A seriously undercover reporter: Lee Tracy vs. Dr. X

An old-time-film blogger’s Twitter feed (Nitrate Diva) just alerted me that the original “Dr. X” is now available on YouTube at full-length, so here it is. I had hoped to show it to my “Portrayal of the Journalist in Popular Culture” course last semester, but couldn’t get my hands anything as good as this copy — now online, presumably because it is sufficiently out of copyright for YouTube to allow it.

(You Tube has quite a few classic “newspaper” movies.)

Maybe some of the students are still following this blog to see what they missed: A reporter versus a serial killer in a horror/comedy with hints of secret high-tech (for 1932) medical research, madness, sadism and cannibalism. The title character, Dr. Xavier, is the head of a medical lab at the center of the murder investigation, while his daughter is the reporter’s romantic interest — played by Fay Wray, a year before she was carried up the Empire State Building by King Kong.

Filmed in an early color process in 1932, “Dr. X” features Hollywood’s leading “rascal” reporter, Lee Tracy, the original actor to play star journalist Hildy Johnson in “The Front Page” on Broadway in the 1920s.

Tracy wasn’t chosen to play that role in the 1931 film, which cast Pat O’Brien as Hildy, but Tracy had a wisecracking style that kept him playing reporters and publicity men for more than a decade.

In addition to “Dr. X,” he was a tough Broadway gossip in “Blessed Event” (also 1932), a Miss Lonelyhearts columnist in “Advice to the Lovelorn” (1933), a press agent in “Bombshell” (1933), a foreign correspondent in “Clear All Wires” (1933) and a tough city editor in Samuel Fuller’s “Power of the Press” in 1943… and probably other reporters in between.

“Dr. X” is a Lee Tracy classic — in fact, the character is given the name Lee Taylor, suggesting how close the actor and this type of role were identified. As a Daily World reporter, he hides under a shroud at the morgue to get literally undercover information,  slips into a whore house to borrow the phone, startles a beat cop with a handshake buzzer, misrepresents himself as a policeman using a press-credential badge, climbs a drainpipe to sneak into a second-story window, steals pictures from someone’s parlor, hides in a closet during the scientist’s secret investigation, and ultimately solves the murder and gets the girl.

The film was popular enough to rate a sequel in 1939, “The Return of Dr. X,” which has no Lee Tracy and none of the original characters, but a similar plot. In that movie, Humphrey Bogart plays one of the suspicious characters, while Wayne Morris plays another scrappy reporter investigating horrific murders.

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in ethics, Journalism, jpop, movies

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