Saturday, December 9, 1972: Return of Dr. X (1939) / Hangover Square (1945)

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: The title Return of Dr. X would have you believe this uneven thriller from Warner Brother is a sequel to the studio’s two-strip Technicolor hit from seven years earlier, but it isn’t; like Devil Bat’s Daughter, the film seems confident that you’ll buy your ticket without remembering anything that happened in the first installment. Maybe you’ll remember a goofball reporter in a hat, and Wayne Morris plays this pratfall-prone character in much the same way that Lee Tracy did in that earlier film. Thankfully, we’re not asked to believe the female ingenue is going to fall for such a low-rent goofball here; instead Joan latches onto Dr. Rhodes, who is presented to us as much more of a leading-man type, and for much of the time Wichita Garret and Dr. Rhodes pal around together while gathering clues to the crime, while poor Joan is squeezed in the front seat of the car between them, hoping to get a dance or at least a steak dinner out of the doctor at some point.

But both these leading men are eclipsed by the elephant in the room — that is to say, the presence of Humphrey Bogart as Marshall Quesne. Bogart hadn’t yet established himself as a leading man at Warner, and while he specialized in playing crooks and tough guys he was still occasionally called upon to play against type (giving a winning performance, for example, as a cheerful studio screenwriter in 1938’s Stand-In). But he was dreadfully miscast as Marshall Quesne and he knew it. He petitioned the studio to let him out of the picture, but they wouldn’t allow it; someone had to play the role now that Boris Karloff was no longer on the lot, and it fell to Bogart. To his credit he really seems to be trying his best, but he simply comes across as eccentric, not particularly menacing. Bogie’s tough-guy cadence doesn’t really fit the character, who is supposed to be a mad scientist who’s returned from the dead, and the pasty make-up and white shock of hair just look silly one him.

Bogart isn’t the only one to blame. The script doesn’t make a lot of sense, and its structure is peculiar. The lead roles are actually split between two actors (Wichita and Dr. Rhodes), as are the heavies (Quesne and Flegg); and Joan, ostensibly the romantic lead, has so little to do it’s not clear what she’s doing there at all. Moreover, Dr. Flegg’s motivations for resuscitating the dead still aren’t clear to me, and I’ve seen the movie three or four times now.

Synopsis: Gifted musician George Harvey Bone  (Laird Cregar) has been commissioned to write a piano concerto for his patron Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier). Sir Henry is so pleased by what George has written so far that he promises to give the concerto a grand premiere as soon as it is finished, and this is all but certain to make his reputation in the music world.

But George is a deeply troubled man.  All his life he has suffered from occasional blackouts, but lately they are becoming more frequent and more disturbing.  George even has a vague memory of attacking a shopkeeper during one such fugue and setting his place on fire by tossing a kerosene lamp to the floor.  But the people around him, including Sir Henry’s daughter (Faye Marlowe) assure him that he’s simply overwrought. The pressure he’s under to complete the concerto is getting to him.

He is advised to take a break — to get out into the world, to do new things.  In walking about London he meets a dance-hall girl named Netty (Linda Darnell) with whom he has little in common.  But she is pretty and charming, and he quickly falls in love.  Netty, intrigued that he is a musician, asks him to write a song for her to perform.

At first reluctant, he does so, and it’s immediately a success.  She presses for more, and he again complies, even though it is taking valuable time away from his concerto. In time Netty is a rising star on the London music-hall scene, thanks to the popular songs George is writing for her. George, meanwhile, is under increasing pressure to complete the project that he is now late in delivering.

Before long he asks Netty to marry him. But she rejects him, revealing to him that she is already engaged to another man.  She does not love him, she confesses; she has just been using him to write the songs that are making her career. Stunned, George returns home, and places a curtain-sash into his coat pocket, and it’s clear that he is entering into another of his murderous blackouts….

Comments:  Laird Cregar came to prominence in Hollywood playing psychos, and today he’s best remembered for playing the “heavy heavy” in This Gun For Hire and The Lodger. But the 300 pound actor didn’t want to be typecast in such roles and believed he was capable of more. He embarked on a crash diet to trim himself down as the star of Fox’s Hangover Square.

He acquits himself well, and in fact this film is a perfect choice for an actor trying to make a leap into romantic lead roles. The truth is that George is constantly walking the line between being the hero and the psycho, and because the film establishes him as a deeply troubled man who’s prone to blackouts, it generates much more real suspense than the similar device used in the Lon Chaney vehicle The Frozen Ghost. In the sense that the lead had to be someone whom we can believe is potentially bonkers, Cregar is perfectly cast. The fact that Cregar died soon after, from complications of his crash diet, add a tragic note to a movie that’s already pitched as a tragedy.

I really liked Linda Darnell in this picture as conniving showgirl Netty, who immediately sees George for the mark that he is. Darnell worked steadily but was never a star of the first magnitude, and this appears to be the only borderline horror film she ever appeared in. Both Alan Napier and George Sanders appeared in a number of Horror Incorporated outings over the years, and they both add class to the proceedings.


One comment

  1. I first saw THE RETURN OF DR. X in the last ten years, decent start, predictable finish. Even my father thought it all wrong for Bogie, whose entrance comes nearly halfway through the picture. HANGOVER SQUARE probably gets far less attention than THE LODGER, and both films weren’t fondly remembered by George Sanders, despite being the hero in each. Laird Cregar receives top billing in what turned out to be his final role, so for him he went out on top.


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