—A Campy Blast—
Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Vincent Sherman
When reporter Walter Garrett (Wayne Morris) stumbles across the body of a murdered actress and calls the police, he soon finds himself in hot water after the body disappears and he’s accused of making a false report. Later, when the dead actress shows up alive, Garrett loses his reporting job and teams up with a doctor (Dennis Morgan) to investigate a series of mysterious deaths that involve a mad scientist (John Litel) and his undead assistant (Humphrey Bogart).
What I Thought
I don’t know what else to say except I absolutely loved this film. I had heard and read so much about it over the years (it’s terrible camp, the script is awful, Humphrey Bogart hated it, he was forced into the role by the studio, it’s unwatchable, etc. . .) that I might have over-prepared myself to dislike this movie.
I’m not a huge fan of films that are considered “so-bad-they’re-good.” It might get me a lot of hate email to write this, but I went to showings of Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Rocky Horror Picture Show in college and I left disappointed both times. What was the big deal? How can someone watch and rewatch movies that are so bad? If I’m going to spend a large portion of my time at the cinema, I’d much rather see something good!
I think the difference with The Return of Doctor X is the fact that this is a horrible movie that’s actually directed very well. Vincent Sherman’s first film as a director, The Return of Doctor X is a fast paced one hour and two minutes of well shot silliness. The cinematography is great, the actors are committed, and the production value is high.
The only real problem with this film is the script . . . and yes, I realize that a terrible script is a pretty big problem to have. But it’s terrible in a slap-your-forehead-funny kind of way.
Dr. Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) wants to help reporter Walter Garrett (Wayne Morris) investigate the murders, but he has a date with a nurse (Rosemary Lane)! He can’t cancel the date because that would be impolite, so what does he decide to do? Bring her along, of course! Even though bringing her along means that all she does is sit in the car until one a.m. and then go home, but it’s better than letting the poor woman sit at home alone, right?
Then there’s the moment that reporter Garrett convinces Dr. Rhodes that he should help him investigate the possible resurrection of a mad scientist. They need to run over to the cemetery to see if Humphrey Bogart’s Dr. X is really dead. (Don’t worry, Garrett has a friend who’s a caretaker at the cemetery and he’ll apparently let them dig up any body that they want, no questions asked – cause, you know, reporters should be able to do that kind of thing.) The whole conversation is this simple:
Garrett: The burial took place at Greenlawn Cemetary. Okay, let’s go out to the cemetery and find out tonight.
Dr. Rhodes: (SHRUGGING NONCHALANTLY, AS IF JUST ASKED OUT FOR COFFEE) All right.
No argument. No conversation. No exclamations or questions of, “Are you mad man? Digging up corpses in the middle of the night? You’re a reporter and I’m a respected surgeon! What are you thinking?!?” Just a simple, “Yeah, you betcha. Let’s go!”
And, of course, there’s the final gun fight, where the police apparently deem it appropriate to give guns to a doctor and a reporter that they were ready to arrest only moments before. Every hand in a gun fight helps, right?
Plus, we get lines like:
Garrett: (ON THE PHONE, REPORTING THE INITIAL MURDER) There’s nobody here except a monkey, and he couldn’t have done it!
Exactly why does a retired actress have a pet monkey? It’s not explained, and apparently doesn’t need to be. That’s just what retired actresses do. (I’m guessing there was a monkey on the studio lot that day and director Sherman figured, Aw, what the heck, why not?)
Then there’s Dr. Flegg discussing his undead assistant, Quesne (pronounced “Cane”):
Flegg: (WISTFULLY) His interest in blood almost equals my own.
This seems like a perfectly acceptable thing to say when you’re in a conversation with another doctor, as Rhodes doesn’t respond with, “That’s the creepiest doggone thing I’ve ever heard! What’s up with that forked goatee and the weirdly suspended monocle?”
Do you know what this film reminds me of? One of those standalone episodes of The X-Files where the humor was intentional and dark, and the series took a moment to satirize itself. (It even has an obsessed investigator teamed up with a skeptical doctor!) The Return of Doctor X, after more than seventy years, came off to me more like a self-aware spoof of a mad scientist horror movie than a film trying to take its genre seriously. While this may not have been the original intention, the film’s tone gives it a little more room to breathe within its own absurdity.
Director Vincent Sherman would also go on to direct Bogart again in All Through the Night in 1941, a comedy gangster film where Bogart fights the Nazis in New York. With the tone of that movie leaning so closely to spoofing gangster films, I have to wonder how much of The Return of Doctor X isn’t done with tongue firmly placed in cheek.
The Bogart Factor
Bogart may have hated this film, but you have to give him credit, he threw himself into the role. There’s no sense that he’s sleepwalking through his lines or dissatisfied with his character. The Return of Doctor X is another reason that I’ve come to deeply appreciate Bogart’s work ethic as an actor. Regardless of what role he plays, he always seems committed. If you’re going to force him to play an undead mad scientist, then he’s going to play an undead mad scientist!
I realize that I’m looking through the lens of someone who is a huge Bogart fan and that I’m seven decades removed from the film’s original theatrical release, but isn’t it great to see a Hollywood legend take a role like this? A zombie doctor! Is there anyone else of Bogart’s stature that even tried a character so outlandish? Stewart? Grant? Flynn? At most, they might have played a villain, but nothing close to sci-fi horror.
Check out his entrance in the film as he strokes a rabbit in full mad scientist gear, and greets Wayne Morris:
“Looking for something? Perhaps I can help you. . .”
Surely James Bond’s nemesis, Ernst Blofeld, was borrowed just a bit from Bogart’s Doctor X?
After not giving him much credit for his character in Kid Galahad, I was happy to see Wayne Morris do such a good job with his Wichita-hick-moved-to-the-big-city reporter Walter Garrett. Morris seems like a good natured guy in real life, and was an actual WWII war hero, so I’m happy to see him do good work here. He’s bumbling, affable, naïve, and just charming enough to make his character fun. If you want to read a little more about him, I’d suggest you check out a quick write up on the guy at Comet Over Hollywood here.
Dennis Morgan, as Dr. Michael Rhodes, comes off as the type of melodramatic physician that would fit perfectly into an afternoon soap opera, and I thought he was a great choice for the role. He’s able to deliver dialogue that has little or no motivation behind it in a believable and engaging way. I’d like to check out more of his filmography.
Rosemary Lane as Nurse Vance seems to have been a bit of a throwaway role – her character really only existing as a plot device.
John Litel as Dr. Flegg is good and appropriately creepy. It helps that they went all out on his character design – giving him a monocle (How does that thing stay in place???) and a strange, forked goatee.
Classic Bogie Moment
This character was so out of Bogart’s normal realm that I thought it was going to be tough to find a “Classic Bogie Moment,” but then we came to the film’s climactic gun fight. As you watch Doctor X attempt to shoot his way out of the cabin, just try and tell me that you’re not reminded of Duke Mantee’s final gunfight in The Petrified Forest! Bogart even uses the same physicality of holding his hands at his waist in both roles.
The Bottom Line
You need to make some good food, invite a bunch of classic film fans over, and have a good time with this movie. You could make a drinking game out of it, taking a swig every time Wayne Morris and Dennis Morgan look dramatically over their shoulders at one another, but you’d probably be dead from alcohol poisoning based on the last fifteen minutes of the movie alone.
For another fun write up on The Return of Doctor X, you should check out this post on Balladeer’s blog!
And for a great insight into some post-silent film stars who make an appearance in the film, check out this post by @moviessilently!