Doctor X (film)

Doctor X is a 1932 American pre-Code two-color Technicolor 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,[2] it was directed by Michael Curtiz and stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Lee Tracy.

Doctor X
Directed byMichael Curtiz
Produced byHal B. Wallis (uncredited)
Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited)
Written byRobert Tasker
& Earl Baldwin
Based onThe Terror
1931 play
by Howard W. Comstock
Allen C. Miller
StarringLionel Atwill
Fay Wray
Lee Tracy
Preston Foster
Music byVitaphone Orchestra conducted by
Leo F. Forbstein
CinematographyRay Rennahan
Edited byGeorge Amy
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • August 3, 1932 (1932-08-03) (New York City)
Running time
76 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$594,000[1]

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' near contemporary Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), in the early 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.[3]


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, and each body has been cannibalized after the murder. Witnesses describe a horribly disfigured "monster" as the killer.

Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) is called in for his medical opinion, but the police have an ulterior motive behind this: they wish to investigate Xavier's medical academy, as the scalpel used to cannibalize the bodies of the victims is 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 paralytic; and Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), who is conducting studies of the psychological effects of the moon.

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, takes a romantic interest in Joan.

At Xavier's beach-side estate, all of the suspects gather for an unorthodox experiment: 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 his heart rate. When a re-enactment of the murder of a cleaning woman appears before them, the detector will expose the guilty man. Dr. Xavier's butler and maid, Otto (George Rosener) and Mamie (Leila Bennett), carry out the reenactment.

During the experiment, a blackout occurs. 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 using a scalpel to the brain. Later that night, it is discovered that Rowitz's body has been cannibalized.

The following evening, Xavier asks Otto and Mamie to re-enact another of the murders. Mamie is too frightened to play her part, so Joan takes her 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. After strangling Otto, Wells reveals to his handcuffed "guests" that he has invented a "synthetic flesh" composition, and 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. Then, he declares his intention to collect Joan as his victim.

As Wells is about to strangle Joan, Taylor – concealed among a series of wax figures representing the killer's victims – jumps Wells. After an extended fight, Taylor grabs a kerosene lamp and hurls it at Wells, setting him on fire. Wells crashes through a window and falls, in flames, down a cliff to the ocean shore. 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, including the situations of cannibalism and rape.

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 magazine's reviewer wrote: "Doctor X is a routine nightmare [...] and is intended for avid patrons of synthetic horror rather than for normal cinemaddicts".[4] 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. Despite the title, The Return of Doctor X (1939) is not considered a sequel. However, the 1942 Universal horror movie Night Monster, which also co-stars Atwill as a doctor, has a similar plot and virtually the same denouement.

Box Office

According to Warner Bros the film earned $405,000 domestically and $189,000 foreign.[1]


By the late 1950s, when the film was included in a package of older films syndicated to television,[5] 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.[6][7]

In the musical play The Rocky Horror Show, and its movie adaptation, the opening song, "Science Fiction/Double Feature", references many classic movies and it does this one with the line: "Doctor X will build a creature."

See also


  1. Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 13 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  2. Doctor X (original Broadway play, produced at the Hudson Theatre; February 1931-April 1931, 80 performances),; retrieved September 23, 2014.
  3. Doctor X: Detail View,; accessed July 26, 2015.
  4. "Cinema: The New Pictures: Aug. 15, 1932" -- Time
  5. "Media History Digital Library".
  6. Honeybone, Nigel (March 23, 2014). "Film Review: Doctor X (1932)". Retrieved April 5, 2014.
  7. Dean, Brandy (June 10, 2013). "Review: Doctor X (1932)". Retrieved April 5, 2014.
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