Watching 1939: The Return of Doctor X (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Release date: 
Nov. 23, 1939

Cast: 
Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, Lya Lys, Huntz Hall, Charles C. Wilson, Vera Lewis, Olin Howland, John Ridgely, William Hopper (as DeWolf Hopper), Ian Wolfe (uncredited)

Studio: 
Warner Bros.

Director: 
Vincent Sherman

Plot:
Reporter Walter Garrett (Morris) starts discovering strange murders where each victim seems drained of their blood, and each has the same blood type. The police and Walter’s editors don’t believe him about the murders. With the help of doctor Michael Rhodes (Morgan), the two try to uncover the murderer. They go to hematologist Dr. Francis Flegg (Litel) and meet his strange, pale assistant Marshall Quesne (Bogart).

1939 Notes:
• The directorial debut of Vincent Sherman. It was his only
• Humphrey Bogart was in five films released in 1939. This is one of Bogart’s few horror roles.
• Dennis Morgan was in five films released in 1939.
• Rosemary Lane was in five films released in 1939.
• Second to last film of Lya Lys. Lys was in two films released in 1939, including Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
• Olin Howland was in 12 films released in 1939.
• Vera Lewis was in 18 films released in 1939.
• Ian Wolfe was in eight films released in 1939.

Humphrey Bogart in “The Return of Dr. X” (1939).

Other trivia: 
• Follows the film “Doctor X” (1932)
• Boris Karloff and Claude Rains were announced as the leads in a Jan. 5, 1939, news brief. The brief also said Margaret Lindsay, Ann Sheridan and Gloria Dickson tested for the leads.
• James Stevenson and Margaret Lindsay was announced as one of the stars of “Return of Doctor X” in a May 10, 1939, news brief. Humphrey Bogart replaced Stevenson’s role, according to a May 20, 1939, brief.
• William Hopper is billed as DeWolf Hopper.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Today, we know Humphrey Bogart as a sleek fedora-wearing tough guy with a distinct lisp speech.

But he wasn’t always Rick Blaine or Sam Spade, and in 1939 Bogart was still finding his footing with roles.

And one of those roles may be one of his most strange roles in 1939 was as the strange, pasty doctor in “The Return of Doctor X.” It’s really his only horror role and one of those early thankless roles.

It’s odd to see him, almost in an Igor-like role – both pathetic but also dastardly. Some of his roles this year, like “Roaring Twenties,” gave him a step forward in his career but “The Return of Doctor X” decidedly would be a step back.

In the title credits, Bogart is billed above the title but third behind Wayne Morris and Rosemary Lane. While Morris and Lane may aren’t as well known today as Bogart is, they were the bigger stars at Warner Bros. However, in the closing credits, Bogart is billed first.

Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan and Rosemary Lane all play their usual and competent parts – always pleasant. Lane has very little screentime though, but just enough to be the damsel in distress near the end of the film.

“The Return of Doctor X” is a spooky, 60-minute film. Why are people being found dead, drained of their blood? And a fake blood is being found near them as well? While it may be an odd role, Bogart still made it believable to be a creep.

Released in November near Thanksgiving, film critics commented that it felt more like Halloween since both “Return of Dr. X” and “The Cat and the Canary” were both released in late November.

Is this on the top list of must see films of 1939? For the plot … no. But if you want to see the evolution of the career of one of Hollywood’s top stars, yes.

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