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Doctor X (1932)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DOCTOR X (1932)

Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe

Written By: Robert Tasker & Earl Baldwin, Howard W. Comstock & Arthur C. Miller (play)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz

The Short Version

Between Sherlock Holmes and CSI, there is Doctor X.

But then the mystery gets shoved aside by a horror flick that shows up from nowhere.

Lionel Atwill has a compelling presence in the title role.

Unfortunately, he’s upstaged by a joy buzzer and exploding cigars.

Doctor X is worth one look, but that’s about it.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Hmm; that one might have been edible once upon a time, but not so much now.  Hey, this one looks- ow!  What idiot put a joy buzzer in there?!

Pairs Well With...


Killer beer.  Much moreso than the movie, but hey, I like you.

“It wasn’t torn.  This is cannibalism!”

Picture this.

The city has learned to live in fear every time a full moon rises in the sky, for each time it has during the past several months, a person has been found murdered and partially mutilated.  The press has dubbed the fiend “The Moon Killer.”

As the latest victim is brought to the morgue, the baffled police call in a respected medical professor, Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill, Son of Frankenstein), to consult on the case.  When he completes his examination of the body, Xavier – also known as “Doctor X” – declares that the murderer isn’t just a homicidal maniac; he is, in fact, a cannibal!  What’s more, the skill involved with the mutilations and the precision tools that look to have been used would indicate that the killer is also a skilled surgeon.

The alarmed police are ready to immediately march over to Xavier’s medical school and arrest every professor there for suspicion of murder, but Xavier implores them to take a moment to breathe before destroying the school’s reputation.  Instead, he proposes to conduct his own investigation based upon scientific principles, with results deliverable to the police within 48 hours.  The police are dubious, but grudgingly agree to his terms; after all, it allows them to avoid admitting that they’re clueless.

What Xavier hasn’t taken into account when drawing up his profile, however, is that the killer might be provoked to commit his next murder ahead of schedule if provoked, and the next intended victim might end up being Xavier’s own daughter, Joanne (Fay Wray, King Kong)…

If not for my casting citations revealing some very classic names, that would sound like a pretty modern story, wouldn’t it?  But long before there was a “CSI” television franchise for every city in the United States and long before Clarice Starling stepped up to Hannibal Lecter’s cell, Doctor X was there to take a crack at scientifically driven investigation and criminal profiling.

As an early bridge from the deductive reasoning and visual observations of Sherlock Holmes to the modern profiling procedural, it’s an interesting attempt.  With that said, the studio was trying to make a horror flick, so Doctor X is more concerned with heading out to left field than it is with presenting any sort of “whodunit,” and it’s further bogged down by a comic relief “hero” who doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo that Hollywood isn’t Vaudeville.

As for whether or not it’s worth your time anyway…

Yeah, I suppose.  Once.

Honestly, Doctor X lost me before the title character even had a chance to show up on the screen.  Instead, it opens with all attention focused of flatfoot reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy, Bombshell), who seems to have been pulled into this movie straight from a tired old Vaudeville act on the decline.  We’re talking joy buzzers and exploding cigars here; and no, that’s not an exaggeration.  Sorry, folks, but no movie is ever going to be able to recover from a first scene joy buzzer; at that point, its credibility is just as dead as the tired old “never was funny to begin with” joke.  The fact that the buzzer and the cigar keep coming back – saving Taylor’s bacon on more than one occasion, of course – doesn’t help matters, nor does the character’s “Abbott and Costello both rolled into one skinny reporter” persona.  I can’t blame actor Lee Tracy – he’s just doing what he’s been paid to do – but this character absolutely does not belong in this movie for any length of time, much less for the entire thing.

Once the gag reel has been established, the film gets to its core: the story of Doctor X, and his challenge to solve the murders through scientific means in just 48 hours.  Not only is this the element of the film that speaks most loudly across the ages to our own, but it is also the most genuinely intriguing.  (As is his gorgeously designed art deco laboratory.)  While it’s certainly true that “whodunit” (and who’s the red herring) can be deduced easily enough through process of elimination long before the actual revelation is made, the question of how is still there to keep the audience guessing, and that is compelling enough.

At least, it’s compelling enough until the question is answered… straight out of left field.  As noted above, the studio was looking to use Doctor X as a means to become a contender in the horror arena, and it is from the realm of horror that our killer ultimately comes.  This would be fine if the “horrification” of the killer made any sense at all, but it doesn’t, and what’s more, it doesn’t really jive with the theories presented throughout the film by Doctor X, either.  If anything, the ultimate reveal makes all of the work that’s been done by the title character seem quackish and pointless… and if that’s the case, doesn’t that make the entire movie pointless?

Almost, but not quite.

In the plus column, there’s Lionel Atwill, who plays that title role as Doctor X.  Atwill is one of those actors who deserves to a household name on a par with the likes of Basil Rathbone, but who never quite reached that level of general public acclaim.  It’s a shame, really, because his physical presence is undeniable, and when he speaks, audiences can’t help but listen.  Had Doctor X been written as a more serious mystery instead of a cheesy horror flick with a side order of goofiness, this could have been a perfect showcase role for Atwill.  As it stands, his dramatic talents are left to clamor for the scraps of attention left behind after the ridiculous comedy and the bizarre horror elements have had their say, and with this screenplay, that’s a losing battle.

Meanwhile, Fay Wray is Fay Wray.  Her charm cannot be denied, any more than one can deny the fact the she screams very, very well.  (Needless to say, she does so often in Doctor X, just as she would for most of her career.)  But more than that, she’s also a decent actress, and that she can convey that fact even through the “harmlessly willful doormat” persona that the script slaps her character with should tell you quite a bit.  However, despite the fact that hers would become a household name the following year and forevermore thanks to her being caught in the grip of a certain skyscraper-climbing ape, Fay Wray never would get the true recognition she deserved as an actress.

There is one person associated with Doctor X, however, who would go on to earn worldwide recognition as a master of his craft: specifically, the gentleman who designed the killer’s horrific makeup.  I’m sure you’ve heard of him.  His name is Max Factor.

You may also have heard of the director, Michael Curtiz, who, just ten years later, would go on to direct one of the greatest of all classic Hollywood pictures: Casablanca.  Unfortunately, Doctor X doesn’t provide him the same opportunity for greatness.  He does, however, keep the utterly mismatched house of cards from falling down around everyone, and given the challenges presented by this screenplay, that’s a major feat in and of itself.

When it’s all said and done, though… for me, it’s just not enough to be worth sitting through a second time.  Joy buzzers and ham-fisted attempts at horror don’t make for attractive bookends, even if there is a bit of good stuff to be found in between them.  The good stuff is just compelling enough to be worth seeing once on a day when one has nothing better to do, but after that?  No.

Bottom line, if you’re really curious about Doctor X, it may be worth a single pass, provided that the pass is either free or a reasonable facsimile thereof, but it’s not worth any more attention or investment than that.  The theoretical premise may be thoroughly modern, but little else about this film stands the test of time, nor was it all that great to begin with.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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