Saturday, May 2, 1970: The Mad Doctor Of Market Street (1942)

Synopsis: Dr. Ralph Benson is an unorthodox scientist experimenting with suspended animation. Because his experiments are dangerous, he must keep them secret, run out of the back room of his office on Market Street.

He meets with a financially desperate family man who is willing to be paid $600 to be Benson’s latest guinea pig. Benson explains to the man that he will be placed into a death-like coma, which will quickly be reversed.

But when the man cannot be revived, and the police raid his office, Benson is forced to flee.

Soon he is on an ocean liner headed for New Zealand. But he isn’t out of the woods yet: a detective is looking for him, and the passengers are advised that the Mad Doctor of Market Street himself is on board, presumably under an alias. Confronted by the detective in a passageway, Benson kills him and throws his body overboard. But there is a witness to this act, which turns out not to matter, because at this moment the ocean liner conveniently decides to catch fire and the order is given to abandon ship.

The lifeboat he shares with a half-dozen other passengers and crew ends up on an island in the south seas. They are captured by natives of the island, and told by chief Elan (Noble Johnson) that they will be slaves. But when Benson brings Elan’s wife Tanaa back to life (with adrenaline and smelling salts, suggesting that she wasn’t actually dead but, conveniently, in a death-like coma) he reveals himself to his fellow castaways as the mad doctor who the authorities were looking for, and the natives decide that he is a god with the power of life and death. As often happens in these sort of movies, they make him their king.

The natives offer Benson the most beautiful of the island women to choose from as his new wife. Instead, Benson gets the idea of making young Patricia Wentworth his “white bride”, and using the other castaways as guinea pigs for his further experiments. This doesn’t go down well with the other shipwreck survivors — Patricia’s new love interest Jim, her comedy-relief aunt Margaret (Una Merkel) and comedy-relief palooka Nat Pendleton — and they devise a plan to discredit him among the natives and make it possible to escape.

Comments: Well, be careful what you wish for.

I’ve long been extolling the virtues of Lionel Atwill, lamenting that such a talented actor should be shunted aside in favor of lesser lights in the Universal Studios firmament. How criminally underutilized he is in these Universal horror films. When will Horror Incorporated viewers see more of this guy?

Truth is, we get plenty of Lionel Atwill in The Mad Doctor of Market Street, and I wish we didn’t. This isn’t Atwill’s fault — any actor pitted against this script will come out the loser.

Judging from its title, you might imagine The Mad Doctor of Market Street would be a Victorian thriller, taking place on the foggy streets of London, featuring stylized laboratories, dogged police detectives and secret passages, but the Market Street locale is abandoned five minutes into the picture. In its place we get a lazy cinematic caricature of the South Pacific, which screenwriter Al Martin has evoked with all the authenticity of a 14-ounce can of Hawaiian Punch and all the rich characterization found in a typical episode of Gilligan’s Island.

Martin, in fact, is such an inept screenwriter that he apparently forgot to provide us with a protagonist; Benson is far too unsympathetic to serve as an antihero, and his fellow castaways are so bland that we have no interest in what happens to them whatsoever. And when the mad doctor gets his inevitable comeuppance, it’s a letdown, because he was bested by such a gaggle of idiots.

In fact, The Mad Doctor of Market Street presents us with such lousy specimens of the human animal, I am tempted to think that Martin’s script was trying to sneak in an existentialist subtext. Certainly, life couldn’t seem more absurd or meaningless than it does at the end of The Mad Doctor of Market Street. Only Martin’s colossal incompetence at every other facet of screenwriting keep me from taking such an idea seriously.

Alas, Atwill’s long service to Universal studios was nearly over by this time. Atwill was well-known for throwing wild parties — orgies, actually — and after one particular gathering ended with a visit from the police, Lionel’s film career turned sour. Bounced out of Universal in 1943, he wound up doing Poverty Row cheapies until his death in 1946.

As to Una Merkel, Nat Pendleton and the rest of the cast of this misbegotten production, all I can express is gratitude that they will not be pestering us on the Horror Incorporated screen in future weeks. None of them worked extensively in genre films, and none of them appeared in other films included in the original Shock! package.


  1. Lionel Atwill is the entire show here, for the last time at Universal, a definite comedown after MAN MADE MONSTER. Considering the moronic behavior on display, it seems fitting that Una Merkel gets top billing over Atwill (she was coming off THE BANK DICK). At least lovely Claire Dodd had a few genre titles on her resume, such as SECRET OF THE CHATEAU and THE BLACK CAT. Atwill was certainly in his element, leering at Miss Dodd and Anne Nagel with undisguised relish, earning Forrest J. Ackerman's famous description of him as “the maddest doctor of them all.” THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET aired just three times on CHILLER THEATER.


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