The Mad Genius (1931), Doctor X (1932) and Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) are three atypicalfilms 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 .
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 boyand 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 Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: THE MAD GENIUS (1931), DOCTOR X (1932) AND MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) PLUS THE WALKING DEAD (1936)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