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October 2, 2009

The Return of Doctor X

1939, Dir. by Vincent Sherman.

As I rolled forward in my list of films for October tonight, I stopped at a sequel I've wanted to check out for some time. The Return of Doctor X is a follow-up to the 1932 thriller Doctor X, a film that is most famous for starring supporting horror icon Lionel Atwill and the unforgettable Fay Wray, and most notable for being among the first movies filmed in Technicolor and being a pre-Code film that dealt with topics such as cannibalism and rape.

The sequel is really only notable for one reason (besides being a rare sequel to color film that's filmed in black and white), and that's the presence of a young Humphrey Bogart as one of the primary villains - that's him in the poster with the white skunk stripe in his hair. I doubt many who watched this film figured he'd be starring in a best picture winner that would stand the test of decades just three years later, but that's Hollywood.

The story of The Return of Doctor X is relatively simple. An ambitious newspaper man who's got an overly annoying "aw, shucks" demeanor tries to get an interview with a famous actress (played by an actress with the oddly fun name Lya Lys), who he finds murdered and then missing when he tries to reveal the crime. This leads to him getting involved with doctors, the actress herself who magically reappears, the weird scientist Doctor Quesne (pronounced Cane, of course) played by Bogart, and your normal early Hollywood crew of angry editors and trusting and virtuous young women. Grave robbing and experiments are just part of the ensuing hijinx.

As I noted above, there's not much to see here outside of Bogie. The lead, Wayne Morris, is definitely a man of his time period, with an approach to acting that made me think of him as a better looking butless talented Lon Chaney, Jr. (A better comparison might be Arsenic and Old Lace's Jack Carson - same bumbling mannerisms, less ability to deliver lines or show any sense of timing.) Basically, what I'm trying to say is the guy sucked the life out of the film. The side characters are pretty thinly developed too, which isn't surprising when you consider that it's a 62 minute film.

1939 is famous for being one of the most progressive and groundbreaking years in the history of Hollywood, and a film this by-the-numbers seems all the more disappointing considering what else was going on in the world of cinema. If you want to see Bogie as an undead creep with skunk hair, you can do it here. Just don't expect to get much out of it. In fact, I'd just say Skip It altogether.

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