FANTASIA OBSCURA: Humphrey Bogart as a Mad Scientist? Meet Doctor X

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, we find ourselves doing things in our jobs that are definitely not the stuff dreams are made of…

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Distributed by: Warner Brothers

Directed by: Vincent Sherman

When you go through a lot of genre films, some names keep popping up often. Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee; you could almost fill whole shelves of your video library solely with works containing any one of their output.

Some names do not show up that often, though, and may be a surprise on some level. Jodie Foster certainly comes to mind, as does Marilyn Monroe, Warren Beatty, and even John Lennon.

Probably the last person you’d expect to find in a genre picture would be Humphrey Bogart. And yet…

Oh hell!

Our film starts when Midwest-boy-in-the-Big-City and ambitious reporter Walter Garrett, aka “Wichita” (Wayne Morris) gets a phone call from stage star Angela Merrova (Lya Lys), who is willing to give the reporter an interview. We don’t have long enough to question how big a star she really is, as she made her own call as opposed to her PR person doing the press contact, but as this is only a 62 minute film and there’s a lot to cover, we can only just keep going.

Garrett gets to her place and stumbles on in to find her body there, drained of blood and with a deep cut in her torso. He calls the paper first to get the scoop before he calls the cops (?!?!?), then leaves the scene of the crime to meet the fuzz downstairs where he annoys Detective Kincaid (Charles Wilson) on sight, which we gather is his usual interactive state with him. However, the body is gone when they get there, and soon after that Merrova shows up at the paper demanding an apology. As part of their settlement, the paper asks Wichita to go back to Wichita, firing him.

Out of a job but not the game, Wichita turns to his pal, Doctor Michael Rhodes (Dennis Morgan), a brilliant doctor with questionable work practices, taking time to hit on student nurse Joan Vance (Rosemary Lane) right before a big operation. Wichita describes his experience, which Rhodes feels is impossible, although for the sake of due diligence he’s willing to speak to his mentor, Doctor Flegg (John Litel) about the matter, who also dismisses the story.

When Rhodes encounters a man whose death mirrors Merrova’s “condition,” though, he decides to check with Flegg again, seeing him at his personal practice, where he meets another doctor on the premises:

The man Bogie is playing is Doctor Quense (which is pronounced “Caine” and not at all related to that other guy…), who immediately creeps him out. Him and everyone else, except for Flegg, and even he’s not entirely easy around the guy sharing his space.

With sleuthing that makes what the Hardy Boys did look like an episode of Sherlock, Rhodes and Wichita sleuth out that Quense used to be known as Dr. Xavier (no, not that one), who had been sent to the electric chair a few years ago for murder, but whose body was claimed by Flegg while an empty coffin was buried. The two ultimately confront Flegg with their findings, who provides them with an explanation as to what’s going on:

The problem is, Flegg further reveals, that Quense/Xavier needs fresh blood to keep going, hence the murders, including Merrova’s. Twice, as Flegg brought her back, but our “DIY vampire” couldn’t keep from wanting seconds when he needed a drink, which puts poor Nurse Vance in a bad spot as the film rushes to its conclusion…

“Rush” is a good word to use to describe the film’s origin. As one of Warner’s B-card pictures, where the films are made on the cheap and in quantity to run as part of a double feature, this was not what you’d call a dream assignment for anyone involved. This was director Sherman’s first film, and it shows. This was an upgrade from being in the story department where he palled around with Bogie during off hours, and Sherman was assigned his ensemble by the studio as a package; the fact that no one died on set is probably the best thing you can say about his efforts.

As a contract player, Bogie didn’t have a lot of say in the matter. In fact, Richard Gehman in Bogart, his biography of the star, gets a quote from his subject as to how much he despised taking on the role:

“This is one of the pictures that made me march in to Jack Warner and ask for more money again. You can’t believe what this one was like. I had a part that somebody like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff should have played. I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner’s blood, or Harry’s, or Pop’s, maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.”

And yet, Bogart was a professional. This performance was no wild hammy shtick that he used as an excuse to flail about with; his role as written was as a depraved doctor who comes back from the dead to continue to work while drinking blood, and not for one second do you imagine he’s anything but that. In fact, were it not for history screaming at us and making us look closely at the man under the makeup, we’d be likely to buy the performance easily as one of the better depictions of a vampire (albeit an unusual one) to show up in a horror film.

Unfortunately, because this was a B film with second tier talent, the picture would likely be entirely forgotten had this accident of casting not happened. While we could easily see that Bogie had potential to do greater things (in two years, he’d be cast as the lead in The Maltese Falcon, and a year later achieve immortality in Casablanca), about the only bright light that showed potential was Morris, and as his career took a turn from films when he became a Naval ace during WWII, that never went anywhere. Like the five ships Morris sent to the bottom during the war, none of the principals on screen was ever really seen again, although bit players Huntz Hall and Glenn Langan would go on to do their own memorable leading roles.

As for Sherman, he did get better. He got in a few good films later on, including Adventures of Don Juan and The Young Philadelphians, before finding his place on television. He got some decent assignments there, including episodes of The Waltons, Baretta, and Trapper John, M.D.

As well as doing a made-for-TV biopic called Bogie, surprise, surprise…

NEXT TIME: If this is who we have defending our country, what’s the point of any of this security…?

About James Ryan 134 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…