The idea that Joseph H. Lewis’ The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) was Lionel Atwill’s last starring film — a popular notion among dilettante horror fans — is pretty off the mark. To start with, Atwill gets second billing (to Una Merkel’s comic performance, no less) even here. That’s the same billing he gets in The Strange Case of Dr. Rx (1942) and Night Monster (1942). Plus, getting third billing in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942) is pretty much the same thing as a second billing — though the movie isn’t properly horror. The idea, of course, is that Universal wanted to create some distance following Atwill’s well-publicized sex scandal in 1941, and that doesn’t really fit the facts. It might be conceded that Market Street was the last time he was the biggest genre name in a Universal film, but they kept him working in just about every “major” horror picture picture till the genre sputtered to a close. I’m also not sure why anyone would classify this entertaining B-picture oddity as a major film. It’s anything but.
The Mad Doctor of Market is one of the studio’s most curious entries. Atwill plays Dr. Ralph Benson, an outlaw scientist experimenting in one of those budget-friendly suspended animation things. Of course, no sooner does he bamboozle some poor schlub (Hardie Albright) to be his first human subject before the idea goes wrong, leaving Benson with a corpse on his hands and the cops pounding on the door. Not surprisingly, he makes a quick exit out the window of his Market Street digs. When next we see him (after a radio announcer gets the title of the movie in), he’s disguised himself (read: he took off the crepe hair beard) and is sailing to New Zealand. The shipboard mayhem amounts to no more than him chucking a pursuing detective (Byron Shores) overboard. Most of this part of the film is given over to Margaret Wentworth’s (Una Merkel) dithery comedy — aided by punchy boxer Red Hogan (Nat Pendleton) — and a burgeoning romance between her niece, Patricia (Claire Dodd), and deck steward Jim (Richard Davies). It’s entertaining, but it’s not really horrific.
However, things change when the ship catches fire (a surprisingly elaborate scene) and Benson finds himself — and our other major characters — stuck on a tropical island full of movie natives who inexplicably speak English and have the innate ability to elaborately choreographed ceremonies. They’re also inhospitable — planning to burn the white interlopers in a fire pit. This gets scotched when Benson manages to revive the chief’s (Noble Johnson) dead wife (Rosina Galli) with a jolt of adrenaline. Benson is promoted to the “god of life” and gives way to not merely setting up to experiment on his fellow survivors, but to give vent to his latent lechery (hey, it’s Atwill) concerning Patricia. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about all this is that it’s all packed into 61 minutes. Is it an unsung horror classic? Good Lord, no. But it’s fun and good-natured and directed with a good deal of style by Joseph H. Lewis (re-teamed here with his Invisible Ghost screenwriter, Al Martin). Confirmed Universal fanatics will appreciate the fact that the film has a unique extended version of the studio’s jaunty cast credit music at the end. The fact that I know that probably establishes me as one of those confirmed Universal fanatics.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Mad Doctor of Market Street on Thursday, March 28 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.