The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)
Directed by: Joheph H. Lewis
Written by: Al Martin
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Una Merkel, Claire Dodd, Nat Pendleton
In search for something to review – and to keep me occupied while my wife finished work on her book for NaNoWriMo – I have once again scanned my shelf for a boxed set with promising unexplored titles. This time, I picked up the Universal Cult Horror Collection, which I originally purchased for the delightful second-tier silver age classic The Mad Ghoul (1943) and the lower-ranking but enjoyable House of Horrors (1946). The other three titles on the disk, Murders in the Zoo (1933), The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942) and The Mad Doctor of Market Street are all thrillers showcasing villainous performances from Lionel Atwill, a favorite among fans of classic horror.
Murders in the Zoo being the only golden age title of the lot (also, for the record, not originally a Universal picture; it was a Paramount production), I made a point of watching that one awhile back. That made it a choice between Market Street and Rx, and the decision was made more or less at random. I’m sure I’ll get around to Rx soon enough.
Totally a real thing
The titular Mad Doctor of Market Street is Dr. Ralph Benson (Atwill), whose sign on Market Street advertises that he is a “Professor of Research.” He is, in fact, engaged in experiments aimed at prolonging human life – even to the point of infinity – but so far, his subjects lives are instead being cut short by his efforts. As a result, he is forced to flee Market Street after the opening sequence (calling the title of the film into question). When he is tracked aboard a ship, Benson starts a fire to facilitate his escape; he is one of a handful of survivors on a lifeboat that winds up stranded on a South Seas island.
After resuscitating a native who has just suffered a heart attack – and who has been assumed dead by the rest of her tribe – Benson declares himself the “God of Life.” He exploits his power by demanding that one of his fellow castaways (Clarie Dodd) be made his wife – whether she likes the idea or not.
One of the more dynamic compositions in the movie
Running only an hour in length, The Mad Doctor of Market Street has little time for either plot complication or character nuance. It’s a very straight-forward thriller, graced by a handful of clever stylistic touches (director Lewis would go on to be a favorite of early auteur theorists), but what really makes it enjoyable is Atwill. A talented actor who was by this time (thanks in part to a controversial personal life) relegated to second-string roles in bigger pictures and leading roles in second-string pictures (The Mad Doctor of Market Street was released as an opened for the bigger budgeted The Wolf Man), Atwill could always be relied upon to give a committed performance.
The role of Dr. Benson is written in very broad, simple terms, so there’s not much room for subtle nuance in Atwill’s performance. But his charisma and commitment ensure that just watching him ham it up is enough to keep things entertaining.
Atwill, Johnson and Rosina Galli
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Some very effective comic relief is provided by Una Merkel, who is well remembered for her outstanding performances in films like Destry Rides Again (1939), The Bank Dick (1940) and The Parent Trap (1961). Unfortunately, there is a second comic relief character, played by the less gifted Nat Pendleton. His presence is no worse than most cheesy tacked-on comic relief in horror films of the time, but the fact that there is already a much better source of laughs in the movie just calls attention to how pointless his presence is.
The leader of the native tribe is played by Noble Johnson, an imposing actor who specialized in playing “ethnic” roles with limited dialogue, as in The Mummy, The Most Dangerous Game (both 1932) and King Kong (1933). Here, he is given a little more dialogue than usual, and proves as strong a supporting presence as ever.
With a hokey but enjoyable script, a solid leading performance from Atwill and good support from Merkel and Johnson, the comforting familiarity of music recycled from more notable Universal horrors of the time, and a couple of very impressive set-pieces (particularly the burning of the ship), The Mad Doctor of Market Street is an entertaining little trifle of a movie, but nothing one need go too far out of one’s way to check out.
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