Saturday, January 27, 1973: Mysterious Doctor (1944) / The Devil Bat (1940)

Synopsis: In England during World War II, a man calling himself Dr. Holmes walks into a small Cornish village.  He is surprised to find that the innkeeper wears a black hood, supposedly to hide terrible scars he sustained in a mining accident.   
Dr. Holmes rents a room, buying a round for everyone in the inn and telling those gathered that he is taking a walking tour of Cornwall; but this only raises the suspicion of Sir John Leland and some of the other natives of the village.  There’s a war on, Leland says.  What are you doing going on walking tours?  Holmes replies a little sheepishly that he tried to enlist, but the army wouldn’t take him.  Leland is suspicious of Holmes, but the villagers eventually accept his story.  
The natives tell Holmes of a terrible curse that has befallen the town: the local tin mine is haunted by a headless ghost.  The ghost is known to have killed a number of people in the mine, and now none of the local miners will set foot within it.  Late that evening Dr. Holmes goes to visit the mine; his decapitated body is later found.
 Lt. Christopher “Kit” Hilton (Bruce Lester) soon arrives in town.  He tells the townspeople that tin is desperately needed for the war effort.   Hilton implores the miners to disregard their superstitions and return to work.  But to a man they refuse.  This earns the contempt of Letty Carstairs (Eleanor Parker), the local kind-hearted beauty, who calls them a bunch of frightened old women and volunteers to go to the mine herself to prove it is safe.  The miners squirm under her blistering gaze but don’t budge.
The town simpleton Bart Redmond (Matt Willis) is accused of murdering Dr. Holmes, and knowing an angry mob is preparing to storm the town jail where he is held and exact an American-style lynching, Letty arranges Bart’s escape, and she tells him to hide in the mine.  He does so, but soon returns to town secretly.  He tells Letty that he has discovered a secret passage inside the mine — that leads to a room which contains the costume worn by the headless ghost….
Comments: It’s often been pointed out that B-pictures like this one came with literally no expectations. No one in the history of cinema ever bought a ticket with the express intention of seeing The Mysterious Doctor. Instead, the B-picture was the equivalent of the prize in a box of cracker jacks: it was filler, like the cartoon and the newsreel that preceded it. No one was under any illusions about that. The lead feature was what brought the patrons in. The B-picture was just a little bonus.
Low expectations worked in the favor of these films. If you expect nothing, you’re unlikely to be disappointed, and from that standpoint Mysterious Doctor is an unqualified success. It’s pretty silly stuff: mildly arresting, mildly suspenseful and mildly entertaining.
The look of the film is intriguing, with more than a nod to the sort of eccentric rustics that populated umpteen Universal horror titles. But make no mistake, under the hood this isn’t a horror film. Rather, it’s a war propaganda film, though really not a bad one. We get some devilish motives and some sinister-looking suspects. This being 1944, there’s little doubt as to who’s really behind the ghost haunting the oh-so-vital-to-the-war-effort tin mine, and the public gets a neat little lecture on the importance of keeping up wartime production. So I guess you could say that everybody wins. Except, of course, for the Nazis.
The Devil Bat

Synopsis: Dr. Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) is a brilliant chemist who works for a cosmetics company. Years ago the company had given him a choice: he could be compensated with profit-sharing or with a straight salary.  He chose the latter.  Unfortunately for him, the company went on to become a huge player in the cosmetics industry, and it’s clear that the percentage deal would have made him extremely wealthy. As it is, he’s well-compensated, but he missed out on a fortune that he himself helped to build. The Heath family, which owns the company, is aware of how much they owe Dr. Carruthers.  As far as they know, he’s as happy as a clam in his laboratory.

The Heath family decides to throw a party in Dr. Carruthers’ honor – and they also secretly plan to award him a bonus check of $5,000.  But the good doctor is late to his own party.  He’s busy working.  You see, behind a secret passage in his laboratory is another lab — and in this one he is breeding giant carnivorous bats!  And that’s not all — he has created a scent that drives the bats wild with rage. 

After Carruthers fails to show up at his own party, young Roy Heath (John Ellis) decides to drop by and give Dr. Carruthers the check in person. When he finds Carruthers the scientist seems delighted by the check, and he gives Roy something in return – a bottle of experimental shaving lotion.  “Be sure to put some on the tender part of the neck,” Carruthers advises, and Roy, gamely, does so.  But he doesn’t walk more than fifty or so yard out in the open before a giant bat swoops out of the sky, killing him.

At the offices of the Chicago Daily Register, smart-alec reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien)  is sent out to cover the story. Chief Wilkins of the Heathville police tells Layton that Roy was attacked by some kind of animal; moreover, there were hairs found on the victim that seemed to be those of a mouse.  Layton wonders if the hairs might be from a bat — as bats and mice are quite similar — and asks if he can “do some sleuthing around” on the case, and the police chief says it’s fine by him.

At the Heath estate, Johnny interviews Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren), and it’s clear that a mutual attraction is brewing. Dr. Carruthers agrees that Roy was attacked by an animal, and that night Layton and his sidekick / photographer “One-Shot” McGuire (Donald Kerr)  wait out at the edge of the Heath grounds hoping the creature will show up.  Mary comes out to keep Layton company, and before long they are joined by Heath sibling Tommy (Alan Baldwin), who’s just been to visit Dr. Carruthers and who has also received a bottle of the special shaving lotion. After Tommy scoffs at the idea of an animal killing Roy, he strides off toward the mansion.  But soon the others hear him calling for help — and arrive just in time to see Tommy attacked by a giant bat!

Now it’s a big story —  the Daily Register is running banner headlines about the “Devil Bat” — but Layton’s editor isn’t satisfied.  They need a picture of the bat, and Layton gets an idea: One-Shot can get the local taxidermist to create a fake Devil Bat, take a picture of it, and fool the editor.  Unfortunately, a “Made In Japan”  tag gives away the ruse, and both Layton and One-Shot are fired.  Now they have two tasks: find out the truth about the Devil Bat, and find a way to get their old jobs back….

Comments: Bela Lugosi really shines in this silly but effective programmer. In fact, the only thing wrong with The Devil Bat is that the movie keeps cutting away from Lugosi’s Dr. Carruthers, forcing us to mark time with Johnny Layton and his dimwit sidekick One-Shot.

I guess we can’t blame Layton and One-Shot too much — the movie needs to hew to the conventions of mad-scientist cinema, ca. 1940, in that no matter how colorful the scientist is, he can’t be the protagonist, and he can’t win. Another rule from that era: the scientist must be ironically destroyed by his own creation. The Devil Bat delivers that stock ending as well.

A third rule: newspaper reporters make great protagonists, because they can provide their own comic relief. Dave O’Brien played reporter Layton, well enough one supposes, considering what a thankless task this sort of role was. As an actor, he’s nothing to write home about, but in fact O’Brien did go on to have quite a successful career as a comedy writer, eventually working his way up to head writer position on The Red Skelton Comedy Hour.

As though not trusting that Johnny Layton is quite funny enough, The Devil Bat gives us an Odious Comic Relief character in the form of inexplicably employed newspaper photographer One-Shot McGuire. One-Shot was played by Donald Kerr, a durable if undistinguished screen actor, perhaps best known as Happy Hapgood in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. By the time he turned up in this one his career was on the downhill side. But considering this is One-Shot McGuire he’s playing, we expect nothing else.




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