(1939) Directed by Vincent Sherman; Written by Lee Katz; Story by William J. Makin; Starring: Wayne Morris, Rosemary Lane and Humphrey Bogart; Available on DVD
The Return of Doctor X has been maligned over the years as an oddity, mainly notable because it was Humphrey Bogart’s only foray into the horror genre. The film’s less than stellar reputation was further cemented by the fact that Bogart reportedly hated his role as the eponymous Dr. Xavier (aka: Dr. Quesne). While it’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, it’s not nearly as awful as you’d suspect. Forget for a moment that the film doesn’t really have anything to do with the first Doctor X movie (also released by First National Pictures) – about the only thing they have in common are doctors performing mad science and goofy reporter main characters. Also consider that the first Doctor X movie wasn’t exactly a classic in the first place, which leaves the latter film to be judged on its own merits.
Lee Katz’s screenplay was loosely based on William J. Makin’s story “The Doctor’s Secret,” which originally appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly. Many of the details were changed, including the setting of 1885 London to contemporary New York. First-time director Vincent Sherman had previous experience as an actor and writer on stage and screen, but learned the more technical aspects of filmmaking while he shot The Return of Doctor X. This was not his first collaboration with Bogart, having worked with him the previous year as screenwriter on Crime School. * Sherman, just shy of his 100th birthday, contributed to the fascinating DVD commentary for The Return of Doctor X, providing remarkably lucid insight about the film, working with Bogart, and old Hollywood in general.
* Coincidentally, the Bogart connection doesn’t end there. Sherman would eventually go on to direct the TV biopic Bogie 41 years later.
Although Bogart’s character is clearly the main focus of the story, he doesn’t get top billing. Wayne Morris, presumably deemed more bankable as a leading man, was given more screen time as ace reporter Walter `Wichita’ Garrett. He’s on his way to interview the actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys), only to discover that she’s been murdered, drained of blood, with surgical precision. Garrett realizes that he has a much different story than he’d originally bargained for. After he writes her obituary she suddenly shows up again, apparently alive and well. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with his boss at the newspaper, who’s already printed a retraction, and he’s promptly fired. Garrett knows that something is awry with Merrova, and decides to find out the truth behind her apparent death. He works with his pal, Dr. Mike Rhodes (Dennis Morgan), to get the real story, and hopefully get his job back. Morris’ pratfall-laden performance is mostly played for laughs, analogous to Lee Tracy’s role as the jokey reporter Lee Taylor in Doctor X.
Bogart doesn’t appear until 22 minutes into the 62-minute film. If nothing else, he makes a distinctive impression with his shock of white hair and pallid complexion, in a role that was originally slated for Boris Karloff. He now uses the moniker Dr. Quesne, distancing himself from his former identity as the infamous Dr. Maurice Xavier. He’s been brought back from the dead, thanks to Dr. Francis Flegg’s synthetic blood, but now requires frequent infusions of real blood to stay alive. In spite of the fact that Bogart was not enamored of the material he had to work with, he’s never less than engaging whenever he’s on screen. According to Sherman, Bogart “…did the best he could with what he had.” He approached his role as the consummate professional, giving his performance more conviction than perhaps it deserved.
John Litel also turns in a noteworthy performance as Dr. Flegg (originally intended for Bela Lugosi). He resembles the stereotypical mad scientist with his monocle and Mephistopheles goatee, establishing him as an individual not to be trusted. He’s not really a villain, though – more of an example of scientific hubris. Unfortunately for Dr. Flegg, he realizes too late that he’s made a terrible decision experimenting with his synthetic blood and choosing the morally questionable Dr. Quesne as an ally.
Sherman admitted that he “knew it was a cornball story,” but that doesn’t negate the fact that he endeavored to create a film that would still be moderately entertaining and move at a good pace. Considering the former casting choice for The Return of Doctor X, I’m left to speculate whether it would have been judged as harshly if Karloff had played Dr. Quesne instead. Bogart’s biggest crime was being cast against expectations, making his role an anomaly. The Return of Doctor X will never be considered a genre high point, nor will the role of Dr. Quesne be regarded as one of Bogart’s shining moments, but taken in the right context you can still have a good time with the film. It’s worthwhile viewing, not just for Bogart completists, but fans of b-horror from the 30s.