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Shemptember: The Strange Case of Dr. Rx (1942)

Shemp, the stooge who went on from the comedy group to have a minor movie career as a solo talent, and then returned when his brother Curly died, has a devoted fan base. His agent touted him as the ugliest man in Hollywood, which could be why fans enjoy superimposing Shemp's face into inappropriate scenarios including Obama's presidential portrait or creating memes like "Legalize Shemp." Join us this month as we explore the varied career and many talents of Shemp Howard.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Jerry Church (Patric Knowles) is a private detective just married to lovely mystery writer Kit Logan Church (Anne Gwynne) who finds himself embroiled in a mystery when criminals successfully defended by defense attorney Dudley Crispin wind up strangled. The only clue is a note left at the scene of the crime by a Dr. Rx. Kit fears for his safety and doesn’t want Jerry to continue investigating, but of course he does, presumably because this 66-minute programmer would be a lot shorter if he did give up the case. Along the way, he’s aided by a boozehound detective, Sergeant Sweeney (SHEMP!) and Edmund MacDonald. There are several suspects, but the main one seems to be Doctor Fish (Lionel Atwell) who always seems to show up at the wrong time, and certainly appears to be suspicious, in a way that only Lionel Atwell can.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Fish, also the name of a serial killer audiences might have prior knowledge of, wears Coke bottle glasses which conjure up images of sinister characters like Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, or at the very least the dimwitted but dangerous Milton in Office Space. He appears to be enjoying sitting around looking guilty.

RB: The highlight of the film for me, is Mantan Moreland who is very, very funny (he usually is) in the role of Horatio B. Fitzwashington, the valet/butler for the Church household. Some have criticized Moreland’s roles in most films (this one is no exception), but he’s honestly so likable and lovable here that I hesitate to see why anyone would find anything more stereotypical here than in any other old movie.

SG: Moreland is a controversial figure in film history because he was a black actor in a notoriously segregated and racist era. His roles are certainly colored by the expectations of the time, but his comedic talent cannot be denied. This is one of the funniest performances I've ever seen him deliver, and I came away from the film feeling a deeper appreciation for the actor. He has a reoccurring bit about his bad memory, which makes him insubordinate to his employer, and a spook scene where he insists a non-existent person pulled a knife on him. He also has a great gambling scene with Shemp; the two play well off of each other. Although his involvement in some of the racial stereotypes of the era made him somewhat unpopular among his peers during the fight for civil rights, Moreland was quite popular in his day, even starring in two films which bore his real name in the title: Mantan Messes Up and Mantan Runs for Mayor. Oddly enough, years later when Shemp died, Moreland was considered to become the third stooge before Joe Besser took the job. According to Moe, Columbia didn't want a black stooge.

RB: The rest of the cast is similarly likable, and if you enjoy this type of film, you’ll find many familiar faces. Knowles made this film right after The Wolf Man as part of a contract with Universal that kept him busy in horrors and musicals with an occasional stop in Abbott and Costello-land. If you know me, you know that I love those kinds of movies, so he is always a likable if somewhat bland presence in these.

Anne Gwynne was also appearing in those sorts of films around this time, including fun sounding films like Babes on Swing Street and Moon Over Las Vegas (which I recently saw, and can confirm is as good as it sounds…assuming you think that sounds good). She was very, very busy in the 1940’s but largely retired in the 50’s. A potential fun fact is that her grandson is popular modern actor Chris Pine who has starred as Captain Kirk in several Star Trek series in the 21st Century.

SG: It always amazes me how many modern stars have roots in old Hollywood.

Roscoe Williams for Motion Picture Daily said, "The Strange Case of Dr. Rx is even stranger than is par for Universal horror films, although considerably less horrific. The ape, which is standard equipment for these numbers, makes its entry late in the picture."

RB: During the last reel, the film takes a wild turn into science fiction territory including a gorilla (Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan, naturally) that it never quite recovers from, and, frankly, doesn’t really take much effort to resolve. Still, if you’re looking for a fun way to spend an hour with a few laughs along the way, I’d happily recommend this to any B-movie fan. And it’s available on Blu-ray in a gorgeous transfer.

SG: The audience at the studio preview seemed indifferent to the film. The Film Daily reviewer wrote, "The tortuous course of the plot is so complicated and muddled that they'll be lucky if they can unravel the whole mess at all... The horror fans will gurgle happily when the villain is on the verge of arranging a brain swapping act between the hero and a ferocious gorilla." Well, prepare my formula and slap a diaper on me, because this scene gave me a big kick.

Variety reported that The Wolf Man and Mad Doctor of Market Street, "whammed 'em for an entire week at the Aster. Since then it has been cleaning up in the nabes at the same admission scale as downtown." After a horror lull, it seemed that the genre was gaining popularity with wartime audiences, and that along with Ghost of Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Rx was a hit. "Turnstiles are clicking just as merrily." It is easy to see why filmgoers would enjoy the controlled chaos of a horror film, especially one filled with unlikely scenarios as this one is. Movies made uncomfortable subjects like death more palatable, even fun, with yarns like Dr. Rx.

RB: This is one of those films in which Shemp appears and your face (my face anyway) is sure to light up. Released on a bill that usually included either The Wolf Man or Ghost of Frankenstein (although, as you can imagine it also appeared with a menagerie of other films) and later devoured by baby-boomer monster kids on late-night Shock Theater airings, this is an easy three-and-a-half star diversion. Indeed, this is the kind of movie that I’m pretty much always up for.

SG: I can't claim to be a monster kid, although I did grow up watching the best-remembered Universal horror films. I am not well versed in the smaller efforts like this one, but I typically enjoy them when I see them. My favorites include moments of absurdity and humor and this movie ticks those boxes. Three solid stars.

SHEMP: Where were you on the night of January? MAN: What month? SHEMP: Nevermind.
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I do hope you'll cover at least one of the Universal swing musicals he appeared in. He's at his very best in the likes of SAN ANTONIO ROSE (where he and Chaney do a swell A&C act) and STRICTLY IN THE GROOVE.

Rodney Bowcock
Rodney Bowcock
Sep 25, 2023
Replying to

I need to find a copy of San Antonio Rose. Looks fantastic.

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