I spent the first fifteen minutes of The Mad Doctor of Market Street wondering why the movie didn’t have a better reputation. Yes, the title’s bad even before it was marginally ableist, but director Lewis has been rediscovered; why not Market Street. It starts as a traditional, albeit modern Universal horror picture with “pseudo” scientist Lionel Atwill killing some unwitting dope. Atwill wasn’t trying to kill the guy; instead, he used invermectin to put him in suspended animation, then revive him later. And it didn’t work.
So Atwill shaves his sinister guy beard into a mustache, puts on a dinner jacket, and gets mildly debonair on a cruise ship. He’s sailing to New Zealand under a false name, with detective Byron Shores also onboard, trying to sniff him out. Except Atwill’s shaved, so he’s basically invisible.
The movie then sets up its ensemble cast: leading lady Claire Dodd, leading man Richard Davies, Una Merkel as Dodd’s comic relief aunt, Nat Pendleton as comic relief lunkhead with a heart of gold, and John Eldredge as dipshit officer. Merkel’s going to New Zealand to finally get married, Pendleton’s going for a fight, Dodd’s accompanying Merkel, Davies is an M.D. working his way to an internship in Australia, and Eldredge doesn’t like Davies liking Dodd.
Thanks to Merkel and Pendleton, it feels like some weird MGM comedy, and for a while seems like it’ll be about the passengers finding out Atwill’s not what he appears.
Only, no, there’s a shipwreck, and they end up on a tropical island, and it turns out Market Street is a racist South Seas picture. Atwill saves Rosina Galli, one of the superstitious natives (who wear the latest swim trunks), and declares himself “the God of Life.”
It’s real bad—everything with the natives. So the reason Market Street has never been rediscovered is it isn’t some early moody, low-budget suspense thriller from Lewis; it’s just a cringe-worthy mess of racism.
Though there’s a surprisingly affecting scene later between Galli and Atwill when she thanks him for resurrecting her, something the film never quite explains.
After becoming the local deity, Atwill decides he will need to take a bride, and Dodd’s the lucky girl. It’s just as Dodd and Davies start getting cozy. So, lots of drama, fisticuffs, and bad wisecracks from Merkel.
Market Street becomes a screwball thriller, at least in how Lewis and cinematographer Jerome Ash shoot it. Lots of characters in static, very long medium shots, bantering and reacting. The ship sequence is well-directed and inventive with budget. The island stuff is mind-numbingly middling. It’s the identical setups and stagings, over and over again.
Atwill starts the movie as a caricature and then becomes its subject, not its lead, which works. He’s unpleasant to be around, in a good way. Also, in a bad way, when he’s running the island and bossing around chief Noble Johnson.
The cast is almost entirely likable. Eldredge is too much of an asshat, but otherwise, even Merkel eventually becomes sympathetic. Some of her problem is lousy timing from director Lewis, who doesn’t know what to do with humor. There’s one moment where Pendleton delivers a witty retort to Merkel, and it ought to be great, but Lewis is entirely confused.
Given it being a racist South Seas movie, however, it’s better there aren’t many pluses. There’s also something to be said about pre-World War II Hollywood racist characterizations being very similar to the mid-sixties mainstream sitcom ones.
In other words, Market Street’s a messed up three-hour tour. Even without the racism, it’d be a mess, though it’s one of those stories you can’t do without the racism.
But also not a terrible movie. Just a surprisingly disappointing and mortifying one.