Saturday, January 12, 1974: The Strange Case of Dr. Rx (1942) / She-Wolf of London (1946)

Synopsis: A mysterious vigilante called Dr. Rx is killing mobsters and murderers who escape justice via the jury system. Due to the intervention of this sinister character, acquitted men end up strangled, with notes pinned to their chests signed “Dr. Rx”. and bearing a number — a running tally of his victims. The police have been unable to stop the killings, in spite of elaborate precautions.

Detective Jerry Church (Patric Knowles), just returned from South America, gets a lucrative offer from prominent defense attorney Dudley Crispin (Samuel S. Hinds), who is fearful that his own client will be Dr. Rx’s next victim. Crispin’s offer is “$10,000 to take the case and $10,000 to crack it.” This, of course, was real money in 1942; nevertheless, Church turns it down.

But after he stumbles upon an intriguing clue, and receives a personal appeal from his old friend, police detective Bill Hurd (Edmund MacDonald), Church decides to take the case after all. Along the way he is reunited with Kit Logan (Anne Gwynne), an old flame, and the two impulsively get married.

Church starts receiving death threats, presumably from Dr. Rx, and after seeing how upset Kit is as a result, Crispin reluctantly advises Jerry to drop the case. Church, believing his responsibilities as a married man must take precedence, agrees. But local mobster Ernie Paul (John Gallaudet) wants Church to stay on, and after satisfying himself that Paul isn’t Dr. Rx (as the police inexplicably suspect) Church agrees to this too.

Due to the careless driving of Shemp Howard (yes, Shemp Howard), Church gets kidnapped by Dr. Rx and taken to his secret lab, where he announces his plan to swap Church’s brain with that of a gorilla….

Comments: The notation “Rx” was once a common sight throughout the United States, but its use has been on the decline for decades, and I’m not sure how familiar it would be to anyone under 30. For the benefit of my younger readers (assuming I have any), I’ll try to explain. “Rx” is medical shorthand for “recipe”, the old-timey name for a prescription. Drug stores used to prominently display the “Rx” logo (often with a symbolic mortar and pestle) to indicate that prescriptions were filled on site. In the early 20th century, most prescriptions were “compounded” at the pharmacy, meaning the pharmacist mixed the raw chemicals by hand to make the drugs based on the prescription the doctor had given them.

So why does the mysterious doctor who is murdering acquitted mobsters use the Rx symbol in tonight’s movie? It’s never explained. Maybe because crime is the disease and this vigilante (presumably with eight years of medical school) is the cure?

Well, maybe not — that sounds a little corny. So is “Dr. Rx” a play on “Dr. X”, the enigmatic medico from Universal’s hit movie a decade earlier? That seems more likely, though there’s no way for us to know for sure.

What seems certain is that this modest programmer was written and produced very quickly. Its best acting talents (Lionel Atwill and Anne Gwynne) are squandered in favor of stuffed-shirt Patric Knowles and his dismal sidekick Mantan Moreland (apparently on some horrible work-release program from the Charlie Chan pictures). Its attempts at humor are dreary, its horror elements tacked on at the last minute, and its rom-com subplot completely exhausted.

As romantic leads, Knowles and Gwynne have about as much screen chemistry as a pair of cinder blocks. The endless appeals to Jerry Church (Take the case! Drop the case! Take the case!) apparently serve no purpose other than padding out the movie’s brief running time. The mad-scientist-in-his-laboratory bit is a welcome touch of the macabre, but comes too late to make any real difference and turns out to be what everything else in this picture is: a red herring.

Even when we cede that Dr. Rx’s entire scheme is idiotic, his plan to swap Jerry’s brain with the brain of a gorilla is absurd on its face — it goes entirely against everything we’ve seen from him so far. Moreover, the only effect it would likely have on Church would be to make him a better detective.

The movie clocks in at a brisk 66 minutes, but it felt like three hours, and by the end of it I was wishing someone would swap my brain with a gorilla’s, just so that I could say something interesting happened while I was watching The Strange Case of Dr. Rx.

She Wolf of London

Synopsis: Young Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing for her marriage to attorney Barry Lanfield (Don Porter). Barry is the perfect candidate for marriage: handsome, patient, understanding, and (last but not least) wealthy. But Phyllis is deeply troubled, because a bizarre series of murders has been taking place in the park near the Allenby estate. The method of the killings suggest an animal attack, and Phyllis mutters fearfully about a return of the “Allenby Curse”.

Meanwhile, Phyllis’ cousin Carol Winthrop (Jan Wiley) is caught by her mother, Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden) trying to send a letter to a boyfriend across town. Martha warns Carol that she can never have anything to do with young Dwight Severn (Martin Kosleck), reminding her that Dwight is penniless. She reveals something that no one else seems to know — that neither she nor Carol is related by blood to Phyllis Allenby. Martha has been the family housekeeper for decades and it is now taken on faith that she and Carol are members of the family.

Now that Phyllis is the sole remaining heir of the Allenby estate, Martha and Carol are in a precarious position, at risk of losing everything — if Phyllis marries. But if Carol were to marry Lanfield instead, matters would improve considerably for both Carol and Martha.

Unorthodox Detective Latham of Scotland Yard is convinced that the park murders are the work of a werewolf, a theory rejected by hidebound Inspector Pierce (Dennis Hoey). In fact, the only person who seems to buy into the werewolf theory is Phyllis herself, who explains to Aunt Martha that the Allenby Curse dooms members of her family to turn into ravenous wolves, an affliction for which there is no cure.

Aunt Martha tries to convince Phyllis that it’s all in her head, but Phyllis knows that each morning her slippers are caked with mud, her dress sodden and torn, and her hands covered with blood.

Fearful of the creature that she has become, she breaks off her engagement with Barry. But Barry refuses to believe in the curse, or in Phyllis’ guilt, and he is determined to unmask the real she-wolf of London….

Comments: Well, here I was, all revved up to write at length about the psychosexual implications of a young, repressed Victorian woman turning into a feral wolf as the date of her wedding approached. But no. This movie slapped my hand like a buttoned-up schoolmarm.

She-Wolf Of London is often cited as the last in Universal’s cycle of werewolf movies from the 1940s. But that’s misleading. It isn’t really a werewolf movie at all.

Rather, it’s an apparent attempt to cash in on two popular movies that had come out earlier in the decade: Gaslight (1943), starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and Cat People (1942), starring Simone Simon.

She-Wolf of London never captures the air of psychological menace that the former achieved, nor does it manage to build the self-contained world of dread found in the latter.

And it’s too quickly churned out to offer director Jean Yarborough many opportunities for artiness or psychological complexity (although near the climax we’re treated to a couple of arch camera angles, which stand out only because the balance of shots are so spare and unimaginative).

But what you ought to remember is a very young June Lockhart in the leading role. She was 20 when she starred in this picture, still more than a decade away from appearing as Timmy’s mom in that curiously oedipal TV show Lassie.

Lockhart isn’t particularly good here — frankly, no one is — but that seems more the result of a rushed shooting schedule than anything else. She claimed in interviews that she employed a British accent in the role of Phyllis, but if she did I can’t detect it. To be fair, most of the other cast members clearly don’t try for an accent at all. And Lockhart does have an open, expressive look that sets her apart from other leading ladies of the time.

Also of note is the set for the Allenby estate itself — Universal’s frequently-used mansion set, which was used in countless movies, many of which we’ve seen on Horror Incorporated.


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