Video Attic News Exclusive Doctor X (1932) Coming to Home Video! New Interview with UCLA Head of Preservation and Film Historian Scott MacQueen!
Made for a reported $224,000 budget, Doctor X earned nearly $600,000, further proving that the genre was highly profitable. The film has gone on to achieve a firm cult-film status. Perhaps most memorable, the film is mentioned in the musical play The Rocky Horror Show (and later the film version The Rocky Horror Picture Show) written by Richard O' Brien.
Scott MacQueen who recently worked on another Pre-Code horror Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) has made it his mission to bring Doctor X back to horrifying life. In an exclusive interview, Scott discusses with me the labor of love resurrecting this 1930s horror classic.
When did you start restoring Doctor X?
SM: This round of restoration began in 2020. The print was turned up by Ron Haver when he was working on his A Star Is Born restoration in the early 1980s. In 1985, Bob Gitt did an analog restoration which was a matter of making a color Internegative on camera-negative stock, wetgate. It was done very carefully by Pete Commandini and he probably got the very best results that could be done at that time with the tools available. Bob re-recorded the sound and did basic de-clicking to make a new track. Flashforward to 2021 and, thirty-five plus years later, we have new digital tools. Now, we can do things you could never dream of in the analog realm. We proposed the project to The Film Foundation, who partnered on the restoration with funding from the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.
What state was the original material in?
SM: Doctor X only survives in that single 1932 nitrate print. It was very scratched and battered. It had a lot of clicks and scratches and scrapes and perforation damage. Digital was a great help to address issues like that. The print has splices from wear and use, similar to the Mystery of the Wax Museum print that we worked with in the prior season for The Film Foundation. At Warner Bros. back in the day, they must have cobbled together a ‘best copy’ from several prints that they had on hand. The point was to have a fairly good studio viewing copy without spending the money to make a new one or, by that time the two-color process was not available. When you look at two-color prints from that time period, no two look alike. Often the color drifts throughout the reel based on the dye exhaustion during the printing. There are pick-ups often where the reel end from one source was completed by another and the color temperature would change. You get to the last minute of a reel and suddenly it can pop from cold to warm, or warm to cold, because you are going to a different print made at a different time. We were able to correct it almost imperceptibly. We were still stuck with a jump cut at times because a frame was often lost when they assembled the print. For example, it might pop forward one frame, so you are aware of that pop.
When the Blu-ray comes out, it will have examples of before-and-after, and the audience will be able to see these differences. That will be quite an education for what we faced. We did have fragments from a second print that turned up which allowed us to fix one egregious break in the film and return part of a scene and dialogue that were missing from the Warner Bros. studio print. That studio print has been sent out for public screenings many, many times in the last fifty years, so there were loses and damage today compared to the 1985 preservation negative. Projectionists made additional sets of change-over cues by slashing the frames and applying ink for their house change-over cues. We had to work around all of that.
What was the most challenging aspect of this specific restoration undertaking?
SM: The most challenging moment in the whole restoration is at the mounting of Reel 1A to 1B. Though the prints would have been sent out in one-thousand-foot rolls in 1932, in later years the practice was to double them up into two-thousand-foot reels. Where those two reels were joined there was footage and an entire line missing. Only twenty-frames (less than one second) remained of an eight-second shot where Lionel Atwill talks to the policemen. I took the audio from the black-and-white version (shot contemporaneously for foreign release) and placed that in position where there was missing audio. The difficulty with the scene was it’s a moving camera shot. We were able to get all of the missing dialogue but still lacked six full seconds of picture. There were twenty frames in UCLA’s print, there were eighty-eight frames that we could use from the Library of Congress scraps. It was scratched and damaged worse than ours, terrible color, but we were able to patch it in and did digital restoration to paint out the scratches, as was done for the entire film. We re-balanced the color and then we had to make sure it was in the same register, with the same sizing as the frames we had. After that, we had something like one hundred-and-forty-five frames. We had to do frame-stretching to fill out those missing fifty-frames. Now when we hear Lionel Atwill say, “I spent twenty-six years building up the reputation of this institution”, there is still this weird jump-cut in the middle of the shot, so it’s a compromise. That was the most difficult fix and probably the most resourcefulness solution we encountered.
MV: That’s incredible. This reminds me of when you did the restored audio for Mystery of the Wax Museum.
SM: Yes, in Wax Museum I went on an expedition into darkest Warner Bros. and watched every Glenda Farrell movie from that period to find her saying, “Keep your trap shut” in the movie Life Begins.
MV: I think that’s just incredible, the lengths you will go to preserve a film.
SM: Thanks. There are actually two more examples like that in Doctor X. For example, when Dr. Xavier reenacts the Moon Killer murders, he presents wax figures to his shackled audience, describing them as “people whose lives were snuffed out.” There’s a splice in the color print. Going back to the black-and-white version, Lionel says, “Peoples whose lives were snuffed out to satisfy the desires of a monster.” We were able to move the line just a few seconds earlier in the shot. We just moved the line a couple of frames to make room for, “…desires of a monster!” (Laughs).
There’s another oddity I discovered during my final evaluation. During the play-within-the-play reenactment, all of the doctors are shackled to their seats. Curtiz is cutting from face to face and he cuts to a shot of Professor Haines, who exclaims, “Doctor, I protest!” I realized it was the wrong shot of him. He was looking off over his shoulder to the left-hand side and I’m thinking, “That doesn’t feel right because you should see his lips moving.” Normally I’d check the film in my workroom, but due to the COVID-19 lock-down, I called down to our post house, Roundabout, and asked them to check this spot on the nitrate print. They confirmed that there was a splice, and the “wrong” shot was there. We pulled the 1985 preservation negative and there was the correct shot of Professor Haines facing forward saying, “Doctor, I protest!” Somewhere between 1985 and 2021, someone replaced that shot in the nitrate print. Where they got that shot from and why they did it is an absolute mystery. We scanned that one shot from the 1985 negative. Those were the major oddities that we encountered.
SM: It was considered, but the additional cost might have defeated us. I understand that Warner Bros. recently announced that it will be included on the Blu-ray.
MV: The black-and-white is interesting because it contains alternate footage, some of which you already mentioned.
SM: I read about the original production reports and learned that about the alternate shoot when I wrote about the film in 1985 for American Cinematographer magazine. The reports showed that the unit shot side-by-side unless something was complex, in which case Technicolor shot first. Differences that I remember are the Mott Street Morgue sign in Reel One; it’s a travelling shot in color and a stationary shot in black-and-white. When Lee Tracey’s in the “bawdy house,” as the script calls it, Mae Busch as the Madam approaches Lee and in one version she asks, “Didn’t I meet you in Havana?” and in the other version she asks, “Didn’t I meet you in Bermuda?” Also, there’s a scene where Lee Tracy is locked in the closet full of bones -- I love it, in the script it’s written, “This is the room where they keep all the bones and skeletons. We all have one, don’t we? So, while Tracy’s in there, he jostles a skeleton and it starts to bounce, and he starts to sing a song and clap his hands for it to dance to. In each version he ad-libs a different tune.
There are other differences such as the camera elevation. Some shots are at eye level versus shooting up or shooting down. But, in the synthetic flesh sequence as Preston Foster is transforming, he’s been stirring the pot and putting the glop on himself. There is a dissolve to a high shot way from the back with his hands on his head as he finishes shaping it into a cone; then it cuts to a front shot where his face is lowered and he raises up to camera, revealing now he has hair. In the black-and-white version there is no shot from behind of his conehead. I suspect they dropped it to avoid having to make another dissolve in an already-complex series.
Did you need to work with a shooting script to aid in the restoration?
SM: No. I had read the script years ago, but it was of no value to the restoration. The film was never re-issued so it never went through a post-Hays Code review. At least not for release. It was vetted by the Hays Code because Warners wanted to re-issue it in 1936 but because of the cannibalism and horror Warners were discouraged from that. There were a couple of sequences in the script that we know they filmed that never made it in the final cut. One of them, I can’t quite place, but there are image stills of Fay Wray walking into the library and discovering a body in a tall wingback chair. There’s an arm dangling off the armrest – probably someone who has fallen asleep. Obviously, it was shot since they made a still of it, but it’s not in the movie.
The other scene is with the character of Professor Haines played by John Wray. His character is obsessed with sex and takes every opportunity to put Joan into risqué situations. Within the re-enactment scene Dr. Xavier is explaining the killer’s methods, and Haines interrupts him with great gusto, asking, “Doctor, were any of the victims -- attacked?” And when we first meet Haines, he’s reading a girlie underwear magazine, so we know that his character is obsessive.
There’s a scene in the script where he encounters Joan in the upper-hallway and holds forth a book, gushing, “I’d like to show you something -- it’s a very old book of Japanese erotica. Some of the drawings are a little naughty.” And he’s pushing it towards her and she’s protesting, and Xavier comes in and says, “Doctor Haines I told you before about this behavior.” To which he replies, “Oh Doctor, you still misunderstand my motives.” That was filmed but cut. It doesn’t really add a lot except maybe some black comedy. Zanuck made sure that these films moved like express trains. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on his pictures even if it meant small sacrifices like this.
|A still from the cut scene between Doctor Haines (John Wray) and Joanne (Fay Wray)|
For people who are not familiar with the restoration process, can you go into some detail about what takes place?
SM: You work on the picture and the sound separately. The old dye-transfer prints tend to be fairly heavy and blocked in the shadows. The nitrate print would have been cleaned to remove debris, oil and dirt, then scanned by Warner Bros. on their Director scanner at 4k, which is 4096x3112 pixels. This ensures that you capture the full dynamic range. The raw scans appear a little pale to the eye, as you’re walking the tightrope right down the middle to capture everything. As long as the information is there you can adjust it however you like. Warner provided those scans to our vendor, Roundabout Entertainment, who performed the dirt clean up with digital restoration techniques to remove scratches and tears. So, that’s the first pass, with artists doing that. Then the image needed to be de-flickered because there was a lot of fluctuation in the print. That had been true of Mystery of the Wax Museum as well. We were able to smooth that out, then stabilize the jitters that caused the film to weave at times. At the time, colorist Gregg Garvin did Mystery of the Wax Museum for us. I guided him through the look of two-color. Two-color is an odd animal if you aren’t familiar with it, and Gregg was uncertain how it should look. He pre-built it in one direction relying on his own instincts. I said, “No, two-color has this kind of palate” and I showed him examples as we worked together. Very quickly he understood and dialed it in where it needed to be. The difficulty with Doctor X was that we were all under COVID-19 lock-down. I was working from home; I could not go to the archive nor to my vendors. Roundabout was on a skeleton crew with distancing and masking. Roundabout were still working but I could not be with Gregg. I already knew his talents and he understood what I wanted. He did the initial grade and sent me QuickTime files which I reviewed on my computer at home. I made my corrections and certain things that I knew were in the lighting scheme but not apparent in the scan, such as certain cross lights were implemented. There’s a plaque of Dr. Xavier’s Institute at night along a wall and Renahan had lit the bottom of the plaque with a green-blue cross light. Gregg couldn’t be certain of that because in the print he had it was faint. So, I asked him to augment that with more saturation, so it matched the intention.
The audio also progressed separately at Audio Mechanics. I could not be with engineer John Polito, but our working relationships spans 30 years and several hundred projects, so he and I are well-versed on antique film sound. He also sent me sound files and I auditioned critically and made my changes. Such as, where I wanted to lower the noise floor a few more decibels. You must be careful, you don’t want “digital black”, where everything goes dead silent. I like the sound to have an organic nest to sit in and optical sound has that organic sound. I wanted to get rid of extraneous noise without crossing that threshold. I found additional hums from the camera noise that John had missed. They’re fairly common in old movies. The better the track, the better you hear them and the more you clean the track the more you hear them. They tend to be pure tones, multiples of 60 cycles electric motors. The Technicolor camera always gave off a sound and can be present depending on how close it was to the mic.
So, we got all those out but there was one mystery section that I couldn’t figure out what was going on with it. The scene is where Fay Wray gets up at night after the first murder and goes to look for her father and she finds him in the laboratory where they put the dead bodies in a makeshift morgue and Doctor Haines is already there and has a lame excuse for why he’s already there. It’s meant to put suspicion on both Haines and Xavier as being the killer because they find out the body has been chewed on since they all went to bed. But while they’re standing, the sound gets extremely noisy and to my ear it almost sounds like a Vitaphone disc. It has this swishing sound and there’s more crackle, like an acoustical record. Warner Bros. stopped recording disc masters in 1931 and this was shot in 1932, so it’s a real puzzle. Doctor X’s recording was an electrical density optical through and through. This section sounds for all the world like some wax Vitaphone check disc for a quick playback. Perhaps that was done, and something happened to that day’s optical sound in the lab and they lost it. Maybe it was a camera failure. All I know is that we had to de-noise that section much more heavily, and even then on set under the microphone, there were all these pops and clicks going on. Now, frequently I will take things like that out, even if they are organic on set, because they weren’t meant to be heard. Whatever was going on there was happening live and I left it there.
How many people worked on this restoration?
SM: I would say at least twenty people had their finger in the pie. You had the sound engineer, the colorist, DRS artists, we had our film prep people and our vault people to pull the prints for us. The people at Warner Bros. did the scanning. There’s little old me but the major players would have been the technicians at Roundabout which is about maybe four or five, and our project supervisor Vincent Pirozzi.
During the lock-down, Martin Scorsese did an on-camera FaceTime chat with the BFI and behind him on the wall was an original one-sheet for Doctor X! His admiration for the film and his non-profit organization, The Film Foundation, were instrumental in bringing Doctor X into the 21st century and so we can all be grateful for that.
In the age of COVID-19 John Polito at Audio Mechanics works in isolation in his sound suite.
Similarly, Roundabout’s masked colorist Greg Garvin fine tunes the color correction in isolation, based on MacQueen’s proxy notes.
What would you like people to know about the work that is being done at UCLA to preserve film?
SM: Our staff includes Jillian Borders and Miki Shannon, and our activity runs the gamut from films noir like The Red House and Gun Crazy, to the 1978 Arthur Bressan documentary Gay USA to Spencer Williams’ Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. which is an all-Black retelling of Sadie Thompson, to perhaps the greatest Mexican film of the classic era, Enamorda. We have the Hearst newsreels and our preservationist Jeff Bickel has been working on civil rights episodes from the 1960s. We preserved the wonderful, eccentric W.C. Fields musical comedy International House and the wonderfully eccentric demonic possession film Supernatural with Carol Lombard. Animation is represented by Betty Boop from the 1930s, the George Pal Puppetoons from the 1940s, and the atomic war meditation [The Way of Peace (1947). We recently preserved a brace of forgotten Fox thrillers, William Cameron Menzies’ Almost Married from 1932 which is a pseudo-horror movie, and Sleepers East, each of which had but one surviving print until we preserved it. We save little pictures as well as important pictures, old and new, like Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise from 1932 and John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish from 1994. We believe strongly in 35mm film-on-film preservation but have strived mightily for the superior presentation and flexible techniques of digital restoration and DCP presentation, aiming for an amalgam of both. After all the digital massaging, the final step for Doctor X was a new 35mm negative for long-term archiving.
Finally, are you able to mention anything you are currently working on?
SM: We are currently working with The Film Foundation on William Deiterle’s All That Money Can Buy (1941) from the best and most complete elements. Parajanov: The Last Spring, is a documentary about the iconoclast Armenian film director Sergei Parajanov; the legendary Harold Lloyd-Preston Sturges collaboration, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. I would say the richness and diversity of our collections, and consequently our restorations, is what we celebrate.
Before and After Pictures:
Doctor X Gallery: New Restored Stills & Rare Stills
A big thank you to Scott MacQueen, The UCLA Film & Television Archive and Warner Bros. Entertainment
*Restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation in association with Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Funding provided by the Hobson\Lucas Family Foundation.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Look for DOCTOR X on Blu-ray disc and DVD – coming in Spring of 2021 from the Warner Archive Collection.
Restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation (THE RED HOUSE and DIRTY GERTIE FROM HARLEM U.S.A) and the Material World Charitable Foundation (ENAMORADA).