Saturday, March 25, 1972: The Return of Dr. X (1939) / The Death Kiss (1932)

Synopsis: Newspaper reporter Walter “Wichita” Garrett (Wayne Morris) is thrilled to score an interview with celebrated actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys).  But when he arrives at her apartment, Garrett finds Merrova dead, stabbed through the heart. Like any good newspaperman, he calls not the police, but his editor.  Before you can say “stop the presses!” his newspaper blares this scoop on its front page.  It’s only after the late edition comes out that the police find out about the crime and arrive at Merrova’s apartment, but they find no body, and no sign of a struggle.  Garrett is perplexed, but insists that Merrova is dead and someone must have moved the body.

Later, Garrett is called into his editor’s office, where he is astonished to find Angela Merrova, not only alive, but threatening a monster lawsuit.  Garrett insists that he saw Merrova dead, and that this woman must be an imposter. The editor sees things differently and Garrett is fired. But because he is that plucky breed of newspaperman that we often encounter in old movies, this doesn’t deter him.  He seeks out his friend, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) to ask him whether someone with a stab wound of the type Angela Merrova sustained could survive. 

The good-natured Dr. Rhodes is tolerant of Garrett’s questions but he’s a little busy.  He is preparing to assist hematologist Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel) with a tricky blood transfusion.  The donor, a man with a rare blood type, hasn’t shown up.  Nurse Joan Vance (Rosemary Lane) tells him that she has the same rare blood type, and volunteers to take the donor’s place for this procedure.

Joan clearly has a crush on the handsome Dr. Rhodes, and volunteering for a transfusion succeeds in catching his attention: after the procedure he asks her out on a date.  But instead of dancing under the stars, she ends up tagging along as Rhodes and Garrett check up on the missing blood donor.  They find him dead in his apartment, his body drained of all blood.  In fact the only blood they do manage to find doesn’t seem to be human blood at all.

They take the blood sample to Dr. Flegg, but Flegg seems rattled by it, angrily asserting that it’s ordinary human blood.  While there, they meet the doctor’s creepy assistant Marshall Quesne (Humphrey Bogart), a pallid man with a streak of white running through his hair. Certain that he’s seen Quesne somewhere before, Garrett searches the newspaper archives until he stumbles onto the photograph he’s looking for: Quesne is none other than Dr. Maurice Xavier, whose diabolical experiments sent him to the electric chair years earlier.  Garrett now knows of two dead people who have turned up alive.  But how is it possible?

Comments: This is Horror Incorporated‘s second go-round with The Return of Dr. X, best remembered today as Humphrey Bogart’s only horror film.  While Bogart absolutely didn’t want to do this picture, and struggled mightily to get out of it, to his credit he made a valiant effort with the role once he realized he was stuck with it.

Don’t get me wrong: Bogart is definitely miscast.  He doesn’t project anything close to the aura of menace the character is supposed to possess (and would have possessed, if Karloff, the actor for whom the part was written, had stuck around the Warner lot long enough to appear in it). But he gives it his best effort and has a couple of nice moments — the knowing smirks and glances when talking to Garrett and Rhodes, the absent way he pets the rabbit whenever he talks about…you know…. blood.

So many people focus on Bogart’s performance that this film is rarely judged on its own merits.  It’s surprisingly light-hearted for a horror film, owing mostly to the presence of Wayne Morris as “Wichita” Garrett, a breezy naif of a protagonist who supplies his own comic relief.   Wichita’s goofy one-liners undercut the almost noirish atmosphere the rest of the cast tries to build.  Interestingly, Dennis Morgan’s Dr. Rhodes is a bit more of a conventional leading man type — he gets the standard-issue romance, for example —  but we have a bit more fun with Wichita. He might be a goofball, but he’s at least a moderately interesting one.   Rhodes is a stuffed shirt, and pretty dull company.

John Litel makes a pretty menacing Dr. Flegg; he is much more the mad scientist than the titular Dr. X, who has to do double duty as both lab assistant and monster. Rosemary Lane plays a rather unfortunate nurse, a sweet and innocent young woman who’s looking to get her MRS degree, and Lya Lys is intriguing as Angela Merrova but disappears from the movie all too soon. I was looking forward to seeing what her real agenda was, but it was not meant to be.

The Death Kiss

Synopsis: At Ton-Art Studios in Los Angeles, a murder mystery called The Death Kiss is being filmed. Lead actor Myles Brent plays a character who is being targeted for murder in the final act.  He falls under a hail of gunfire.  Director Tom Avery (Edward Van Sloan) halts filming and complains that Brent’s death scene was unconvincing.  But moments later it’s discovered that Brent is really dead — killed by one of the shots fired on the set.

Police Detective Lt. Sheehan (John Wray) arrives at Ton-Art and questions those who were present for the death scene.  He also collects the prop guns and determines that all of them were loaded with blanks.

Franklyn Drew (David Manners), a screenwriter on the lot, pokes around the set and discovers a .45 slug buried in one of the flats. He brings it to Lt. Sheehan as proof that the murderer was in possession of a .45, not one of the prop .38s.  That proves it’s murder — since none of the prop guns were .45 caliber weapons.

Sheehan questions Marsha Lane (Adrienne Ames) who is Brent’s ex-wife.  As it happens Brent had named Lane sole beneficiary in his will, something the police find very interesting.  But Drew, who seems to have a close relationship with Lane, tells Sheehan that the actress’ lawyer had convinced her not to sign documents naming her the sole heir.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that Sheehan sees Lane as his prime suspect. Drew knows that there are plenty of other people on the lot who wanted to see Brent killed.  And he means to unmask the real culprit, even if it means risking his own life…. 

Comments: The Death Kiss is an interesting little movie for a number of reasons. It was shot at California Tiffany Studios (which itself starred as the “Ton-Art Studios” lot). California Tiffany was located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, just a block or two from where Kaiser Permanente Medical Center stands today. This was a plucky little film factory, founded in 1921, and it reached its zenith in the middle of the decade producing silent westerns and comedy shorts and other low-budget fare.  Its 1930 feature Mamba is apparently the first ever to be shot in Technicolor.  By the time Mamba premiered, however, the studio was struggling, and The Death Kiss seems to have been the last feature to be filmed there. The studio lot was eventually sold to Columbia.

The cast is also intriguing: made only a year after Dracula, it boasts three members of that film’s cast: Bela Lugosi, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan.  Manners winds up with the lead in this one, and while it may not be the best role of his career, it’s certainly the one he’s best suited to.  Manners always had a boyish, insouciant style that undercut him as a dramatic lead, but that style works quite well in this picture, where he plays a boyish, insouciant screenwriter who takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of Who Killed Myles Brent, star of the movie-within-a-movie The Death Kiss.

Manners’ Franklyn Drew seems to be having the time of his life solving a real-life murder right under the noses of the police, and we find his company enjoyable.  Lt. Sheehan is a bit too much in the Lestrade school of incompetent police, but this was a common depiction of police detectives at the time, and we go along with it.  John Wray (apparently no relation to Fay Wray, with whom he appeared in Dr. X) plays Sheehan with a hard-nosed attitude, understandably resentful of the upper-class pretty boy horning in on his act.

Edward Van Sloan plays somewhat against type as a tightly-wound director, and Bela Lugosi isn’t menacing at all, even though he is flagged as such in the marketing materials. Lugosi plays studio manager Joseph Steiner, a guy who is supposed to keep the trains running on time.  Clearly his character is supposed to be one of the many suspects in this whodunit, but the role isn’t really designed to be a red herring; it becomes so only because Lugosi was chosen for the role.

Overall this is a fun little romp, not a horror film in any real sense, but a small gem of the kind we used to discover now and again on late-night TV.

One comment

  1. THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X was of course no relation to Lionel Atwill's 1932 DOCTOR X, two completely different characters, Bogart playing a revived criminal, Dr. Maurice Xavier, posing as Dr. Francis Flegg's assistant Marshall Quesne (top billed, despite his entrance in mid film). John Litel, remembered as Nancy Drew's lawyer father in four Warners' features, is cast against type, but is more interesting, and ambiguous, than Bogart. THE DEATH KISS is a fascinating whodunit that usually disappoints on a first viewing, after years of false advertising as a horror film. The role of Joseph Steiner would be totally inconsequential were it not Lugosi playing the part. David Manners proves to be more appealing here than in DRACULA, while Edward Van Sloan was always a safe bet to play the surprise killer in cheap indie mysteries such as 1935's A SHOT IN THE DARK.


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