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Monday, April 18, 2016

Donovan’s Brain (1953) – Review

The mad scientist is truly one of the most beloved tropes of early science fiction stories, and I particular love the whole “brain in a jar” subgenre. Now the story that really started all this was the novel Donavan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak, who also wrote the screenplay for the 1941 Lon Chaney The Wolf Man, but this novel isn’t about a man fighting his animal nature, this is about a doctor trying to see if a brain could survive outside of the body. I’ve seen this film twice now and I’m still fuzzy on the medical value of living brains in jars, but then again I'm not a mad scientist. This 1953 movie was not the first adaptation of Donovan’s Brain as director George Sherman first took a crack at it in 1944 with The Lady and the Monster. That title was a bit misleading as most audience viewers wouldn’t expect the titular monster to be of a metaphorical nature. Curt Siodmak was to direct this 1953 version but studio politics nixed this and the job went to Felix E. Feist, who with a name like that should really be fighting Wonder Woman.

donavons brain

 The movie follows the work of Dr. Patrick Cory (Lew Ayres) as he tries to figure a way to get a brain to survive outside its host. His wife Janice (Nancy Davis who will later become First Lady Nancy Reagan) is a bit distressed that they’ve killed four capuchin monkeys in his attempt to prove his theories, and would really rather keep this latest monkey as a pet, but science must march on. When the brain of this latest monkey survives its removal and dumping into an aquarium things start looking up.


Janice is also no longer keen on keeping it as a pet.

This amazing breakthrough is interrupted by a phone call informing them of the nearby crash of a small business plane. This kind of medical emergency should be handled by the local on call doctor, but Dr. Frank Schratt (Gene Evans) is a bit of an alcoholic and was sleeping off a bender at Dr. Cory’s home and wasn’t able to field the call. So to save lives, and possible Frank’s job, Cory heads to crash site where the only survivor is millionaire William Donovan. The millionaire is seriously injured, and no one expects him to survive, but regardless they rush him to Cory’s place as it is the nearest medical facility. When Donovan does die Cory decides to check for brain waves and discovers that the brain can in fact survive after the body dies. He quickly cuts open Donovan’s head and plops the brain in a jar.


“I expect a Noble Prize and five years in jail for this.”

Both Cory’s wife and Frank question the ethics of all this but they are quickly convinced by Cory’s rhetoric on how this will explore man’s ability to understand emotions, thought processes, and the like. Unfortunately things get a bit complicated when Donovan’s heirs want to know if there was a last will and testament, and worse when a yellow photojournalist Herbie Yocum (Steve Brodie) wants to photograph the operating room were Donovan died. For some baffling reason, something about not wanting to arouse suspicion, he allows Yocum into the operating room to take pictures, with bloody jar containing the brain in plain sight. Yokum “accidentally” takes a picture of the brain which allows him to later blackmail Cory. Unfortunately for Yokum the brain eventually uses its telepathic powers to force him to drive off a cliff.


“Must kill self, and maybe pick up some milk on the way home.”

You see it turns out that when you take a brain out of a person and plop it in an electrified saline solution it’s going to develop telepathic powers, and this isn’t even the least believable element, no that would be Doctor Cory immediately ordering Frank to get ever crackpot book on psychic phenomena. Cory goes from average everyday obsessed scientist to a complete wackadoo scientist in record time, and the fact that he’s right does not lessen the stupidity of this. Worse is the fact that Janice and Frank are completely complicit in all the weird shit that goes down. That when they first fully realize that brain is controlling Cory, and don’t immediately run into the lab and smash the jar, makes them just as guilty as Cory. Frank does offer to Janice his services in “accidentally” tripping the breakers thus cutting off the power to the brain, but she of course turns him down as this would upset her wonderful husbands work.  When Frank does eventually get the balls to cut the power the brain has become too powerful.

vlcsnap-2016-03-26-22h47m02s214“Sorry Frank, the brain is totally making me kill you.”

The bulk of the film deals with Donovan’s brain telepathically taking over Cory’s body so that he can continue to rip-off the IRS and build another financial empire through graft and blackmail. These scenes are all handled beautiful by Ayres as he is basically playing two roles in this movie; scientist and loving husband and Donovan, a ruthless man who will let nothing, even death, stop him from amassing money and power. We can tell when the brain is manipulating when he begins to exhibit Donovan's personality traits such as smoking cigars, using ruthless personal manipulation, and walking with a limp. All traits Donovan was known to have.  These scenes where we see him begin to rebuild his fortune, through almost sheer force of will, are quite impressive. The only problem is that Donovan is still just a brain in a jar, and rather vulnerable because of it, despite being able to control people from miles away.


The brain eventually gets a fiery end when God steps in with some lightning.

Donovan’s Brain is classic B-movie science fiction, and should be heralded as the forefront of all killer brain movies; from Fiend Without a Face to Steve Martin’s The Man With Two Brains, countless lobes of terror owe a debt to Curt Siodmak.


And the brains just keep on coming.

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