly regains his ability to walk. The handsome Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) is missing an arm, making him incapable of being the strangler.
Doctor X's visual centerpiece is a wildly imaginative 'mad lab' full of dubious but highly decorative scientific equipment. A table sprouts dozens of glass tubes stretching diagonally upward, and weird blown-glass 'thingies' are suspended over the chairs to be occupied by the scientists under examination. To stimulate the suspects Dr. Xavier restages the crimes in question on a theater-like platform. Otto must be one heck of resourceful butler, because with less than a day's notice somebody comes up with a set of wax figures to represent the Full Moon Killer's previous victims. Speaking of wax, part of the apparatus to measure 'guilt' appears to be the wax showerhead device from the follow-up movie.
The suspects are strapped and handcuffed to their chairs, which may or may not have inspired the brilliant 'blood test' scene in John Carpenter's The Thing fifty years later. The restraints provide the thrills when the actual killer interrupts the final test, leaving everyone helpless as the 'actress' on stage is attacked for real.
Lovely Fay Wray is the decorative heroine, a part she plays better than anyone. Wray looks terrific in Technicolor and we don't care if she's only an onlooker waiting to be menaced in the last reel; she even does well sweet-talking Lee Tracy's reporter to promise to delay his scandalous news coverage. Atwill, Preston Foster and the other scientists are all given sharply drawn character traits. Hr. Haines (John Wray) is even singled out as a voyeur.
Doctor X was restored by the UCLA Archive and still has frequent scratches and other bits of damage. The strange orange and green Technicolor color values are cleverly utilized but the 2-color process always looks like a magazine illustration that's been left out in the sun too long. Tech prints are also softer-looking than photographic prints, giving the films a distinctive look that can often be pleasing. However, it's good to see a real red or blue again after watching one of these films. 1
Scott MacQueen fills the commentary track with plenty of information about all aspects of the film, detailing the plot of the stage play and sorting out which writers contributed what. He tells us about Lee Tracy's 'micturating' incident that got him thrown off Viva Villa!, but I wish he had the answer to something I've always wanted to know ever since I saw Blessed Event: What's that big scar high on Tracy's neck under his jaw? It looks like he was shot through the head in WW1 or something.
MacQueen does address one important issue: Doctor X was filmed in both Technicolor and B&W versions, and theaters were given a choice as to which one to show -- the B&W was not a 'foreign version.' The B&W version is what used to be seen on TV, and in Video Watchdog and elsewhere we learned that some prefer it to the color copy here. The two versions are said to have many small differences.
1935 / 68 min. / The Hands of Orlac
Starring Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Coin Clive, Ted Healey, Edward Brophy
Cinematography Chester Lyons, Gregg Toland
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Hugh Wynn
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Florence Crewe-Jones, Guy Endore, P.J. Wolfson, John L. Balderston from the novel Les Mains d'Orlac by Maurice Renard
Produced by John W. Considine Jr.
Directed by Karl Freund
This unique masterpiece did poorly on its original release, was ignored for forty years and even now receives mystifying negative reviews for what is actually an inspired job of direction by the legendary Karl Freund. Not long after this movie Freund went back to camera work, which is a terrible shame. Mad Love builds on the themes in The Hands of Orlac to produce one of the most delirious macabre love stories ever, with Peter Lorre (in his first American film) playing the fascinatingly twisted mad Dr. Gogol. The perfectly titled Mad Love both encapsulates the horror genre and transcends it.
The highly eccentric Mad Love is shot through with the expressionistic angst that often shows up in American horror films only as window dressing. It establishes an eccentric pattern from the first, when a fist smashes the last of the main titles, written on a frosty windowpane. The film's "Mad Love" is introduced in a complex mix of theater and reality: Playing a woman tortured for love, Yvonne Orlac screams on stage. In the shadows of his box seat, her celebrity fan Gogol nearly faints with excitement.
I can't think of another 30s horror film with a female character like Yvonne Orlac. The genre is overpopulated with shrinking violets suitable to be carried off by the monster, a 'given' that makes wisecracking reporters like Glenda Farrell a refreshing break from the norm. Frances Drake's Yvonne is at the center of the conflict, motivating it and indirectly contributing to the madness when Gogol misinterprets her concern for her husband. When Gogol eventually declares his love loudly and directly, Yvonne doesn't faint but instead slaps his face and tells him how repulsive he is.
An actor unconcerned with glamour, Peter Lorre eagerly makes himself into a spider-like ghoul just by shaving his head and finding ways to accentuate his bulging eyes. Other actors underplay or overplay but Lorre so thoroughly inhabits Dr. Gogol that even his most outrageous outbursts are sincere and profound. "I have conquered science. Why can I not conquer love?!" Lorre makes oddball quotes and forced classical illusions entirely believable: "One always kills the thing one loves." "Galatea! I am Pygmalion!" Gogol is a brilliant man driven mad by amorous rejection. The only dated concept in the mix is the standard inference that Gogol's emotional self-control is really sublimated sadism: Extra-normal control over life and death (his surgical brilliance) indicates a warped state of mind.
The film's most uncanny set piece is Stephen Orlac's interview with a hissing, caped man who identifies himself as one of Gogol's grafting experiments. He has metal hands and a thick brace where his head has been reattached to his body. This pushes Stephen over the edge, so to speak; he's already obsessed with his own transplanted hands. Colin Clive had big hands to begin with and clever makeup scars and other exaggerations give them the appearance of a gross mismatch. We think of the Homer Simpson character's clumsy oversized hands in Day of the Locust, but Mad Love works with its own set of interpretations, such as the "and son" crossed off the "Orlac and Son" sign over Stephen's father's antiques store.
It all comes together in a wonderfully precise finish that stacks one clever surprise atop another. Just when we know Yvonne is about to be strangled with her own hair, the police chief instructs his driver to slow down. Ted Healy's comic relief is easily ignored while we're dazzled by a whirlpool of doppelgängers, haunted organ-playing, manic death pacts and crazed cockatiels. And Stephen's murderous new hands turn out to be extremely useful!
After many viewings, a scene in Mad Love that still stands out is Rollo's march to the guillotine. It's due the amusing character actor Edward Brophy's great performance. Rollo is humbled but not demoralized, and there's something touching about his friendly "see ya later" patter with Ted Healey. Charlie Chaplin is quoted in the trailer as calling Peter Lorre the greatest living actor, but we wonder if he also responded to Edward Brophy, and remembered the scene when it came time to make Monsieur Verdoux.
Mad Love looks terrific on DVD. The sharper picture makes Peter Lorre's outsized performance even more impressive. I don't believe I saw any of Mad Love until some battered clips appeared in the 1980s film Under the Volcano; it's a truly haunted movie. Steve Haberman's commentary digs into the book source and the previous German Conrad Veidt version. Although I personally could have gone without the Peter Lorre imitations, Haberman is in a much better temper than he was on the Dracula disc. The original trailer shows Lorre slouched in a chair and taking a phone call from a slinky female admirer. Receiving a compliment, Lorre rolls his eyes hilariously. We've read a great many descriptions over the years of Lorre as eccentric and playful and sometimes a pain in the tail, but we wish there were more opportunities to see him flex his comedic talent. He's comes off as real joker!
Mark of the Vampire
1935 / 60 min.
Starring Lionel Barrymore, Elizabeth Allan, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Jean Hersholt
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Ben Lewis
Written by Guy Endore, Bernard Schubert
Produced by Tod Browning, E.J. Mannix
Directed by Tod Browning
Well, they can't all be gems, and despite its catalogue of interesting vampire material MGM's Mark of the Vampire is a major flub of a picture. A remake of the silent (and lost) London After Midnight, its surprise twist not doesn't make sense and plays like an unwelcome afterthought. No, this secondary rehash is a clear case of confusion and muddled moviemaking. Bela Lugosi goes through the entire picture with an unexplained bullet wound in his temple. Actually a vehicle for a talented trio of middle-aged talent (Barrymore, Atwill, Hersholt), Mark of the Vampire is some stylish scenes in search of a movie.
After seeing what seemed to be hundreds of tantalizing photos of Mark of the Vampire in 1960s monster magazines, it was a shock to finally discover what a confused mess the movie is. This MGM production more lavishly appointed than several entries in the Universal monster series, and Tod Browning's usual static direction may have improved with James Wong Howe behind the camera. Bela Lugosi's vampire (obviously his Dracula recycled) doesn't have any giant eye close-ups, but he displays new tricks, like transforming from a bat and snarling as he charges the camera. Carol Borland's white skin, long black hair and staring eyes are the prototype for the anemic Goth look; her appearance seems to have been the inspiration for Charles Addams' cartoon Morticia, as well as future TV horror hostesses Vampira and Elvira.
If you don't want the film's "surprise" ruined, skip to the next title, because the main topic of discussion with Mark of the Vampire is an unavoidable SPOILER.
How did Mark of the Vampire get so messed up? The most likely explanation is that it was simply neglected in a year when MGM was bringing out a number of huge, prestigious and star-studded attractions. There wasn't enough time to deal with one less-than-essential horror movie, a blatant attempt to rip-off Uni's franchise anyway. The movie's problems were just ignored until they got out of hand.
Mark of the Vampire plays like a stilted replay of events in Dracula, adding the twist that a murder victim appears to have joined the nocturnal ranks of the undead. As with the 1927 original version (and most 1920s American horror films) the entire vampire content of the film is explained away at the end as a complicated ruse to expose a killer, with actors engaged to pretend to be vampires. When this twist is revealed our reaction is a big "Whaaa...?" because we've just seen forty minutes of fantastic content like vampire transformations and Carol Borland flying on flapping bat-wings. The haunted manifestations are meant to force a confession from a suspected murderer, yet the intended suspect doesn't personally see most of the vampiric manifestations. Some of them aren't seen by anybody.
As a 1930s haunted house version of The Sting the show is almost a complete failure. It's as if the filmmakers made a straightforward supernatural piece and then at the last minute changed their minds and went back to London After Midnight's original structure. That doesn't appear to be the case, as Greg Mank's full run-down on the film's genesis in his book Hollywood Cauldron finds no evidence to support it.
James Wong Howe conjures many creepy images that would have enlivened the original Dracula and the big-name male leads certainly put their all into their weak characters. Elizabeth Allen is quite good as the daughter either pretending to be vampirized, or actually vampirized and later pretending she's not. Or is. Or isn't.
Mark of the Vampire works against its own best interests. Although Thalberg was famous for extensive rewrites and re-shoots, Greg Mank determined no such pattern in this case. It seems that once again Tod Browning and vampires just don't want to mix.
Mark of the Vampire looks and sounds fine in this DVD version; it always looked great. The prolific UK author and critic Kim Newman, with an assist from Steve Jones, rakes Mark of the Vampire over the commentary coals. They don't offer a precise explanation for the mystery of the film's illogic but they do give us every fact available on the production, and their lively talk prompted several of my notes above. The original trailer for this one (slightly out of sync) has Bela talking directly to the camera, giving the impression that the show is mostly about him. He actually talks far more in the trailer than he does in the feature; perhaps Lionel Barrymore and Jean Hersholt were perfectly happy not getting too much publicity for this one.
A few seasons back Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog suggested the obvious but perfect ending to save the movie: Just when Lionel Barrymore shows up to pay off his vampiric actor helpers, he discovers that they never arrived for work -- a jovial Bela Lugosi could step off the train and intone, "Sor-ry that we are so la-ate!" Then Lionel would do a double take at the camera and fall into a dead faint, sending the rubes out of the theater with stupid grins on their faces. (Lucas didn't say it quite that way!)
1936 / 79 min.
Starring Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O'Sullivan, Frank Lawton, Rafaela Ottiano
Cinematography Leonard Smith
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Fredrick Y. Smith
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Tod Browning, Guy Endore, Garrett Fort, Richard Schayer from the novel Burn Witch Burn burn by Abraham Merritt
Produced by Tod Browning, E.J. Mannix
Directed by Tod Browning
Tod Browning's last horror film, the genuinely freaky The Devil-Doll plays like a crazy 'best of' compendium of favorite Browning themes. Although the main story line focuses on new material -- humans shrunk to a fraction of their size and used as miniature assassins -- we get a fiendish killer masquerading in drag and a guilty father trying to atone for the neglect of his daughter. If more biographical information about Browning were available, we have a terrible feeling that it would uncover more personal connections to the macabre mutilations and creepy tragedies in his films.
The Devil-Doll has the benefit of MGM's technical and art departments but doesn't fit into the studio mold. As with the best of Browning's pictures, unspoken themes of perversity and sadism seem to be peeking through the ornate déor and sophisticated special effects.
The Devil-Doll appears to be Browning's The Unholy Three (either version) with Lionel Barrymore going in drag as an elderly lady, as had the great Lon Chaney. The entire business of shrinking animals and human beings provides a workout for MGM's optical department but is really the icing on a cake that Browning had baked several times before. A number of his greatest pictures with Chaney involved lives ruined by grotesque twists of fate (The Unknown) and a couple in particular had Chaney's character unknowingly doing horrible things to his own daughter. West of Zanzibar could never have been made after the Production Code came in, as Chaney's vengeful character prostitutes the daughter of his enemy, only to find out too late who she really is.
This (presumably) Louis B. Mayer-approved tale softens the incestuous aspects of the same pattern. The disguise motif creates an interesting tension as the complex Paul Lafond interacts with his loved ones and does what has to be done to make his daughter happy. Telling them the whole truth, of course, isn't part of his plan. The sentimental aspect of The Devil-Doll is actually quite moving in a silent-movie melodrama way.
Elsewhere the movie is as far-fetched as they come. Two aged Devil's Island convicts escape and after a run through the swamp arrive at a convenient mad lab where the demented Rafaella Ottiano's (note the white stripe in her hair) just happens to be ready to demonstrate her people-shrinker. The miniaturized puppet people are a perverse and undeniably erotic concept; like Playboy's Femlin, the tiny Grace Ford has no conscious will of her own and does whatever her master wills her to do. Even more horrible is the inference that the homunculi still feel everything; when little Lachna injures herself falling from a table, we can't help but imagine her suffering horribly. She's paralyzed and silent, but sheds copious tears ...
The neatly worked out story has Paul Lavond use his devil-dolls to exact revenge. Dressed as Apache dancers, they carry tiny stilettos dipped in a potent paralyzing drug. We now notice the imperfect traveling mattes but many of the effects are accomplished simply by building extremely convincing giant sets. Some sets are seen only in a couple of shots, like the staircase and a near perfect Christmas tree surrounded by gifts. The little male assassin somehow got hung on the tree as a Christmas ornament, a weird touch.
The idea of family morality is a bit weird as well. Lorraine will be spared the depressing ignominy of poverty (which seems to be an okay fate for the other washing-girls) so Paul's debt is repaid. Treachery, prison breaks, shrinking people and using them to paralyze victims -- all are merely as a path to restoring love between a father and his completely uninformed daughter.
Hollywood toyed with 'tiny people' movies several times, most often in comedies (remember Laurel & Hardy?). Dr. Cyclops is a variation on the theme, while Attack of the Puppet People sounds like a Devil-Doll remake but is not. The masterpiece of is of course the Sci-Fi film The Incredible Shrinking Man. Savant has never seen the 1957 French comedy Un amor de poche, in which a three-inch Geneviève Page plays Jean Marais' 'lover in a pocket.'
The Devil-Doll looks fine on DVD; with the exception of the Fu Manchu movie these MGM titles apparently weren't shown all that much. The disc includes an original trailer that plays up the film's relationship to The Unholy Three. This is the only film in the set that doesn't have a commentary, which is a shame. On a discussion board Tom Weaver said that a commentary assignment mix-up is responsible for his (regrettable) non-appearance.
The Return of Dr. X
1939 / 62 min. /
Starring Wayne Morris, Rosemary Lane, Humphrey Bogart, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, Lya Lys
Cinematography Sidney Hickox
Art Direction Esdras Hartley
Film Editor Thomas Pratt
Written by Lee Katz from a story by William J. Makin
Produced by Bryan Foy, Jack L. Warner
Directed by Vincent Sherman
The Return of Doctor X comes from 1939 Warner Bros. and seems a universe away from the concerns of the other films in this set. Despite the title and the idea of artificial organic material the movie has no connection with the earlier classic and is instead a modestly competent showcase for up and coming studio talent. It also has Humphrey Bogart as "the monster," which is surely the ambitious actor's career nadir, in a year that also saw him play the worst Mexican bandit ever ... Warners must have been putting Bogie through the casting wringer.
The Return of Doctor X is a horror film that slips in the side door ... although it's technically about raising the dead, it converts traditionally supernatural material into "medical vampirism" and maintains a semi-plausible Sci-Fi explanation for everything. Only a few years later Mexican director Chano Urueta would expand on this path to initiate a sub-genre of atrocious surgical horror, a 'vein' that eventually leads to the marvelous Eyes without a Face (Les yeux sans visage).
The Return of Doctor X stays clear of the unsavory implications of that subject matter, sticking to an amusing Hardy Boys-type tale of the young doctor and reporter who uncover the mystery. Wayne Morris is a plain-Joe reporter and handsome Dennis Morgan (who would become one of the most popular actors of the war years) an internist with plenty of time to poke around arcane mysteries. He gets fourth billing while second-billed Rosemary Lane is barely in the picture at all. The boys think nothing of digging up a dead body, and then casually telling the graveyard caretaker (Ian Wolfe) to 'put it back.' Another mystery short cut has Morris enter a supposedly locked apartment by absently leaning against the door and falling in when it turns out to be unlocked, a gag repeated from the original Doctor X.
What everybody wants to see is Bogie as a bogeyman, and although the actor is obviously uncomfortable, he delivers. Marshall Quesne is a pasty-faced, staring zombie with an Elsa Lanchester-style white streak in his hair. He also wears a monocle, perhaps to signal his acting peers that the role disgusts him. Quesne enters petting a rabbit, with a slightly Peter-Lorre-ish way of speaking that sounds effeminate. Otherwise, he just seems to be silently screaming, "What am I doing here?"
The story setup isn't stupid, exactly, except that the supposedly brilliant Dr. Flagg hasn't thought things out very carefully. He must scrounge for appropriate blood donors to keep his zombie vampires alive; yet he has no plan for the inevitable discovery of his activities. When the heroes finally pin Flagg down, the forceful surgeon behaves like a lost child, wondering what went wrong. Bogie's slimy bad guy takes over at the finish, forcing the cops into a shootout no different than that of an ordinary gangster film.
This is Vincent Sherman's first directing assignment and he gives the unpromising film a smart, peppy look. There's nothing wrong with Sherman's camera direction and he does a fine job making the young actors mesh with the oddball story content. It's sort of a letdown to see 30's horror go out this way (Universal was just getting started with another, more juvenile cycle) but as light entertainment the movie isn't at all bad.
Glamorous victim Angela Merrova is played by Lya Lys, who received minor roles in Hollywood but was already immortal in surrealist circles with her work in Luis Buñuel's profane classic L'Âge d'or. Her stint here as a pallid zombie is child's play compared to the earlier film. Its most famous image shows Ms. Lys sexually gratifying herself by sucking the toes of a statue. I don't think that kind of material showed up in many Warner Bros. pictures.
The Return of Doctor X is a perfect DVD presentation. Steve Haberman joins the late director Vincent Sherman for the feature commentary. The trailer is composed almost completely of angles and scenes not in the final film ... unless it was shot just for the trailer, an alternate scene shows John Litel menaced while lecturing to a class of students. The finished film doesn't even mention that Litel is a teacher.
Warners' Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection comes in those new slim cases, which are probably more durable than standard keep cases and certainly ease the crowding on our shelves. This set will please the consumers that ache for more of these classic pictures; Warners is easily the most fan-responsive studio releasing DVDs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviewed: October 7, 2006
1. A note from Russ Karras, 10.30.06:
The first object of complaint is the DVD release of Doctor X.
Having a longstanding fascination with early color processes, both still and motion picture, and living near the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, over the years I have gone to ogle various examples of two-color Technicolor there, including the original sole surviving nitrate print of Doctor X (from which all extant film and video copies derive) on one of its rare outings from the vaults at UCLA.
Seeing this DVD, one could hardly be blamed for describing the color scheme as orange and green. In fact, the component colors are red (which is the photographic equivalent of yellow + magenta) and cyan. They are perfectly balanced, producing velvety blacks and capable of an absolutely neutral gray scale. Flesh tones are usually pleasing. Fay Wray comes in peaches and cream, not carrots and celery juice. The range of browns and tans is rendered well, sometimes even giving the impression of colors (such as gold) which are not really there. Woodwork usually looks about right. Reds can be well-saturated and vivid -- some of the glassware in Doctor X really looks as if it contains blood, or at least tomato juice. On the blue-green side, results are not so hot. Turquoise skies can hardly be described as natural, yet the cyan is far too blue to produce any shade that can reasonably be called green. The nearest thing is an olive-cyan-gray which can seem greener than it really is in the right context. The occasional appearance of a saturated cyan helps to console the eye. In all, surprisingly pleasing and effective, as contemporary reviews noted, but only in a good print or a bang-on accurate reproduction.
I despair of ever seeing that bang-on accurate reproduction on DVD.
First was the grand-dad of the two-color Technicolor features, Toll of the Sea, in the big Treasures from American Film Archives set. In that, the color scheme (as it appears on the DVD) is something approaching magenta and green, which does not serve well to produce nice skin tones -- the task Technicolor considered to be Job One.
Next up, the DVD release of Mystery of the Wax Museum, for which some "creative" individual has evidently seen fit to electronically goose the darker cyan-biased tones to bloom into a vivid pure blue such as was never seen in an original two-color Technicolor print. Historically incorrect though that may be, at least the results are pretty and may ingratiate modern viewers -- everybody likes blue -- and there are scenes where this "improvement" does not intrude and which reproduce the original print colors almost accurately.
Nail-biting time: what tampering might have been done to Doctor X? Blooming blues again, as seemed probable considering the WB source? Nope. For their Doctor X the surprise is green. Maybe complaints about the overly blue "Wax Museum" DVD came in, and a moss-covered X is somebody's answer? Green, green everywhere. Green touches in faces and hair, mossy woodwork, green moonlight. It all looks as if it had been filmed in an aquarium that badly needed a cleaning. In brightly-lit bits of the actors and costumes and sets, the colors can be discerned roughly as they are, but as anything gets darker it gets greener, too, until finally subsiding, mercifully, into black.
I am reminded of a dying color TV I was stuck with watching back in the late Seventies -- pink highlights, green shadows. And as with that problem of mismatched gammas, no amount of fiddling around with hue and chroma and individual RGB levels can do much to correct it.
Could deteriorating Eastmancolor preservaton elements be to blame?
A little Googling informs me that the precious original nitrates of both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum were still fit to be screened at least as recently as 2002, when they were shown as part of a Technicolor series at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, so it would seem that they must still be in condition to be used for video transfers if necessary. Far from that, I cannot believe anyone even bothered to consult the original of Doctor X for a color check.
There appears to be no reasonable excuse for this atrocity.
Another atrocity which evidently passed under your radar is in last spring's Garbo set. In the absence of the uncensored Mata Hari or some newly-discovered pristine nitrate source for Queen Christina, the big attraction for me was the German language version of Anna Christie, which, as far as I am aware, had never been released in any format in the US. Several of Garbo's acquaintances reported her saying that it was the MGM film with which she was most pleased. I finally got to see it ten or fifteen years ago, in a 35mm print, and found it a wonderful breath of fresh air to hear her in German and without the usual roster of supporting players. I noted with relief that the image was of about the same decent quality as the English language original, and I looked forward to a release on video.
What comes in the DVD set is a very murky, unstable, splicey source with "hard" subtitles which too often appear graffiti-scrawled right across her face in those ever-amazing close-ups. I began to wonder if my memory was playing tricks on me. Then I watched the included TCM biography, which includes a brief clip from the German Anna, and saw what I had remembered -- a far clearer, less unstable image with good midtones. And no subtitles. The framing is also markedly different from the released-in-full source, with more headroom and left side, if slightly tighter overall. Is it possible that someone opted for the worse source just to avoid the expense of electronic subtitling? Or is this simply another case of gross negligence?
My third object of complaint is grain.
Like you, it seems, I have been fortunate to see a goodly number of old films in 35mm, occasionally in original prints, and I even have a few oddments of nitrate from the 1920s and 1940s (including some original camera negative trims from 1940s Universal horrors!) in my very small collection of cinemabilia. There is grain to be found in it all, yes, but nothing like what one is forced to endure in some vintage films on DVD. I would point particularly to King Kong, a film I have seen in 35mm a few times and in 16mm several more times (once, as the projectionist with Marcel Delgado in the audience) and which has never looked as harshly grainy as it now does on DVD. The scene in the ship's cabin is probably the nadir. That appears to be playing out amid a dense swarm of gnats -- exceedingly distracting and annoying. It seems that DVD encoding tends to exacerbate grain, much as MP3 audio encoding (something I actually have experience of) tends to exacerbate sizzle in transfers from noisy shellac discs.
I understand that there were outraged protests from some quarters about the virtually grainless (and to my eyes absolutely beautiful) image in the DVD release of Citizen Kane. I am all in favor of historical accuracy, but based on my theatrical viewing experiences I would contend that the grainless Kane is more faithful to what its original audiences saw than is the grain-amplified Kong.
After all, 480-line video, even on DVD, comes nowhere near resolving all of the detail, including grain, in a low-generation 35mm image, so if the video looks as grainy as the print, let alone moreso, then something is wrong. If the use of some degree of electronic grain reduction can correct that, then by all means it should be used.
Finally, as a fellow old Monster Kid, allow me to point out that the now frail and mansionless Ackermonster will be celebrating his 90th year on this planet on November 24th. Let's all of us kids send 4SJ (now at 4511 Russell Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027) a card or note for the occasion, with thanks for being our guide into the world of the great old classics and Sci-Fi, and in general for tampering with our innocent(?) young brains while they were still pink and malleable. -- With best regards, Russ Karas