Rainbow Fright


Another Holy Grail title I’d thought I’d never see, a correctly-hued edition of Michael Curtiz’s frightening 1932 two-strip Technicolor classic, DOCTOR X, creeps magnificently onto 1080p High Definition Blu-Ray (thanks to the folks at The Warner Archive Collection, along with a crypt-load of movie historians and film restoration experts, comprising the UCLA Library, The Film Foundation and the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation).

Back in the early 1970s, I was delighted when it was reported that DOCTOR X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, two pre-Code horrors, directed by Michael Curtiz and costarring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, had been discovered in Jack Warner’s private collection.  True, each had been available for years in black and white; but this was a prize package:  35MM nitrate two-strip Technicolor prints.  We movie and horror fans had heard of these versions, but never thought we’d actually see them.

My delight soon turned to “feh,” when quickly-made Eastman color slop prints were run off for TV distribution (I missed the actual 35MM screenings at MoMA).  They looked like monochrome with a Winky Dink screen over them.  “Oh, well,” I thought with great disappointment.

CRI improvements and genuinely dedicated movie archeologists remedied this slightly with the advent of DVD, aided when all the old Warners product, “curated” by MGM/UA, reverted back to its rightful owners.  The Burbank studio did everyone proud – giving us the beautiful home vid platters (and TCM presentations) we now cherish.  Big YAY!

Still, my general take on the two Technicolor horror pics was:  Wax Museum noted and corrected the difficulties of shooting in color that made DOCTOR X such an unmemorable Technicolor experience.  LSS, the latter way outshined the former.  As is often the case, I was wrong.  A gorgeous restoration of Wax Museum surfaced on Blu-Ray in 2020.  Too bad nothing could be done about the latter (I thought).  Hold on to your hats, folks.  The new DOCTOR X Blu-Ray will knock your socks off.  It’s simply stunning – a perfect example of HOW to film a horror movie in color.  It quite possibly now may be the best two-strip I’ve ever seen.  You read right – it actually blows away Wax Museum (which, as noted, looks terrific).  The rich ghoulish greens and crimson reds are jaw-dropping.  And all the available hybrids in-between are amazing as well.  The most marked improvements are the flesh tones – no more orange-tinged.  They often look real.  And the washed out backgrounds are lush with color – the spliced jump cut reel changes and dirt and emulsion scratches gone!  This was obviously a labor of love, and dudes such as Scott MacQueen (head of preservation at the UCLA Film & Television Archive) must be given their due.  This was a mammoth undertaking and the results will forever change the way anyone has judged the early Technicolor process (it makes sense, Herbert Kalmus and the Technicolor Company were constantly striving for upgrades; DOCTOR  X utilized the then-new single film print (Process #3), rather than pasting red and green emulsions together (all while they were concurrently working on three-strip imbibition).  Translation:  Ray Rennahan’s innovative use of lighting and color, combined with Michael Curtiz’s stylish and taut direction is a Technicolor win/win!

The movie, which I always liked (even with the typical wise-guy Warners snarky reporter as the hero) nevertheless always seemed a bit murky – as if the studio, not known for the genre, really didn’t care.  Not so.  This is a carefully plotted “A” title, obviously looking not-so-hot in black and white – the only way I could watch it during my childhood.

DOCTOR X, like so many Warners movies of the era, is a New York picture, opening on a fog-enshrouded night on Mott Street.  Another victim of the Moon Killer has been found.  The bodies have not just had the throats ripped out – there are definite signs of cannibalism.

Tabloid maestro Lee Taylor is determined to get to the bottom of these killings – even if he is creeped out by the surroundings…and the suspects.  All clues seem to lead to a university cartel of professors, led by Dr. Xavier.  On hiatus, during the school recess, these men use their time for research – almost exclusively concentrating on cannibal rites and organ transplants.  This crew, as Taylor rightly assumes, are rather macabre, starting with Xavier  himself,  then young, deformed amputee Dr. Wells, crippled Satanic-resembling Dr. Haines (casting a Devil silhouette shadow), and others.  At least half of the doctors have been involved in cannibalistic rituals which doesn’t help salve the police investigations, Xavier’s striving for innocence, or Taylor’s suspicions.  For Lee, that all changes when he spies Xavier’s  beautiful daughter Joanne, who, at first has an oil-and-water response to the reporter, then becomes attracted to him.  Won’t give away the goosebump-raising climax, save with the words “synthetic flesh!”

Major fright sequences (including hideous makeup, courtesy of Max Factor) highlight this excursion into monster mania – the result actually being far more terrifying than anything in Universal’s Dracula or Frankenstein, the success of which spurred DOCTOR  X into production.  The excellent actor Lee Tracy effortlessly glides through the proceedings, along with pros Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, and a wonderful supporting cast, including Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Robert Warwick, Leila Bennett, George Rosener, Willard Robertson, Thomas E. Jackson, Tom Dugan, Louise Beavers, and Selmer Jackson.  The script by Robert Trasker, Earl Baldwin, and costar Rosener (from a play by Howard Warren Comstock and Allen C. Miller) shows you how far a pre-Code horror pic could go – not only with gore and shock (of which there is plenty), but with some risqué dialog, and even a sequence in a Lower East Side whorehouse (with Mae Busch as a Madam, her only appearance in color!).

DOCTOR  X in color played only a scant few houses around the country (color was rather expensive, and Warners, who had initially embraced the process, was now trying to veer away from it); most theaters played it in black and white.  And here’s another falsity.  It was assumed that the monochrome prints were mere strike-offs from the color neg.  Nope.  The black and white version was actually a separately simultaneously-shot film with several scenes utilizing different angles, compositions and dialog (of course, the color X is “the” edition to see).  To prove the point, the B&W DOCTOR X is also included as a supplement for comparison.  With early Technicolor relegated to limited runs, sometimes of only 30, 50, 80, 100 prints (depending on the production), as opposed to the later general rule for a major studio wide release of as many as 1500 prints for a top title, it’s astounding that ANY two-strip survives!

Other wonderful extras in this package encompass a featurette on the horror flicks of Michael Curtiz, a UCLA before and after restoration reel (highly recommended), audio commentaries by Scott MacQueen and Curtiz author Alan K. Rode, and the theatrical trailer.

DOCTOR X, in restored two-strip Technicolor, is one of the finest discs in my collection.  Get your own copy and prove me wrong!  One more time: “synthetic flesh!”

DR. X. Color. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. CAT #B08YDNPHW8.   SRP: $17.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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