The Return of Doctor X (1939) -***
It’s been a good, long while since I’ve reviewed a Leave It Off the Resume Movie. When I first started writing these things, I figured the pre-stardom embarrassments of major Hollywood names would be a regularly recurring theme, but for some reason it hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve seen a lot of has-been action over the years, but the closest I’ve come lately to looking at dirty little secrets from the other end of the career arc was with Friday the 13th, which featured a relatively innocuous pre-stardom turn for Kevin Bacon and his butt-cheeks. But with The Return of Doctor X, I’m returning to the fold in a big way; not since I covered Hercules in New York have I examined a comparably shameful skeleton from a comparably famous actor’s closet. For in The Return of Doctor X, we have what is widely— and I’d say rightly— regarded as the absolute nadir of Humphrey Bogart’s career. Bogart, according to the story, hadn’t been getting along with his masters at Warner Brothers around the time this film was made. Movies like Casablanca were still a couple of years in his future, and evidently the studio execs thought the actor was getting a little too big for his britches. The old-school studio system was in full effect in the late 30’s, remember, and actors routinely signed contracts with studios not for a film or two here and there, but for entire careers. Legally speaking, these were regarded as ordinary employment contracts, with the studio as the boss and the actor as the hired hand. This, of course, meant that it was possible for the management of a studio to punish troublesome or unruly stars by forcing them to appear in crappy, unrewarding films, and that is just what Warner Brothers are said to have done to Bogart in 1939. Considering the heights of celebrity to which he would shortly rise, it stretches credulity to the uttermost limit to see him here, playing an undead mad scientist with an insatiable thirst for human blood.
Like Doctor X, to which it is at least notionally a sequel, this movie begins with a reporter. This isn’t Lee Taylor again, but rather a recent transplant from Wichita, Kansas, to New York City by the name of Walt Garrett (Wayne Morris, of The Smiling Ghost). When we meet him, Garrett is arranging to interview a non-specifically European “stage star” named Angela Merrova (Lya Lys) over at her suite in the Park Plaza Hotel— one suspects our hero is thinking he might also get a little action for himself out of this appointment. No such luck. In fact, when Garrett arrives at the girl’s suite, he finds her dead of a ghastly stab-wound just below her heart. Now most of us would call the police in this situation, but Garrett, journalist to the very marrow, calls his editor instead to report the sensational scoop. So imagine Garrett’s astonishment when the boss gives him the sack the next day because of all the trouble the reporter has caused: evidently, Miss Merrova is not only alive, but is suing the paper over the adverse publicity!
Obviously, something fishy is going on here, and Garrett’s reporter’s instincts won’t let him meekly accept his dismissal from the staff of the newspaper. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Garrett pays a visit to a doctor friend of his named Mike Rhodes (Denis Morgan). He asks Rhodes if he can think of any explanation for what seems to have happened, but all the doctor will say is that the whole situation is patently impossible. When pressed, Rhodes agrees to ask one of his most trusted colleagues about it, but he’s too busy for that sort of thing just now, as he’s due in surgery in just a few minutes. There’s an odd complication, however, in that the “professional blood donor” (were there really such things in 1939?!) who was scheduled to come in to help out with Rhodes’s operation never shows up. This is a man of great professional integrity we’re talking about here, and neither Rhodes nor Dr. Flegg (John Litel, from Flight to Mars and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), the hematologist/surgeon Rhodes is going to be working with that morning, has ever known him to be late for an appointment, let alone skip out on one altogether. The donor has a very good reason for his absence, though; he’s dead, and unlike Angela Merrova, he’s going to be staying that way. What’s more, when the detectives led by typically bellicose and incompetent Warner Brothers cop Roy Kincaid (Night Key’s Charles C. Wilson) find him, the dead donor’s body proves to be completely drained of blood. Strangest of all is the fact that there’s scarcely any trace of spilled blood anywhere in the man’s apartment.
There are a couple of drops, though, and the mystery deepens further when Rhodes takes them to the lab to examine them. The blood from the apartment tests out as being from blood group IV (type O in modern parlance), whereas the dead man was registered as having the much rarer group I (type AB). Furthermore, the mysterious blood looks incredibly strange under the microscope. It clearly isn’t human, and indeed doesn’t even look mammalian. In fact, if he didn’t know such a thing were impossible, Rhodes would swear that the strange blood had been somehow manufactured. But when he and Garrett drop in on Dr. Flegg to ask his advice, the hematologist tells them the samples are just ordinary group-IV blood that has begun manifesting the natural changes that accompany coagulation. Flegg is clearly hiding something, though, and I’d be willing to bet it has something to do with his sullen assistant, Dr. Quesne (Bogart, struggling mightily not to look like an ass with his heavy, Bela Lugosi-like vampire makeup and a bright white skunk-stripe dyed in his hair). Quesne becomes noticeably edgy when Rhodes starts talking to Flegg about the curious blood, and even gets so riled up that he crushes a beaker in his hand when Rhodes mentions the word “artificial” in connection with it.
So are any of you going to be surprised to learn that Flegg is also Angela Merrova’s doctor? Of course not. And are any of you going to be surprised when Angela turns up dead— for real this time— a few scenes later? Again, of course not. What eventually leads everybody around to the ugly truth about everything is Garrett’s certainty that he’s seen Dr. Quesne somewhere before. He manages to talk his way into his former paper’s clipping room, and after many an hour of surreptitious research, he stumbles upon a photo of Quesne in an article from two years back. Evidently, Dr. Quesne’s real name is Xavier, and he made a big splash back in ‘37 when word got out that he starved a baby to death in the name of some sort of experiment. Xavier was caught by the police, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to die in the electric chair. And if the last clipping in the file on Xavier is to be believed, that sentence was indeed carried out. Those of you who’ve been watching these movies as long as I have know what’s what at this point. Dr. Flegg had been working on a technique for reanimating the dead at the time of Xavier’s execution, and he realized that this was a perfect opportunity to try his theories out on a human subject. (‘Cause we all know what a boon to mankind it would be to resuscitate a convicted baby-killer…) He stole Xavier’s body from the cemetery, hooked it up to his machines, and was ultimately successful in restoring him to life. But for some reason, the revived Dr. Xavier needed a complete change of blood in order to stay alive, and so Flegg set to work on an artificial blood substitute hoping that such a thing would be good enough to do the job. It wasn’t, however, and now Xavier/Quesne has become a sort of technological vampire, killing people for their blood in order to stave off his own return to the grave. Angela Merrova had the blood type Xavier needs, and so was an obvious choice for a donor; when Flegg found out what his creation had done to the girl, he used an experimental new version of his synthetic blood in an attempt to save her, but the new formula proved no more effective than the old. Rhodes’s “professional blood donor” also had blood compatible with Xavier’s, and he was the next to go. And now that Garrett and Rhodes have it all figured out, they realize that a nurse named Joan Vance (Rosemarie Lane)— with whom Rhodes has just begun a tentative, semi-secret romance— is in danger. She, too, has the right type of blood.
It’s all pretty silly, of course. To begin with, remember that what originally leads Rhodes and Garrett to Dr. Flegg is a blood sample of a different serotype from that of Xavier’s victims. If he’s killing people of only one specific blood group in order to fill his veins with stolen plasma, surely our high-tech vampire would select prey of his own blood type! And let’s also note that this movie has nothing on Earth to do with the original Doctor X. Not only is this Dr. Xavier a completely different person from the other one, let us remember that the first Dr. X wasn’t actually the killer at all in the preceding film. The in-name-only sequel is an established tradition these days (Cyborg 2, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Silent Night, Deadly Night 5), but who knew it dated all the way back to 1939?
But of course, the real reason anyone is likely to be watching this today is for a chance to make fun of Humphrey Bogart in his hour of greatest indignity. And believe me, no matter how slick and suave and professional you are, there’s just no way to be dignified when you’ve got a skunk-stripe in your hair and you make your first appearance on the screen while stroking a flabby white rabbit in a somehow sinister manner. You’ve got to give Bogart credit, though— he could have said, “Fuck this,” and just hammed up a storm, but instead, he treated The Return of Doctor X like it was an actual movie. It isn’t, mind you, but Bogart still seems to have given this highly concentrated hour of schlock and nonsense his full attention and talent. I think it’s the internal discord that creates that makes the movie so much fun.