PRE-CODE HEAVEN: THE MAD GENIUS (1931), DOCTOR X (1932) AND MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) PLUS THE WALKING DEAD (1936)

The Mad Genius (1931), Doctor X (1932) and Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) are three atypical films from Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz. Better known for such classics as Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945), Curtiz was adept at practically every genre, including horror; although he only ventured there with this trio of pre-Coders and 1936’s Walking Dead (1936), starring .

Poster for The Mad Genius (1931)The Mad Genius stars “the Great Profile,” John Barrymore, and features a pre-Frankenstein (1931) Karloff in an uncredited bit part as an abusive Cossack father. It is a reworking of George du Marurier’s “Trilby” and the second 1931 Warner Brothers’ film featuring Barrymore as the mesmerist Svengali (the first was the more famous and successful Svengali, directed by Archie Mayo).

Here, Barrymore goes by the name Tsarakov, but he plays the same control freak, and gives a narcissistic performance.  He is a blatantly promiscuous puppeteer, awash in Freudian issues (transferring hatred of the ballerina mother who abandoned him to women dispatched by his weapon of choice: the casting couch).

In addition to his misogyny and disdain of religious conventions, Tsarakov is a manipulative coke dealer who controls his addicted customers by withholding supplies and forcing them into prostitution. Tsarakov gets his comeuppance when he falls in love with Nana (Marian Marsh, who was also the object of his unrequited affection in Svengali).

Only a few of Barrymore’s film capture his pristine stage presence, and this is not one of them. Wisely, Curtiz allowed Barrymore to give a performance which transcends the ham meter. The film is undeniably fascinating, aided considerably by the art deco sets (from hallucinatory art director Anton Grot) and Expressionistic lighting. The ballet numbers include a pompous finale with a pagan god that must have caused a few Legion of Decency heads to explode. The Mad Genius is an essential, curious artifact representing the era of pre-Code and deco.

Both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum co-star perennial bad boy and quintessential scream queen Fay Wray. Of course, Wray is best known for being subjected to “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” but the mighty Kong really had nothing on Atwill. The actor would scandalize Hollywood in 1940 with an orgy involving a sixteen-year-old girl. The infamous resulting trial which found the actor guilty of perjury in 1942 reduced him to bit parts forever after. Lionel didn’t go quite so far under Curtiz’s direction, but the Hayes Office storm troopers could hardly censor the gleam in his eyes as he leered over a half nude Wray.

Cannibalism, brought to you in the beauty of two-strip Technicolor! Doctor X is a fascinating, if flawed, entry from a year of great films (although initially released in 1932, it played well into 1933). It set the standard for the mad doctor genre with a bizarre, phantasmagorical monotone color scheme that is both surprising and intense. Unfortunately, that intensity is almost sabotaged by Curtiz’s directorial weaknesses. He lacks the much-needed wit that someone like would have given the film. Instead, Curtiz opts for moronic, hayseed “comedy relief” via Lee Tracy. That, too, set another (unfortunate) genre standard that would be followed by acts like Abbott and Costello.

After Lee (and we) nearly overdose on wisecrack reporting in the style of Jimmy Olson, Curtiz finally gets down to business in the last reel; and when he does, Doctor X kicks into surreal, -like terrain, with the Long Island serial killer making silly putty out of “synthetic flesh.”

In both the best and worst ways, Atwill’s performance is a curious relic. He echoes the heavy-handedness of the Expressionist sets, yet both give the film its Teutonic power and perverse charisma. This was the first of Wray’s scream queen roles. She gives us hints of things to come, trying out her lungs from her introduction on. Her eventual status as the classic cinematic ideal of the sacrificial victim is already in evidence. She’s simply at her most ravishing when being defiled.

A belated sequel-in-name-only arrived with 1939’s The Return Of Doctor X (dir. Vincent Sherman), which astoundingly cast Humphrey Bogart in the role of a vampire. Wisely, Bogie never included this one on his resume, and Curtiz was smart enough to stay the hell away from it.

Curtiz soon returned to the horror genre and, with a different set of writers, ironed out Doctor X‘s kinks with the ghastly pulp of Mystery of the Wax Museum. It is the first and best of numerous wax museum themed films to come out of Hollywood.

Because Mystery of the Wax Museum was lost for many years, most genre fans recall instead ‘s inferior 1953 House of Wax remake with . It was remade yet again in 2005 with (of all people) Paris Hilton, who almost managed to make a convincing argument for a return to the production code. Wax Museum was a considerable influence on a number of films that placed a demented artist (replacing the mad scientist) at their core, including ‘s A Bucket Of Blood (1959) and the too- bizarre-for-words train wreck Cauldron of Blood (1970).

Mystery Of The Wax Museum could only have been made in the pre-Code period. It is chock-full of taboos, including Wray utilizing her lungs again to prompt us to root for her, as she is back under the threat of forced deflowering. There’s also frank sexuality (for its time), drug addiction, and disconcerting  “cracks” about an abusive personality who murdered his wife.

Like Doctor X, Mystery Of the Wax Museum is filmed in the two-strip Technicolor process, giving it a delightfully demented hue. By now, the story is overly familiar. Atwill plays the sculptor Ivan Igor, who has a penchant for art inspired by history and mythology, but is saddled with the aptly named business partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell), whose disdain for art goes hand-in-hand with his sole concern of accumulating dyed green paper (finance trumping art is hardly exclusive to 21st century America. The difference is today Mr. Worth would be portrayed as a Donald Trump-like blowhard protagonist). Worth torches the wax museum, and Igor is mutilated in the ensuing inferno.

Twelve years later, Igor reemerges to open a new museum. Alas, he is wheelchair bound and, with hands now useless, is forced to create works through assistants, one of whom is Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent). The Jimmy Olson character is traded in for a Lois Lane girl reporter named Florence Dempsey; fortunately, the inimitable Glenda Farrell plays her.

Dempsey is hot on the trail of a juicy scoop suggesting that a recent suicide was, in fact, a murder victim, which leads her to the wax museum. Ralph’s fiancée Charlotte (Wray) happens to be Flo’s roommate and a dead ringer for Igor’s late Marie Antoinette wax figure.

Adding to the mystery are eight corpses recently gone missing from the morgue and a shadowy, hooded figure. Another assistant, Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Crewe) is the actual procurer of victims (both living and dead). Fortunately for the cops and Dempsey, he’s also a heroin addict. By withholding his fix, the authorities manage to get the full confession, which leads the charging heroes to Anton Grot’s sauna of bubbling wax. They pulling the half-naked, screeching Charlotte out just in time, before she becomes immortalized.
Curtiz made one last return to grand-guignol with The Walking Dead, starring Boris Karloff, who still looked very much like his famous monster. Oddly, although made three years later, The Walking Dead seems more dated than Curtiz’ genre predecessor. Part of the reason is the production constraints made on the film, along with a reduced budget.

Karloff plays the ex-con/pianist John Ellman who gets framed by racketeers and his own attorney (Ricardo Cortz) for the murder of Judge Shaw (Joseph King), who just happens to be the judge who had previously sent Ellman to prison. Ellman’s only hope resides in witnesses coming forward. The witnesses do arrive, albeit too late, and Ellman is electrocuted. Fortunately, Dr. Beaumont (a pre-Saint Nicholas Edmund Gwenn) has invented an “electric device” that shocks Ellman back to life. However, life is not what Ellman is interested in, as he is now among “The Walking Dead.”

The combination of Karloff and Curitz proves worthwhile, despite Production Code demands to keep Ellman sympathetic. Although Ellman clearly seeks revenge, the Hays brand of morality does not permit vigilante killing. Thus, Ellman stares down each of the guilty parties who all, in turn, meet “accidental” deaths. Curtiz’s direction is briskly paced and Karloff keeps us glued to the screen through all the nonsense. Although not officially a “mad doctor” film, The Walking Dead can be grouped with Boris’ work in that field and, under Curtiz’ sympathetic, craftsman-like guidance, it stands out as the best specimen from that Karloffian sub-genre.

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