Doctor X, the 1932 film by Michael Curtiz, is part of this year’s TCM Film Festival. The late-night entry into the festival’s schedule will play at 1:30 am ET on Friday May 7, 2021.
Set against the backdrop of an elite medical college, the film is based on a play titled The Terror, which premiered a year before the film’s release and involves a series of cannibalistic serial murders. When a reporter (Lee Tracy) gets wind that one of the college’s professors might be behind the killings, he’ll stop at nothing to get the story for his paper even when it puts him in danger, as well.
Tracey is joined in the cast by Fay Wray (King Kong), Lionel Atwill (Captain Blood), and Preston Foster (The Last Days of Pompeii).
It was an interesting time for filmmaking. The depression had hit the film industry–like the rest of the economy–hard. An estimated third of theaters were closed, and many turned to gimmicks in an effort to keep their doors open. Studios like Warner Bros., MGM, and Universal turned to horror films to generate audiences. Lucky for them, the formula worked, and that’s where Alan K. Rode says, director Michael Curtiz entered the picture.
Rode literally wrote the book on the director who would helm almost 200 films before his death. The exhaustive 700+ page biography, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Pictures, began with a commission and a suggestion from a friend as iHorror discovered when we sat down with the historian to discuss the film and its director ahead of the film festival.
“I was asked to write a book about a director by University Press of Kentucky,” Rode explained. “I like plowing new ground. I don’t think the world needs another book about Joan Crawford, for example, so I’m not going to write it. I had a couple of people in mind. Then my friend, the late Richard Erdman, said, ‘You know Mike discovered me. He discovered me right out of high school. You should write about Mike Curtiz.'”
And, that’s exactly what Rode did. What was supposed to be a two-year project became six years of research, travel, and writing to produce the book about Michael Curtiz. Naturally, when TCM decided to schedule Doctor X for its festival this year, they called up Rode to participate.
So how did the man who would eventually direct films like Casablanca and Mildred Pierce become involved with a horror film?
Naturally, due to the era, a lot of it had to do with the studio system. Rode points out that Curtiz was under contract with the Warners from 1926 to 1953. In a time when studios reigned supreme and got away with so many unethical things, Curtiz’s first contract read that “anything he did or thought of” while under contract with Warner Bros. belonged to the studio.
“I can’t think of any other run of a director that really was so responsible for the style and the output of any other studio,” Rode said. “But, at this period, he was still looking to find himself. The analogy I use in my book is that he was a general foreman in a movie factory. He was an important guy but they had a lot of other important directors at the time. He was doing whatever they told him to do. That was what he was about.”
What they told Curtiz to do in the early 30s was make a horror film. Jack Warner had a contract obligation to fulfill with Technicolor, and Project X with its “smart aleck reporters, tough editors, cops that were about as sensitive as commode lids, and Fay Wray” tied to a story about a cannibalistic serial killer fit the bill.
As with all of his projects, Curtiz threw himself entirely into the project in order to make the best film tahhatt he possibly could.
“He tried to imbue every artistic variance to make the film as best as he could,” he said. “Of course, that put him behind these very tight schedules and tight budgets. So, in the case of Doctor X, at one point, I think he worked the crew for a solid 24 hours on Sunday. They all collapsed.”
The super-hot, bright Technicolor lighting on the project did not help Curtiz either. At one point, the film’s star, Lionel Atwill, gave an interview in which he talked about his costume’s lab coat suddenly beginning to smoke as if it were ready to combust. During filming, the actors would often run off set as soon as the director called “cut.”
Still, for genre fans, the film boasts Fay Wray’s first big screen scream a year before King Kong, and is filled with an amazing amount of tension, thanks largely to Curtiz’s camera work and attention to detail especially in one pivotal scene in Xavier’s laboratory.
In trying to ferret out the killer, the doctor chains his fellows to chairs and forces them to watch a reenactment of one the Moon Killer’s crimes in an attempt to gauge their physical and emotional reactions. The scene is an incredible example of tension-building.
And when the cameras were too big to move much themselves, Curtiz would move the actors instead. It gave his films a momentum that carried them from one scene to the next and kept his audience on the edge of their seats.
You can see Curtiz’s work in Doctor X this Friday, May 7, 2021 at 1:30 AM ET as part of the TCM Film Festival complete with a short documentary featuring Alan K. Rode speaking about the horror films of Michael Curtiz in the early 1930s.