Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (Universal, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I watched last night was another entry from the Cult Horror Classics boxed set produced jointly by Universal and TCM: The Strange Case of Doctor Rx, copyrighted 1941 but not released until 1942, which I had vague memories of having seen on TV in the 1970’s but couldn’t remember any more of than Patric Knowles’ interesting vocal inflections when he pronounced the name “Doctor Rx.” Knowles got top billing as private detective Jerry Church, who has just returned to New York City following a mysterious trip out of town, where he’s discussed giving up crime as a career and moving back to his native Boston to work for his family’s bond-selling firm. (Let’s see if we have this right: he wants to move out of New York City to be involved in the financial markets?) His friend (and friendly rival), police detective captain Bill Hurd (Edmund MacDonald), wants him to stay in town and work on finding the mysterious “Doctor Rx,” who has been knocking off notorious criminals after the great criminal defense attorney Dudley Crispin (Samuel S. Hinds) succeeds in persuading juries to acquit them.

The film opens with Church and Hurd examining the corpse of Dr. Rx’s fifth victim (he leaves slips of paper at the scene of each crime with his signature and a numeral keeping score of how many people he’s killed) — well, actually it opens with a long radio prologue in which a news announcer describes the Dr. Rx slayings and gives us the backstory we need to ‘get” the rest of the movie. The film isn’t really a horror movie at all; it’s a murder mystery, and a not particularly challenging one at that; Lionel Atwill appears as one of the most transparently obvious red herrings in film history — obviously his appearance and the title were supposed to evoke memories of his 1932 chiller Doctor “X” but the quality gap between that film and this one is pretty enormous, and Atwill makes such fleeting (and quirky) appearances here he’s barely in the film until the final reel. The gimmick is that Dr. Rx is not only a free-lance avenger of people who deserve to be convicted of murder but are in fact acquitted, he’s also a mad scientist obsessed with the idea of transplanting a human brain in an ape’s body and vice versa — but the one scene that depicts this seems so out-of-place with the rest of the movie it seems to have been spliced in from another film altogether.

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx
was written by Clarence Upson Young from an original story by an uncredited Alex Gottlieb (later a producer at Universal and then at Warners) and directed by William Nigh — almost always a bad sign; like William Beaudine, Nigh got to work with A-list stars in the silent era, made a lot of money, lost it all in the 1929 stock-market crash and thereafter had to support himself with whatever job assignments he could get. The ape-man interlude at least allowed Nigh to relive one of the (relative) high points in his career: The Monster, an MGM silent he directed in 1926 in which Lon Chaney, Sr. played a mad scientist (for the only time in his career) with a similar interest in ape-to-man brain transplants — but it sits uneasily in the middle of a film whose denouement is all too predictable: the super-lawyer Dudley Crispin is himself Doctor Rx, first acquitting his clients and then knocking them off because he knows they’re really guilty. The film moves along — or doesn’t — at Nigh’s usual plodding pace, and though he seems relieved to be working at a major studio (at least he didn’t have to worry about the sets falling down on the actors at any moment!) he doesn’t really bring much distinction to this one as opposed to his work at Monogram, and he doesn’t even include any of the Venetian blind shots that were usually his sole efforts at visual atmosphere.

The cast doesn’t help; Patric Knowles is a personable young actor who did a good job as Errol Flynn’s brother in the 1936 The Charge of the Light Brigade but was just too lightweight a personality to be able to carry a film on his own. Anne Gwynne, his romantic interest (they pose as merely a dating couple for the first half of the movie and then suddenly, and for reasons only Clarence Upson Young could have explained, reveal that they were actually married on that mysterious trip Knowles had just returned from when the film opened), is likewise a nice, personable actress without any particular charisma or depth. Atwill, though billed second, is utterly wasted (the Cult Horror Classics box also includes two much better vehicles for him, Murders at the Zoo and The Mad Doctor of Market Street), as is Shemp Howard, whose presence seems to promise funnier-than-usual “comic relief” but who instead is cast in an almost completely serious supporting part. (Shemp made movies with “name” comedians like W. C. Fields, Abbott and Costello and Olsen and Johnson before replacing his brother Curly in the Three Stooges — where his dry wit fit rather oddly with the precise physical slapstick the Stooges were known for — and he got enough laughs in his great movies one can forgive him his odd lapse in this film.)

The real star of this movie is the other comic-relief guy, Mantan Moreland, perfectly cast as Knowles’ manservant and given the grandiloquent character name “Horatio B. Fitz Washington.” As usual, Moreland manages at once to live up to the stupid Black servant stereotype and totally transcend it — whether he’s chewing out another character for not knowing who George Washington was and loudly proclaiming his pride in having as his namesake the man who crossed the Mississippi to win the American revolution (of course, it was really the Delaware!) or acting to a surprising extent as the voice of reason, not comic stupidity, in the film, Moreland is easily the most watchable actor in it — and one suspects screenwriter Young was aware it was going to turn out that way, since he gave Moreland both the film’s first line of dialogue and its last. Next to Moreland, the film’s most entertaining aspect is the gorgeous Art Deco apartment art director Martin Obzina created for Knowles to live in — a good thing, too, since so much of this movie takes place in that apartment it gets an oddly claustrophobic feeling and gives us all too much time to admire Obzina’s set design. Even when Young creates an intense dramatic scene — a newly acquitted client of Crispin’s takes a medicinal powder and croaks right in the courtroom — Nigh muffs it in the staging, and the scene becomes even more inexplicable later when Knowles assures us the man was neither poisoned nor strangled (as Doctor Rx’s previous victims had been), leaving us wondering just how the guy did die.

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx is one of Universal’s most forgettable movies from the early 1940’s, and why Universal and TCM put this in their “Cult Horror Classics” boxed set when it’s neither a horror film nor a classic is a bigger mystery than the secret identity of Doctor Rx in the film — especially since the 1934 masterpiece The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (also with Lionel Atwill) and the intriguing 1942 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Mystery of Marie Roget (also with Patric Knowles) remain frustratingly unavailable.