Doctor X (film)

Doctor X

Doctor X One-Sheet
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Hal B. Wallis (uncredited)
Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited)
Written by Robert Tasker
& Earl Baldwin
Based on a play by
Howard W. Comstock
& Allen C. Miller
Starring Lionel Atwill
Fay Wray
Lee Tracy
Preston Foster
Music by Vitaphone Orchestra conducted by
Leo F. Forbstein
Cinematography Ray Rennahan
Edited by George Amy
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • August 3, 1932 (1932-08-03) (New York City)
Running time
76 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Doctor X is a 1932 American Pre-Code horror/mystery film, produced jointly by First National and Warner Bros. Based on the play originally titled The Terror (New York, February 9, 1931) by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller,[1] it was directed by Michael Curtiz and stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Lee Tracy.

The film was produced before the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced. Themes such as murder, rape, cannibalism and prostitution are interwoven into the story. The film was one of the last films made, along with Warner Bros' Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), in the two-color Technicolor process. Black and white prints were shipped to small towns and to foreign markets, while color prints were reserved for major cities.[2]


Reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is investigating a series of pathological murders that have taken place over a series of months in New York City. The murders always take place at night, under the light of a full moon (the newspapers dubbing them the "Moon Killer Murders"). Furthermore, each body has been cannibalized after the murder has taken place. Witnesses to the events describe a horribly disfigured "monster" as the killer.

Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) is called in for his medical opinion, but it is learned through meeting with the police that the ulterior motive behind this is to begin an investigation of Xavier's medical academy, as the scalpel used to cannibalize the bodies of the victims was exclusive to that institution. Aside from Xavier, the other suspects are: Wells (Preston Foster), an amputee who has made a study of cannibalism; Haines (John Wray), who displays a sexual perversion with voyeurism; Duke (Harry Beresford), a grouchy loudmouth cripple; and Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), who is conducting studies of the psychological effects of the moon (Rowitz also displays a notable scar on one side of his face). It is learned that Haines and Rowitz were stranded in a boat with another man, and that while they claimed he had died and they had thrown him overboard, it was suspected that they had, in fact, cannibalized him.

The police give Xavier 48 hours to apprehend the killer in his own way. During this time, Taylor investigates the doctor's intentions and in the process, meets Joan Xavier (Fay Wray), the doctor's daughter. Joan is exceedingly cold to Taylor, particularly after finding out that it was his story that pointed a finger at her father and ruined his first attempt at locating the killer. Taylor, however, manages to find a romantic interest in Joan before being escorted out. He is then walking out of the house as the maid dumps ice water on him.

The setting switches to Xavier's beach-side estate on Long Island. There, all of the suspects are brought in for an unorthodox examination of their guilt: each member (excluding Wells, because it is known that the killer has two hands and he has but one) is connected to an electrical system that records their heart rate. When a re-enactment of the murder of a cleaning woman appears before them, the detector will expose the guilty man who will have no choice but to confess. Dr. Xavier's butler and maid, Otto (George Rosener) and Mamie (Leila Bennett), carry out the reenactment.

Things go awry, however, when a number of events inhibit the experiment. First, Taylor breaks into the home and hides in a storage closet, but is rendered unconscious by gas that the killer puts in the room. During the experiment, a blackout occurs. Wells, in another room controlling the equipment, appears to fall through a glass door. When power is regained, it is discovered that Rowitz, whose monitor supposedly revealed him as the guilty party just before the blackout, has been murdered, a victim of a scalpel to the base of the brain.

Taylor is discovered by the staff and Xavier has no choice but to keep him there until the investigation is over, lest he report back to his paper. Joan decides to be friendly to Taylor, as she sees that he is the only one with enough intuition to solve the crime. Later that night, it is discovered that during these hours, Rowitz's body has been cannibalized.

The following evening, the police allow Xavier an extension till midnight to apprehend the killer. Xavier again asks Otto and Mamie to re-enact another of the murders. Mamie is too frightened and ill to play her part, so Joan takes Mamie's place. All of the men, save for Wells, are this time handcuffed to their seats. It is during this that we find out that it is, in fact, Wells who is the killer. As his "guests" are all handcuffed and helpless, he is free to explain. Through a "synthetic flesh" composition that he himself has created, Wells has been creating artificial limbs and a horrific mask to carry out his crimes in order to collect living samples of human flesh for his experiments. It turns out at first for years he had been searching for a secret manufactured flesh and eventually finds it; so, he went to Africa one time, not to study cannibalism, but to get samples of the human flesh the natives eat. To collect his final victim, Wells sneaks up on Otto and strangles him. Then, he proceeds to reveal himself and his intentions for collecting Joan as his specimen in front of everyone.

Just as Wells is about to strangle Joan, Taylor — posing as one of a series of wax figures representing the killer's victims — jumps Wells and the two men get into a scuffle. As Wells lunges towards Taylor, Taylor grabs a kerosene lamp and hurls it at Wells. Set on fire, Wells stumbles and crashes out a window and falls down a cliff into the ocean. Reporting his story into the paper, Taylor tells his editor to make space in the marriage section for Joan and himself.



The film was the second Warner Bros. feature film to be filmed in the improved Technicolor process which removed grain and improved both the color and clarity of the film. This improved process had first been used on The Runaround (1931) and resulted in an attempt at a color revival by the studios late in 1931. Owing to public apathy, however, the studios quickly retreated from their ambitious plans for color films, late in 1932.

During production, an alternative black-and-white version was shot and still exists, although side-by-side comparison shows that most takes between the two are the same. Differences in takes are minor, such as Tracy's ad lib with a skeleton in the closet, and Mae Busch's dialogue as a madam at a brothel. The black-and-white version was offered to exhibitors (much to Technicolor's dismay) as an alternative on the initial release of the film.

The film also falls into the "pre-Code" era of film making, and carries adult themes throughout. The situations of cannibalism and rape, although not unheard of, were rare and considered perverse in 1932; these topics that were not commonly explored in motion pictures at that point.

Following the success of Doctor X at the box office, Warner Bros. followed up with Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which also starred Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill directed by Curtiz. Mystery was again shot in early Technicolor, another film to try to complete Warner Bros.' contract with them. Technicolor made sure there were no black-and-white cameras on the set of Mystery and ultimately, the film became the last 2-color Technicolor feature released by a major studio. Both Doctor X and Mystery had their sets designed by Anton Grot. The makeup was designed by Max Factor, who at that point had been associated with beauty makeup. Mystery of the Wax Museum also shared Factor's horror makeup design.

Doctor X was the first of three Curtiz films with Lionel Atwill. Besides this film and Mystery of the Wax Museum Atwill also collaborated with Curtiz on the 1935 Errol Flynn adventure film Captain Blood. Doctor X was also the first of three films that co-starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Afterward, they both starred in The Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat.


Time said "Doctor X is a routine nightmare [...] and is intended for avid patrons of synthetic horror rather than for normal cinemaddicts."[3] Nonetheless, Doctor X was well received both by critics and at the box office. In fact, because of the popularity of the film, Warner Bros. followed up with Mystery of the Wax Museum. NOTE: The Return of Doctor X (1939) is not a sequel.


By the late 1950s, when the film was included in a package of older films syndicated to television,[4] the Technicolor version was thought to be lost. No print could be found, and Technicolor had discarded most of their two-color negatives on December 28, 1948.

After the death of Jack L. Warner on September 9, 1978, a print was discovered in his personal collection. It was copied to safety film for preservation, distribution to revival theaters, and transfer to video. The original nitrate film print was donated to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which on very rare occasions has allowed it to be screened publicly at properly equipped and licensed facilities.[5][6]

In popular culture

See also


  1. Doctor X (original Broadway play, produced at the Hudson Theatre; February 1931-April 1931, 80 performances),; retrieved September 23, 2014.
  2. Doctor X: Detail View,; accessed July 26, 2015.
  3. "Cinema: The New Pictures: Aug. 15, 1932" -- Time
  4. "Media History Digital Library".
  5. Honeybone, Nigel (March 23, 2014). "Film Review: Doctor X (1932)". Retrieved April 5, 2014.
  6. Dean, Brandy (June 10, 2013). "Review: Doctor X (1932)". Retrieved April 5, 2014.

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