Talk about a bad rap! All right, The Return of Doctor X (1939) isn’t a fantastic movie; however, with a running time that's barely an hour, It’s perfectly fine. It certainly doesn’t deserve the reputation that precedes it. Ironically, the one feature of the film that is usually mentioned is the one that works the least for me: the appearance of Humphrey Bogart in his only genre film.
He plays Marshall Quesne, the creepy assistant to Dr. Francis Flagg (John Litel), whose true identity (spoiler alert) is that of Dr. Maurice Xavier, convicted child killer mysteriously resurrected after being put to death in the electric chair. With pasty makeup and a wide white streak running through his hair, Bogart looks suitably creepy. He seems so out of place, though, leaving no one clamoring for another appearance.
Maurice, by the way, is no relation to Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill) in Doctor X (1932.) The relationship of the two films reminds me of that between The Ape Man (1943) and Return of the Ape Man (1944), which is to say there is none. Even though Warner Bros. publicized it as a sequel, I have no problem accepting it because Dr. Xavier does indeed return… not from the other movie, but from the grave.
Like many so-called “horror films” of this era, The Return of Doctor X is more a crime thriller with just a hint of horror. Although I’ve seen it called a “vampire movie,” the explanation for a series of murders and resurrections is rooted firmly in science. Think about Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933); it’s a terrific film, but revolves largely around a newspaper reporter and her investigation.
Here, instead of the vivacious Glenda Farrell, we have Wayne Morris as Walter Garrett, a newspaper reporter fired when the subject of a story, an actress he finds murdered in her hotel room, turns out to be alive. He teams up with his doctor friend, Michael Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) to get to the bottom of it all. When blood samples from two similar murders don’t match, they visit Dr. Flagg and the real fun begins.
In the seminal publication, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, Denis Gifford wrote...
Of the major studios who ran their own “B” picture units, Warner Brothers-First National were quick off the mark with The Return of the Terror (1934), a rejig of the very first horror talkie. They used the same gimmick for The Return of Dr. X (1939), but Humphrey Bogart could hardly be considered a dead ringer for Lionel Atwill, even with a becoming white strip in his hair. The film itself seemed in need of a transfusion: it was shown in sepia.
Any sluggishness perceived by Gifford I would again attribute to Bogart’s lifeless performance.
In Monster & Horror Movies, Thomas G. Aylesworth wrote,,,
The only decent thing about the movie was Bogart’s makeup with its waxy features and white-streaked hair.
Again, I respectfully disagree. I think he’s the least decent thing about The Return of Doctor X. For me, it’s the very definition of a B-movie, and a great many B-movies are easy, breezy fun. Let me close by asking one thing. If the movie starred Karloff or Lugosi, do you think it would be such a despised film? Either one of them would add something... anything... that Bogart just can't.
Written by Lee Katz
Based on the short story by William J. Makin (The Doctor's Secret)
Directed by Vincent Sherman
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel
RT 62 min.
Released on Dec. 2, 1939
Home Video Warner Archive (DVD)
Denis Gifford, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies
1973, The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited
pp. 157, 161
Thomas G. Aylesworth, Monster & Horror Movies
1986, UK, W.H. Smith & Son Ltd.