Tag Archives: Ben Hecht

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis: An Appreciation in Three Films


Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP 2-crop 

Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up

If you had told me three weeks ago that I’d be devastated by Jerry Lewis’ death, I’d have asked you to give me a drag off that before you throw it away. Just a month ago, it was easy to write Jerry off. The cranky attitude, the hubris, the outrageous statements (like “women aren’t funny”) whether he actually believed them or not, and as far as we were concerned, the ultimate betrayal: the Trump endorsement … Hell, I think we even resented Jerry’s longevity! And it got to the point where we swore that, if he ever told that goddamn parrot joke just one more time, we’d run out of the room screaming.[1]

But Jerry Lewis passing away on Sunday, Aug. 20, was a shock and cause of sorrow for millions of people, myself included. As beaten-to-death as the cliché is, Jerry Lewis’ demise was indeed “the end of an era.” He was one of the very last survivors of a show business tradition that stretched from Vaudeville to movies, radio, and television, of course there is a cost on doing business and learning about the difference between a real and counterfeit paystub is essential in this area. I suspect that it was my fellow Baby Boomers that took Jerry’s shuffling off this mortal coil the hardest. After all, he was our comedian! Oh, sure, we also loved Keaton, Fields, Hope, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, the Marxes, and the Stooges, but Jerry Lewis was the only one making brand new comedies for us to look forward to. And the fact that our parents vehemently hated Jerry only endeared him to us all the more. (Hey, our parents also hated Elvis Presley and the Beatles!)

And love him or hate him, as even his severest critics had to admit, Jerry was an accomplished and innovative filmmaker with an unmistakable visual style. He was also a master of film technology. It was Jerry Lewis who invented and held the patent on what is now known as “the video assist.” This allows film directors to look at whatever they’d just shot right there on the set, rather than waiting to see “the rushes” the next morning. It is now an established asset used by most modern-day filmmakers.

Most of Jerry’s obits dutifully mentioned the usual film highlights: Artists and Models, The Delicate Delinquent (Jerry’s first solo film after breaking up with Dean Martin), The Bellboy (the first feature film Lewis directed himself), The Patsy, and, of course, Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. But, as fans of World Cinema Paradise probably (or hopefully) know, I write a series of articles titled The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of.  The purpose of that series is to draw film buffs’ attention to great little-known cinematic gems that have escaped from or fallen out of public consciousness. In the spirit of that series, I’ve decided to concentrate this appreciation of his work on three of Jerry’s lesser-known pictures. (Interestingly, all three of these films are black comedies about death, something I hadn’t even considered when selecting them.)


Poster for Living It Up

Living It Up (Paramount, 1954)

My nomination for the best of the 16 movies starring the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis is Living It Up, which had the most notable pedigree of all their pictures together. It was the film version of a 1953 Broadway musical titled Hazel Flagg, with songs by composer Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Hilliard. That musical was, in turn, based on William Wellman’s classic 1937 screwball black comedy Nothing Sacred starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March. The source for both previous versions was a short story by James Street titled Letter to the Editor and both scripts were written by the great Ben Hecht. Fortunately, Living It Up’s screenwriters Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson had the good sense to stay as faithful to Hecht’s scripts as possible (albeit with some comedy routines specifically created for Dean and Jerry), and even retained a good percentage of Hecht’s original dialogue.

Most contemporary film scholars usually opt for Artists and Models (1955) as Martin & Lewis’ most notable picture, mainly because it was the first and best of the two of their movies written and directed by former cartoon animator Frank Tashlin. I, however, have major problems with that film, not the least of which that Tashlin endorsed the idiotic theory promoted by quack psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Wertheim in his anti-comic book screed The Seduction of the Innocent that comic books were the main cause of juvenile delinquency. (Wertheim’s book has long since been debunked by scholars.) And while Tashlin’s visual style and use of cartoon-like sight gags undoubtedly influenced Jerry as a director, he was also guilty of encouraging Lewis’ least attractive trait: the maudlin overuse of pathos and sentimentality. (“Chaplin shit,” as Dean once referred to it.)

Dean Martin, Janet Leigh & Jerry Lewis LIVING IT UP

Dean Martin, Janet Leigh & Jerry Lewis in Living It Up

Directed by veteran comedy director Norman Taurog, Living It Up begins with Dean and Jerry stuck in a decrepit shithole out in the Midwestern desert appropriately named Desert Hole. Homer Flagg (Jerry in the Carole Lombard role) dreams of leaving Desert Hole in his dust and seeing the big city, specifically New York. His opportunity presents itself when the town’s only physician Dr. Steve Harris (Dean in the Charles Winninger role) accidentally diagnoses Homer as dying of radiation poisoning. (The glow Steve saw on Homer’s x-ray was his radium watch.) Meanwhile, back in NYC, perpetually scheming newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Janet Leigh, looking particularly gorgeous in eye-popping Technicolor, in the Fredric March role) proposes to her Machiavellian editor Oliver Stone (Fred Clark, far better cast than Walter Connolly who played the role in the original) that they give the dying boy an all-expenses-paid vacation in the Big Apple and exploit the story for publicity purposes. When Wally shows up in Desert Hole to make the paper’s offer, both Steve (who immediately develops a crush on Wally) and Homer (who’ll do anything to see Manhattan) decide to continue the ruse that Homer is living on borrowed time.

The dark humor and Ben Hecht’s caustic dialogue gives Living It Up a bite that is missing from the other Martin & Lewis vehicles. The single best line from Hecht’s Nothing Sacred script is beautifully delivered by Fred Clark to Janet Leigh: “I am sitting here, seriously considering removing your heart and stuffing it… like an olive!”  And when Wally bursts out laughing at the karma of a couple of rubes taking the city slickers for a ride, Oliver smugly responds with a line provided by scenarists Rose and Shavelson that might be the most suggestive line ever to be heard in a Jerry Lewis picture: “You were going to marry [Homer]. He would’ve done to you what he did to this paper.” Apart from Clark’s performance, one of the reasons that the role of Oliver Stone is funnier in this film than in the original is that Rose and Shavelson made the character more ghoulish, constantly looking for ways to hasten Homer’s demise. When Homer passes out in a nightclub (he’s just surreptitiously downed a quart of vodka), Oliver, looking like he’s about to burst out in crocodile tears, says to Steve, “Doctor, I want to know the worst… We go to press in fifteen minutes!” (At one point, Living It Up becomes relevant to today’s political climate when Oliver assures Steve that his newspaper will reward him with a series of editorials denouncing “socialized medicine.”)

Fred clark, janet leigh, jerry lewis & Dean Martin LIVING IT UP

Fred Clark, Janet Leigh, Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin in Living It Up

Another reason Living It Up outshines most other Martin & Lewis pictures is that, at long last, Dean was given several opportunities to show off his comedy chops. Most of the screenwriters assigned to the team’s movies treated Dean like a necessary evil: let him sing a few songs and just give him straight lines to feed to Jerry. Impersonating an accomplished member of the medical profession, Dean as Steve has a running gag where, whenever he wants to sound scientific, he puts on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and drops his voice a couple of octaves. Jerry has his own solo comic highlight when he’s scheduled to be examined by an international trio of renowned experts, Dr. Emile Egelhofer (Sig Ruman, the only holdover from the cast of Nothing Sacred [2]) from Germany, Dr. Lee (Richard Loo) from China, and Dr. Nassau (Eduard Franz) from France. Homer confounds the three doctors by taking turns impersonating each of them, spouting gibberish to approximate their native languages. (And, yes, when Jerry impersonates Lee, he does his traditional cringe-inducing Oriental stereotype complete with big buck teeth.)

Although Jule Styne and Bob Hilliard wrote two new songs for Dean, most notably “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket,” which became a minor hit for him, the film’s best musical moments are the three songs retained from the stage version. In the aforementioned nightclub scene, Dean gets to serenade Janet Leigh with one of Styne’s loveliest romantic ballads “How Do You Talk to an Angel?” In the same scene, Jerry gives the best demonstration of his gift for eccentric dancing ever when he joins Sheree North (the only holdover from the stage cast in her film debut) in the rollicking jitterbug number “You’re Gonna Dance with Me, Baby.” (Biographer Shawn Levy in his book King of Comedy: the Life and Art of Jerry Lewis described Jerry’s dancing in this scene as looking like “a chimpanzee on amphetamines.”) And, last but not least, Dean and Jerry have their shining moment on film when they do the song-and-dance number “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York” as they stroll through those same streets.


CRACKING UP Spanish poster

Spanish poster for Cracking Up with the title Jerry’s Crazy World

Cracking Up (Warner Brothers, 1983)

Most of Jerry Lewis’ obits covered his filmmaking downfall in the late 60s when Paramount unceremoniously dumped him just as the studio had done to the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields in the 1930s. He tried working at other studios (20th Century Fox, Columbia, and Warner Brothers), but those efforts only accelerated his decline. And then in 1972, Jerry disastrously attempted to make a stark Holocaust drama called The Day the Clown Cried. Concerning a circus clown imprisoned in Dachau who forced to entertain the child prisoners and eventually lead them a la the Pied Piper into the gas ovens, the never-finished The Day the Crown Cried has since become the butt of a thousand snide putdowns from Lewis’ detractors.

But then in 1980, Jerry made a directorial comeback with Hardly Working, a box office hit that nevertheless remains sheer torture to sit through thanks to Lewis smothering the humor underneath a nauseating level of pathos. The bright side of the renewed interest in Jerry Lewis was not only his acting triumph as late night talk show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s black comedy The King of Comedy (1982), basically a comic variation on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with Langford being stalked by unfunny comedian wannabe Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), but Jerry also had the opportunity to take a final bite of the filmmaking apple in 1983 when Warner Brothers gave him the green light to co-write (with Bill Richmond, his collaborator on The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, and The Patsy), direct, and star in Cracking Up. This time around, Lewis avoided pathos altogether and proved that he had one last comic gem up his sleeve.

Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP 3

Jerry Lewis as Warren Nefron in Cracking Up

Cracking Up (filmed under the title Smorgasbord) was Lewis’ return to the episodic approach of The Bellboy and The Ladies Man with a series of unrelated self-contained comedy routines and skits. The frame on which these sketches were hung was Warren Nefron (Lewis) consulting Dr. Jonas Pletchick (Herb Edelman), a psychiatrist, after a series of bungled suicide attempts, the flashbacks and family genealogy stories he relates to Dr. Pletchick being the basis for the various comic episodes. Unlike Hardly Working, Cracking Up didn’t even have the chance to either succeed or fail financially because Warner Brothers, the studio which had similarly botched the release of Lewis’ 1970 World War II comedy Which Way to the Front?, gave it just a limited release in France before dumping it on basic cable TV in the US. Which was a shame because Cracking Up demonstrated that Jerry Lewis’ comic instinct and timing was just as impeccable as ever.


Jerry Lewis’ credit title in Cracking Up

This becomes apparent in the film’s opening scene when Warren attempts to make his way to a chair in Pletchick’s office while doing pratfall after pratfall on the floor’s over-polished surface, with the credits superimposed over the footage. (In a nod to audiences’ familiarity with the veteran comic, his name is billed before the title as “Jerry—Who Else?”) All the expected tropes are there: the stylized use of Technicolor, the physical adroitness, the perfect timing, the swinging big band music playing underneath the credits.

Herb Edelman, Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP

Herb Edelman & Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up

The film’s most hilarious skits involve Warren trying to order breakfast in a restaurant and encountering The Waitress From Hell (comedienne Zane Busby) who, in an annoyingly nasal and grating voice, recites a never-ending list of choices on the menu (e.g., when Warren asks for juice, she proceeds in a monotone to name three or four dozen different types of juice the establishment offers); Jerry playing a caricature of a redneck Southern cop who accidentally destroys both the car of the driver he’s just pulled over and his own patrol car; Warren flying overseas on the world’s cheapest, least competent airline, with perennially soused Foster Brooks (the spiritual heir of cinematic drunks Arthur Houseman and Jack Norton) as the pilot and Lewis regular Buddy Lester as a sinister, heavily-armed passenger. (When going through inspection, the officials not only ignore Lester’s dual bandoliers, but they even offer Warren his choice of weaponry.) Not all of the skits work, but enough of them do to justify checking out Lewis’ little-known farewell as a director.


Poster for Funny Bones

Funny Bones (Hollywood Pictures, 1995)


Jerry Lewis as George Fawkes in Funny Bones

Most of Jerry Lewis’ obits mentioned Scorsese’s The King of Comedy as an example of latter-day filmmakers’ admiration for him, but very few of them mentioned Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (1995). Not only is Funny Bones by far the better picture, but Lewis’ role is more central and critical. Several actors might have played Jerry Langford (albeit not as well as Lewis), but nobody else could have brought as much to Funny Bones as Lewis did playing the supporting role of world-famous, much-beloved veteran comedian George Fawkes. (And, no, the role is not an autobiographical one.) In fact, Chelsom, who produced, directed, and co-wrote (with Peter Flannery) Funny Bones went on record as saying that he expressly designed the role with Jerry Lewis in mind. (Scorsese has admitted that his first choice to play Langford was Johnny Carson, and that he decided to offer it to Lewis only after Carson turned him down.)


George Carl & Freddie Davies as the Parker Brothers & Lee Evans as Jack Parker in Funny Bones

A very, very dark comedy, Funny Bones is the best movie ever made on the subject of comedy. Comedian George Fawkes is the father of two sons, one of them illegitimate, the result of an extramarital affair. The bastard son is Jack Parker (UK comedian Lee Evans making his film debut), who was raised in Blackpool, England by the Parkers, a family of music hall artists that include his mother Katie (Leslie Caron, looking as lovely as ever), his adoptive father Bruno (Freddie Davies), his uncle Thomas (George Carl), and his dog Toast. (When, during a half-hearted suicide attempt, Jack is asked by a police psychiatrist what he wants, he answers “Toast,” and the cops, of course, think he’s requesting breakfast.) Jack is an instinctive comic genius with a gift for pantomime and physical comedy. Jack has funny bones.

oliver platt FUNNY BONES

Oliver Platt as Tommy Fawkes in Funny Bones

George’s acknowledged son is Tommy Fawkes (excellently played by Oliver Platt in a rare star turn). Whereas Rupert Pupkin’s main goal was fame for fame’s sake, Tommy desperately wants to follow in his father’s footsteps because he wants to be funny, needs to be funny. But there’s one problem. Tommy isn’t funny. Not in the least. In fact, Tommy is so clueless when it comes to humor that he can’t even recognize the incongruity of a spoiled, pampered rich kid adopting an angry young man persona on stage. Making his big Las Vegas debut, Tommy only succeeds in alienating the audience by resorting to what he’s thinks is cutting edge material, but is actually an ancient blue joke that’s been as pummeled to death over the years as Jerry’s parrot joke. (It would seem that Tommy wants to emulate Lenny Bruce, but he can’t even achieve the level of Andrew Dice Clay.) At one point, George accurately diagnoses why Tommy isn’t funny: “God damn it, it’s like you’re too educated to be funny!” In other words, Tommy doesn’t have funny bones.

Unfortunately, the suits at Hollywood Pictures (a subsidiary of Disney Corp.) had no idea how to market the picture, so they made the monumental mistake of peddling it as a family-friendly comedy, which it most certainly was not. The film was briefly given a limited release in March 1995 and then promptly vanished. I’ve already written about Funny Bones extensively for World Cinema Paradise in my The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of series, so there’s no need to spend much more time describing it when you can read all about it here. I did say earlier in this article that all three of these films are black comedies about death. In the case of Funny Bones, however, I can’t explain when and how the Grim Reaper appears in the picture without spoiling some of the movie’s best plot twists. Suffice it to say that, if you’re a major Jerry Lewis fan, you really need to see Funny Bones.

Before we wish a fond farewell to “the King of Comedy,” it’s worth considering one of those cosmic ironies that so often occur in the world of entertainment. As previously mentioned, most of the movie critics from the 1950s through the 1970s hated Jerry Lewis’ films and never hesitated to criticize his pictures in the harshest terms possible. But most of those comedies that were critical failures became huge financial successes, and almost every single one of those critics had been long gone decades before Jerry left us this year. For the umpteenth time, Jerry Lewis had the last laugh.


[1] Jerry Lewis’ parrot joke: “I’m riding on the New York subway and this young guy gets on and sits in the seat across from me. The kid’s wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, many colors on that shirt, and his hair is all done up in spikes, many different-colored spikes. He sees me staring at him and asks, “What the matter? Didn’t you ever do anything for fun?” So I said to him, “Sorry. The reason I’m staring is because I once fucked a parrot… and I was wondering if you’re my son.” (Needless to say, Jerry cleaned up the joke whenever he told it on television.)

[2] Ruman not only played Dr. Egelhofer in Nothing Sacred, but he repeated the role a third time in Billy Wilder’s 1966 black comedy The Fortune Cookie, which also involved medical fraud. Emile Egelhofer was also the name of the psychiatrist brought in to examine cop killer Earl Williams in Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur’s seminal 1928 newspaper stage comedy The Front Page. Obviously, Hecht liked the name.


Buy Living it Up on Amazon
Buy Cracking Up on Amazon
Buy Funny Bones on Amazon


was disc

The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (Special Halloween Double Feature): “Doctor X” (1932) and “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933)

“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

It’s doesn’t take a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient to figure out why the horror movie genre first flourished during the Great Depression. When the things that scare the hell out of the average person are life-changing events like losing one’s job or home or, in some extreme cases, life (due to starvation, illness, or suicide), it’s understandable why movie audiences would seek cathartic thrills in the frights provided by supernatural menaces they would never encounter in real life, such as vampires, werewolves, or man-made monsters.

It was Universal Pictures that virtually invented horror pictures with the one-two punch of Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein (both 1931). However, as film historian Carlos Clerens stated in his seminal 1967 book An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, “Warner Brothers loomed large as Universal’s most serious rival, at least in the first years of the vogue.” Warners’ first two horror pictures (also both 1931) were starring vehicles for the great John Barrymore,[1] Archie Mayo’s Svengali and Michael Curtiz’s The Mad Genius. (Svengali is an especially memorable film with one of Barrymore’s finest film performances.) Both of these pictures were definitely in the European Gothic mode established by Universal.

But for their next two horror movies, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, both directed by Curtiz), Warners decided to up the ante, photographing them in Technicolor, which then was still utilizing the original two-strip process (the first instances of using color cinematography for this genre). In addition, these next two efforts would be the first “modern” horror pictures, both set in contemporary New York City and, typical of Warners’ output of the period, reflecting the economic realities of the Depression. (The heroes in both movies, played by Lee Tracy in the former and Glenda Farrell in the latter, are newspaper reporters who are forced to risk their lives pursuing dangerous stories under threat of losing their jobs.)

The cynical wise-cracking newshound would eventually become one of the most oft-repeated clichés of the horror genre, but in these initial instances, the characters were unique and genuinely amusing, thanks mainly to the expert comedy chops of Tracy and Farrell, and the crackling dialogue provided by scenarists Earl Baldwin and Robert Tasker (Doctor X), and Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson (Wax Museum). Lee Tracy practically created the smart-ass reporter archetype when he played the role of Hildy Johnson in the 1928 Broadway premiere of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s iconic newspaper comedy The Front Page. After that triumph, Tracy spent most of his career type-cast as reporters or publicity flacks or other similar fast-talking roles. A few months before Doctor X, Tracy had the best role of his Hollywood career as gossip columnist Alvin Roberts (the movies’ first, but by no means last, caricature of Walter Winchell) in Roy Del Ruth’s screamingly funny black comedy Blessed Event.

Before Wax Museum, Glenda Farrell’s most notable roles at Warners were in two dramatic classics directed by Mervyn LeRoy, in an atypical ingénue role in Little Caesar (1931) and in a much more typical role as the alcoholic floozy who blackmails Paul Muni into a loveless marriage in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). Mystery of the Wax Museum was the first movie that revealed Farrell’s considerable gifts as a comedienne and had a major influence on her subsequent film career as well as leading to her own ‘B’ mystery franchise as reporter Torchy Blane. (Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went on record as saying that Farrell’s performances in the Torchy Blane films were their inspiration for the character of Lois Lane.) Almost forty years later, the smart-assed, monster-hunting reporter archetype would come full circle in the person of burned-out, middle-aged but indefatigable scandal monger Carl Kolchak, thanks to writer Richard Matheson and actor Darren McGavin, in the hit 1971 made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker, which spawned a sequel and its own weekly series.


In place of Barrymore, these next Warners horror flicks featured leading performances by two actors making their debuts in the genre they would be linked with for the rest of their lives, Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Not surprisingly, Wray played the damsel-in-distress in both films, the type of role she would best remembered for, particularly in King Kong (1933). Atwill’s roles in the films under discussion were quite different. In Doctor X, he played the title part of Dr. Xavier, noted scientist and father of Wray’s character. Despite some sinister dialogue and camera angels, he was an obvious red herring designed to draw attention from the real villain of the piece. However, in Wax Museum, Atwill had the role of his career as the story’s demented fiend, wax sculptor Ivan Igor. As film historian William K. Everson pointed out in his 1974 book Classics of the Horror Film, Ivan Igor was the type of villain role usually played by Boris Karloff, an initially completely sympathetic character “driven to madness and revenge by the greed and stupidity of others.”

Another notable contributor to both films was Anton Grot, the innovative set designer who was head of the Warner Brothers Studio Art Department from 1927 to 1948. Grot’s deliberately stylized sets influenced Warner’s visual style immensely. “I for one do not like extremely realistic sets,” Grot once said, “I am for simplicity and beauty and you can achieve that only be creating an impression.”[2] This approach dovetailed perfectly with Curtiz’s distinctive visual style which was formed from his days in Vienna in the mid-1920s, making films in the German Expressionist tradition of the period. (Curtiz used Grot extensively while they were both at Warners.) Cinematographer Ray Rennehan’s color photography in these two films also enhanced the surrealism of the visuals.

Just as Roland West’s 1930 thriller The Bat Whispers was filmed in two versions, widescreen and normal Academy ratio, Doctor X was likewise filmed twice, in Technicolor and black-and-white. The color version was shown only during opening engagements in major cities, whereas the black-and-white version was the one that most of the country saw. The suits at the Technicolor company weren’t happy with this approach, however, so Mystery of the Wax Museum was only filmed and released in Technicolor. (The use of color was so integral to the film that shooting an alternate version in black-and-white would’ve been pointless anyway.) Eventually, both films were forgotten by the general moviegoing public, replaced in popular memory by the slicker, more elaborate horror pictures that came later. (Wax Museum, of course, became completely overshadowed by its more profitable but inferior 3-D 1953 remake, Andre De Toth’s House of Wax, which became a cult favorite due mainly to Vincent Price’s performance in Atwill’s role.)

For decades, Mystery of the Wax Museum and the Technicolor version of Doctor X were considered irretrievably lost, with just the black-and-white version of Doctor X surviving. But, in 1970, a 35mm nitrate Technicolor print of Mystery of the Wax Museum was discovered in Jack Warner’s personal vault at Warner’s Burbank lot. As well documented by Everson, Wax Museum unfortunately received a rushed restoration job that botched the Technicolor hues and failed to retain the original vibrancy of the colors. (The result looked like a badly colorized version of a black-and-white movie.) After Warner’s death in 1978, a Technicolor print of Doctor X was found in his personal collection and received a far superior restoration job in 1986 by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, providing modern audiences with a better idea of what the movie originally looked like.


In Doctor X, a serial killer, who strangles his victims, then cannibalizes their bodies, is stalking New York, but only during a full moon. (The recurring shots of a full moon glowing through the clouds against the background of an emerald green sky are among the film’s most memorable use of Technicolor.) In the opening scene, reporter Lee Taylor (Tracy) is prowling the city wharfs looking for news—any news—when he stumbles onto a possible scoop. He spots a couple of police officials escorting a renowned scientist into a waterfront morgue. He tries to get past the plainclothesman (Tom Dugan) guarding the door, but with little success.

Cop: “Only stiffs go in there tonight.”

Lee: “No kidding?”

Cop: “No kidding.”

Lee: “What’s keepin’ you out?”

Lee then heads for the nearest pay phone, which, this definitely being a pre-Code picture, is located in a nearby cathouse. After trading some banter with the resident madam (played by none other than Mae Busch, best remembered by Laurel & Hardy fans as various villainesses or the shrewish Mrs. Hardy), Lee calls into his paper’s night editor (Selmer Jackson).

Lee: “Give me the night desk, please… Yeah. Willard Keefe… Yeah, this is Lee Taylor. I’m down at the Mott Street Morgue. Just now they bring in the body of an old scrubwoman murdered under very peculiar circumstances… No, they won’t let me see it. I can’t get any dope. Police—” (ogling an attractive prostitute walking by) “Very good.” (back into phone) “I say very—what? I say I can’t get any dope on it. Police orders. Just now, Stevens, O’Halloran, and a guy named Dr. Xavier arrived. Something’s doing.”

Keefe: “Yeah, I’ve heard that one, too.”

Lee: “Listen, you lunkhead, I’m not clowning. Look out the window, will you?”

Keefe:  “What do you mean, the moon?”

Lee:  “Certainly, I mean the moon. I’m laying 10 bucks to a dime it’s another Moon Killer murder.”

Keefe: “Well, that’s different. Now, listen, Lee, stick right on it.”

Lee: “Fine.”

By impersonating a corpse under a sheet, Lee’s able to learn that the evidence points to the killer being someone associated with Xavier’s Academy of Surgical Research, the prime suspects being one of four scientists: Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), an expert on cannibalism whose lower left arm has been replaced by a cosmetic prosthetic; Dr. Haines (John Wray, no relation to Fay), who was once suspected of cannibalism when he and two other scientists were cast adrift for several weeks in a lifeboat and one of the men disappeared before their rescue; Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), an expect on lunar studies researching the effects of moonlight on peoples’ psychology; and Dr. Duke (Harry Baresford), a paraplegic dependent on wheelchair and crutches who was the other surviving scientist in the lifeboat incident. (Even from just these brief descriptions, any dedicated fans of mystery fiction should’ve already figured out who the guilty party is!)

Annex - Wray, Fay (Doctor X)_01S Lee Tracy, Fay Wray

Xavier is granted 48 hours by the police to conduct his own investigation before they give the story to the newspapers, a promise that becomes moot after Lee exposes the deal. Then Lee scams his way past the maid into Xavier’s home where he “meets cute” with Joanne Xavier (Wray) when she catches him red-handed swiping photos of her and her father. Needless to say, Lee’s immediately smitten and makes some clumsy attempts at flirting with Joanne. For the rest of the picture, they carry on the type of light semi-affectionate sparring that would become so prevalent in the screwball comedy genre established just a couple of years later.

Lee: “Are you going swimming with me in the morning?”

Joanne: “No, thanks. Good night.”

Lee: “What will you do if I start to sink and yell for help?”

Joanne: “Throw you an anvil. Good night.”

docteur-x-1932-01-g Harry Beresford, John Wray, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Lionel Atwill

Running at just 76 minutes, Doctor X is divided into a traditional three-act structure. Act One, the first half-hour, takes place entirely in New York City. Act Two, the second half-hour, moves the action to a remote mansion located at Long Island’s Blackstone Shoals, where Xavier hopes to continue his personal investigation. (In what would become another oft-repeated horror film cliché, this sinister old mansion resides on a cliff overlooking the ocean.) Per theatrical tradition, Act Two concludes with another murder. Finally, in Act Three, the last two-reels, the movie kicks into high gear, particularly when, in the picture’s most justly celebrated sequence, the villain transforms himself into a monster with the aid of electricity and a creepily ghoulish invention he calls “synthetic flesh.”


Providing a plot synopsis for Mystery of the Wax Museum is practically superfluous since most film enthusiasts have already seen House of Wax. Indeed, several scenes from the original were faithfully duplicated in the remake, including the opening scene (the sculptor’s museum being destroyed in a fire started by his corrupt business partner to cash in on the insurance [3]); the theft of a young woman’s corpse from the city morgue (both versions featuring the morgue attendant’s sexist wisecrack about a dead female body moving and moaning under the influence of embalming fluid, “Ain’t that just like a woman, always has to have the last word?”); the grand reopening of the wax museum in New York; the female ingénue beating on the sculptor’s face in self-defense, revealing a horribly mutilated face hiding underneath a wax mask; the cops grilling a suspect who’s a strung-out addict (heroin in pre-Code Wax Museum, alcohol in post-Code House of Wax) until he cracks and reveals that the sculptor, whose hands were injured in the fire, has been repopulating his museum with corpses encased in wax; and the grand finale in which the sculptor tries to turn the ingénue into a recreation of his masterpiece, Marie Antoinette, by strapping her to a gurney and showering her with molten wax. (House of Wax’s sole improvement over the original was David Buttolph’s effectively frightening background music.)

mystery-of-the-wax-museum-production-still_2-1933 Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray

There are some major differences between the two versions, however. The original had a contemporary setting, while the remake was done as a period piece in the 1890s (in keeping with Hollywood’s tiresomely obsessive nostalgia for “the Gay Nineties” that began during World War II). The prologue takes place in London in the earlier version, and is set in Baltimore in the later one. But the biggest difference between the two is the emphasis on humor in Wax Museum, provided mostly by Glenda Farrell’s reporter Florence (no surname)[4] and her cynical editor Jim (Frank McHugh). (There are no characters equivalent to Florence and Jim in House of Wax and the only thing resembling humor in the film is the guy with the paddleballs.) Many of the dialogue exchanges between Farrell and McHugh anticipate the similar verbal skirmishes between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), such as this one after Florence notices that the new wax museum’s Joan of Arc statue looks suspiciously like the suicidal young socialite whose body was stolen from the morgue.

Florence: “I am right! I know I’m right!”

Jim: “Well, no one would ever suspect it. You don’t sound right.”

Florence: “Listen, Jim—and if you wisecrack while I’m talking, I’ll crown you with the inkwell.”

Jim: ”All right, wise guy. Go ahead. Spill it.”

Florence:  “Jim, there’s a little hokey-pokey wax museum opening up down on 14th Street.”

Jim: (sarcastically) “Now don’t that call for an extra?”

Florence: “I asked you to keep your trap shut!”

Jim: “Well, you can’t blame a guy for getting a little breathless with a scoop like that.”

Florence: “All right, you poor baboon, you can guess the rest of it!”

Jim: “No kiddin’? What’s your idea?”

Florence: “Just this, I got a look at that dump a little while ago and if they haven’t got a wax figure of Joan Gale in that line-up, then I’m crazy.”

Jim: “We’ll grant that.”

Florence: “What?”

Jim: “About the Gale girl, I mean. Where do we go from there? What of it?”

Florence: “Listen, Jo-Jo, does this mean anything to you? Joan Gale’s body was swiped from the morgue! Did you ever hear of such a thing as a death mask?”

Jim: “I used to be married to one.”

Florence: “And it came to life and divorced you. I know all about that. Now my idea is this, somebody swipes the girl’s body, takes an impression, makes a mold, produces a wax figure, and—bingo—peddles it to this old skate down there!”

Jim: “Work that up into a comic strip and we’ll syndicate it.”

Florence: “You go to hel—“

Jim: “What?”

Florence: “Let it go.”

Jim: “Come down to earth. Do you think they would dare do anything like that? Don’t you think they’d know that figure would be recognized? Shake your head real hard, you’ll be all right.”

Florence: “All right, master mind, but there’s something cockeyed about that joint and I’m going to find out what it is.”

mystery-of-the-wax-museum-production-photo_6-19331Glenda Farrell on the set

Mystery of the Wax Museum was arguably the first feminist horror picture. Long before Joss Whedon created that vampire-slaying blonde Buffy, Florence proved to be tougher and superior to any of her male counterparts, completely outwitting the police, exposing the villain’s plot, and rescuing her friend Charlotte Duncan (Wray) from a fate worse than death. (In the remake, the savior was more traditionally a man, a police inspector played by Frank Lovejoy, although, in both versions, it was a male cop’s haymaker that sends the villain plunging into his own vat of bubbling wax.) Florence’s toughness and independence is beautifully accented by Farrell’s comic timing and caustic delivery. (When the playboy Florence is dating wants to chicken out of assisting with her investigation, she responds with, “All right, brother, then you can go to some nice warm place and I don’t mean California!”)

WM-004Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Lionel Atwill

The story was remade yet again under the title House of Wax in 2005 (with a dimbulb cast that included Paris Hilton). This time around it was a trashy piece of teenage torture porn so ineptly made that it single-handedly killed off the Dark Castle Productions series that had proven to be a successful annual Halloween attraction for Warner Brothers in the previous four years. Far more enjoyable than either remake was Hy Averback’s Chamber of Horrors (1966), an intended television pilot that was released theatrically instead, in which the House of Wax was reimagined as the headquarters for a trio of amateur criminologists (Cesare Danova, Wilfred Hyde-White, and Tun Tun) in turn of the century Baltimore. The villain in this picture was a demented blueblood (Patrick O’Neal in a creepy, underplayed performance) whose severed right hand had been replaced by an all-purpose prosthetic equipped for such instruments of torture as a hook, scalpel, and meat cleaver. Interestingly, Doctor X was never remade. And, no, despite its title, Vincent Sherman’s The Return of Doctor X (1939) is in no way, shape, or form a sequel. That movie’s sole claim to fame was Humphrey Bogart’s only performance in a horror movie as a resurrected scientist who requires the blood of others to sustain his undead existence. (Bogart, who hated the picture, later quipped that, if only he’d been draining Jack Warner’s blood, he would’ve found the experience more rewarding.)


Mystery of the Wax Museum is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray as an extra for the 1953 version of House of Wax. Doctor X has been released only on DVD as a double-feature with The Return of Doctor X in Warner Home Video’s Legends of Horror set. And both films often turn up on Turner Classic Movies, especially around Halloween.

[1] It’s not inconceivable that the thought of becoming Warners’ answer to Lugosi and Karloff played a major role in John Barrymore’s decision to take his brother Lionel’s advice and jump ship for MGM.

[2] Introduction to Film Studies, Jill Nelmes, editor, Routledge, 2012.

[3] In the remake, the partner was rather blandly played by Roy Roberts, while, in the original, the role was played by one of Hollywood’s most wonderfully malignant heavies, Edwin Maxwell. Significantly, Roberts got killed off early in the proceedings, whereas Maxwell remained a major supporting character throughout the rest of the picture.

[4] For years now, way too many film historians who should know better have repeated the IMDB’s mistake of listing Dempsey as Florence’s last name, a characteristic IMDB gaffe obviously posted by some humor-impaired film nerd unable to grasp the concept of sarcasm when a cop responds to Florence deliberately slapping him hard on the back by calling her “Mrs. Dempsey” (you know, referring to the boxing champ), even though it’s well-established that Florence is single and is roommates with Charlotte.