Bela Lugosi ( see yesterday’s post ) wasn’t the only horror icon who starred in a series of low-budget shockers. Boris Karloff signed a five picture deal with Columbia Pictures that was later dubbed the “Mad Doctor” series and, while several notches above Lugosi’s “Monogram Nine”, they were cookie-cutter flicks intended for the lower half of double feature bills. The first of these was THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, which sets the tone for the films to follow.
Karloff plays Dr. Henry Savaard, inventor of a new surgical technique that requires the patient to die, then reviving him with a mechanical heart after performing the operation. This later became standard operating procedure during open-heart surgery, but back in 1939 was considered science fiction! Anyway, Savaard’s young assistant Bob agrees to go through the experimental procedure, but his girlfriend freaks out and calls the cops, claiming Savaard is about to murder him. The cops, along with a reporter named Scoop no less, barge into the doctor’s lab and interrupt things. The delay causes Bob’s death and Savaard is arrested for murder.
We next get one of my favorite film devices, the spinning-newspaper-headlines montage! Savaard goes on trial, is found guilty, and sentenced to hang. Karloff gets to deliver a long, dramatic speech, which he does with his usual elegant style: “You who have condemned me, I know you’re kind. Your forebearers poisoned Socrates, burned Joan of Arc, hanged, tortured all those whose only offense was to bring light into darkness. For you to condemn me and my work is a crime so shameful that the judgement of history will be against you for years to come.” There’s more, but you get the gist, and King Boris delivers it with passion.
Next, more spinning headlines! Savaard’s about to be executed, and donates his body to science, but what the officials don’t know is his corpse will be handed over to his loyal assistant Lang, who revives Savaard from the dead. Then… no, not spinning headlines, this time it’s calendar pages marking the passing of time. Six months go by, and six of the Savaard jurors have hung themselves… or have they? Scoop smells a scoop, and his editor encourages him to get the story: “Make it weird! Make it dramatic! And make it snappy!”. Scoop gets wind that the judge has invited the remaining jurors, along with the DA, the lead cop, and the freaked-out girlfriend, to meet that evening at Savaard’s old house. Of course, it’s a trap, and now all Savaard’s enemies are in one place so he can pick them off one by one….
THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG isn’t a bad movie, though modern audiences will find the plot all too familiar. Boris is the glue that holds the thing together, and gives us a great performance. Others in the cast range from good to not-so-good. Lorna Gray’s in the latter category, in the thankless role of Savaard’s daughter Janet, who spends most of the picture in tears. Robert Wilcox as Scoop is just okay, no better or worse than any horror film hero. The Columbia Pictures stock company fills out the rest of the roster, including character favorites like Don Beddoe , Ann Doran, Roger Pryor, Byron Foulger, Charles Trowbridge, Dick Curtis , John Tyrell, and a young James Craig.
Nick Grinde’s direction keeps things moving, and Karl Brown’s screenplay has several soliloquies for Karloff to deliver. Brown’s career stretched back to D.W. Griffith and BIRTH OF A NATION, and he was cinematographer on the silent classic THE COVERED WAGON. He did some directing, but is mostly remembered for his screenplays on these Columbia Karloffs and what’s arguably Bela’s worst Monogram, THE APE MAN. The remaining “Mad Doctor” films mostly follow suit: THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES, BEFORE I HAND, and THE DEVIL COMMANDS (the fifth in Karloff’s contract was THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, a spoof co-starring Peter Lorre ). They’re all okay, not on a par with Karloff’s Universal or RKO classics, just B-movies that’ll keep you entertained on a cold Halloween night.