Friday, 17 March 2017
THE STRANGE CASE OF DR RX (1942)
In April 1942, Universal presented the public with a curate’s egg in the cracked shape of The Strange Case of Dr RX. It was a sleuthy, light-hearted horror film whose comedy doesn’t always sit comfortably, and saves any scant horror flavour till the last few minutes where it is shoe-horned in as if from a different film. The most disappointing aspect though is the fooling of the public using posters that promised another mad scientist role from Lionel Atwill - the original Dr X in Warner Brothers’ 1932 feature. In that film, his part was a red herring that distracted us from the real murderer but his was a lead role. Here, he only sporadically pops in and out to unsubtly suggest his involvement before the laughably rushed denouement. (This under-utilization of his talent by the studio also occurred later in the year with The Night Monster (see review 13/3/2017).
Clarence Upson Young wrote both screenplays and here introduces his signature style of lazy and preposterous exposition, only squeaking by due to the facetious comedy tone. It didn’t help that Dr Rx went into production with an unfinished script, so the actors improvised much of their dialogue to augment the non-sense on offer. Director William Nigh had established he could steer a ship of awfulness with Boris Karloff in 1940’s The Ape and later with Bela Lugosi in Black Dragons (see 9/1/2017 and 1/3/2017 respectively).
The wastage in Dr Rx isn’t just restricted to Atwill – the cast on the whole are better than the material offered here, something we can struggle to claim with Poverty Row efforts. Patric Knowles who we last saw as the fiancé in The Wolf Man (1941) is here given more elbow room as a light leading man, private eye Jerry Church returning from a year in South America to a murder mystery. He’s clearly good at his job as he can somehow afford the type of ritzy, well-appointed apartment normally only seen in high society movies.
Even more improbably, Church has his own valet, Horatio B. Fitz Washington. On the plus side, he is played by Manton Moreland, the black actor who would single-handedly enliven King of the Zombies (1941) the following month. The bad news is that despite the grand character name, he’s required to demean himself to being a saucer-eyed, dim-witted submissive. This is an enduring shame as his comic timing is excellent. Here, what passes for an added dimension is that he has a terrible memory which he tries to compensate for by a system of linked images that merely side-track him. When he gets a message to pick Church up from the airport, he processes it as “Church – airport – airplanes – clouds – birds – nest –eggs – breakfast”. On being woken up by his long-suffering boss having to make his own way home, he apologises: “I was slightly negligee”.
The other exponent of comic chops who labours in the salt mines here is former Stooge Shemp Howard, he of the lovable pugilist mug who resembled his brother Moe so closely. He is the cop sidekick to the rakishly-moustached Det. Capt. Bill Hurd (Edmund MacDonald, an uncredited anarchic miner in 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns). As Church’s old partner on the force, Hurd is desperate for Church to postpone his planned Boston retirement and solve the case of Dr Rx, a vigilante murderer who has so far killed five hardened criminals that were acquitted by the justice system. The case-readjuster leaves a card teasing the police with his surname and the victim number.
Judge Crispin also implores Church to help him. He fears being on the list as the presiding judge forced to let three of these reprobates go free. Crispin is another in Harvard alumni Samuel S. Hinds’s gallery of erudite portrayals of gravity following his kindly Dr Lawrence in Man Made Monster (1941), He would dispense the law again in Son of Dracula (1943) before achieving screen immortality as Pa Bailey in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life. His offer of $10,000 initially makes no difference to Church (well it wouldn’t considering the Art Deco splendour in which he lives).
For love interest there is Kit (the stunning Anne Gwynne) who appears to be Church’s girlfriend for a large chunk of the film and then is revealed to have been married to him while abroad. This is one of the many shoddy story details that Young blithely drives past us on his way over the cliff of quality. Her horror roles took in The Black Cat (1940) and Black Friday (1940) and later 1944’s House of Frankenstein. She does her own investigation into the case that increasingly embroils her husband, and wishes she hadn’t when she sees the white-haired catatonic that fear of Dr Rx has made of a previous private dick.
It seems that no-one is safe from the tendrils of Dr Rx. Even in the court-room he still causes the death of his next target, gangster Tony Zarini (Matty Fain) just after he is acquitted. He is not allowed to enjoy his freedom; just after taking a medicinal powder, he keels over dead from apparent poisoning. Atwill, wearing inscrutable coke-bottle glasses, looks on impassively. He may as well shroud his face with a cloak and chuckle “Mwaw hah ha ha” for all the attempted ambiguity on display.
What qualifies as a strange case indeed is the sudden temporary shift in tone in the last ten minutes. Church and Horatio are forced at gunpoint to drive the Elephant Man- hooded, sinisterly rasping Dr Rx to a secret location. After evading their cop pals in a car chase, the plot makes a sharp left turn toward serious horror whereby Church is strapped to a gurney in a laboratory and told introduced to the Dr’s gorilla who is imprisoned behind bars: “He is very stupid but he will be very smart…and you will be…not so smart” ad-libs the Doctor badly with Atwill’s voice. There is a stark image of genuine unpleasantness to end the scene in how the Dr. forces Horatio’s eyelids to remain open as he watches the impending operational terror, albeit involving a man in a monkey suit. The inhabitant of said suit was Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan, the enterprising athlete who went from fitness trainer to the stars to science-fiction roles, most famously as It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), helped by being the owner of his own gorilla costume.
Just as perplexingly we are then thrust back into the relative safety of the real world where we learn that poor Church was found wandering down by the waterfront and is now a white-haired hospital convalescent. The police bring in Atwill, now named Dr Fish, to give his medical opinion. As he takes out his notebook, surely now he will incriminate himself by making witnessed notes in the same handwriting as the killer? But no, it was all a ruse to unmask the real murderer – Judge Crispin! By comparison with this denouement, Scooby Doo’s revelations seem sophisticated as the unfortunate Atwill, in on the plan, has to administer us the foul-tasting medicine pill of Crispin’s motivation. He was an egomaniac who wanted to mesmerise the jury with the brilliance of securing each gangsters’ freedom just so he could then single-handedly bump them off. There is a laughable irony in a man having persuasive brilliance in a court-room yet leaving none to explain his own loopy logic. As for what happened to Church in Crispin’s basement dungeon, he is at a loss: “Suddenly the lights went out”. We share his confusion – not helped by the bizarre epilogue of Horatio answering the door to the happy couple with his own white hair and insane giggle for no reason.
Sadly for Lionel Atwill, he could not escape the ruinous odour of a real-life court case he was implicated in. Soon after the release of the film, on July 1st , he was indicted for perjury in the unsavoury Sylvia Hamalaine scandal (see my Lionel Atwill article), and from here onwards he would be ill-served by a hypocritical industry who would exploit some measure from his name value while he spiralled downward to an untimely death.