The Man With Nine Lives

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(5/10) In a nutshell: One of five films that Columbia made with Boris Karloff, more or less from one and the same script, this 1940 cryogenics film is competently made and quite enjoyable. At least you’ll get a few chuckles out of the utterly silly science, like doctors reviving patients from cryogenic stasis with pots of hot coffee.

The Man With Nine Lives. 1940, USA. Directed by Nick Grinde. Written by Karl Brown & Harold Shumate. Starring: Boris Karloff, Roger Pryor, Jo Ann Sayers. Produced by Irving Briskin & Wallace MacDonald for Columbia. IMDb score: 6.4

Boris Karloff and the stupid authorities arguing over a frozen man in a promo still.

Boris Karloff and the stupid authorities arguing over a frozen man in a promo still.

1940 saw a brief burst of science fiction/mad doctor films, before the genre started to wane in the forties. One reason was Boris Karloff, who appeared in four(!) such films that year: The Ape, Before I Hang, Black Friday and The Man With Nine Lives. The Man With Nine Lives was one of five mad scientist films that Karloff did for Columbia under a short period of time, and one of three directed by Nick Grinde.

The basic setup is this: A medical doctor called Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is researching the secrets of ”frozen therapy”, basically cryogenics, but to get to the bottom of it all, he needs to learn the secrets of a Dr. Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), who, when experimenting with the subject was accused of murder, and subsequently disappeared in his remote house along with five other men seven years ago, and is now presumed dead. Mason travels to the house along with his nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers), despite the warnings of the locals.

Roger Pryor and Jo Ann Sayers performing frozen therapy on Minta Durfee.

Roger Pryor and Jo Ann Sayers performing frozen therapy on Minta Durfee. “More ice!”

When falling through the rotten floor the two discover a cave of ice behind a locked door (glacier ice, we learn later. This ”glacier ice” seems to turn up in caves in a number of mad scientist films of the era in the most bizarre places, where there aren’t any glaciers for hundreds of miles). Within they find the frozen body of Dr. Kravaal, and revive him with hot coffee. In a long flashback sequence Kravaal tells the story of how he treated a patient in his cave, whom the authorities thought was dead, and to save his work buried them, and accidentally himself in ice. There is also a subplot concerning a gas that preserved them during the long sleep, which becomes the MacGuffin of the film – as he later has to experiment on the four other men that he keeps prisoners after reviving them. In essence this turns into a hostage drama with Mason and Blair in the middle. And we all know how it ends.

Boris Karloff and the four stooges. Noted character actor Byron Foulger on the bottom left.

Boris Karloff and the four stooges. Noted character actor Byron Foulger on the bottom left.

I may have previously judged these Columbia cheapos with Karloff rather harshly without having actually seen them. After watching three of the five films I must admit that, although certainly no masterpieces of cinema, they do adhere to a certain standard. At no point do they sink to the ghastly point that for example some of Bela Lugosi’s films in the forties. Seen as separate entities they are not too bad, but alas, together they are ripoffs of ripoffs, and all five follow the same basic formula: a good scientist (Karloff) experiments with things in an attempt to help humanity. But when misunderstood and judged by simple-minded authorities who destroy his work and sentence him to death, he turns bad and goes in search of revenge of those who have wronged him. At least in all three of the films I have seen, Karloff in one way or another returns from the dead (although in The Man With Nine Lives he’s never technically dead until he actually dies in the end, making the title a bit of a misnomer, but then again, so were all the Columbia Karloff films. In The Man They Could Not Hang, they actually did hang him, in Before I Hang he never actually hung and in The Devil Commands the devil actually never commanded anything. Who came up with these titles?!).

What is immediately obvious from this script from the start, is that it is utterly bonkers. It is difficult to take anything seriously after watching the opening scene where Dr. Tim Mason shows off his brilliant new innovation in ”frozen therapy”. This is how it goes: pack the patient in ice. Take the temp with a mercury thermometer under the tongue. Ta-daa! There you have ”frozen therapy”. And how to revive them from their stasis? Yes, with hot coffee. And later, down in the cave, we see that apparently no other hot drink will do – it explicitly must be coffee, for some reason. I mean, even in the early forties this must have seemed utterly daft. This was the age when medical science learned how to keep a heart alive outside the body. Surely they had other ways of keeping a body chilled than simply pouring ice over the operating table? And I seriously doubt that coffee was part of the medical arsenal.

Roger Pryor, Boris Karloff and Jo Ann Sayers.

Roger Pryor, Boris Karloff and Jo Ann Sayers.

Another amusing fact is that Dr. Kravaal’s mansion had been searched ”inside and out” for seven years, without finding even the slightest clue to what happened. Mason and Blair simply fall through the floor and land almost directly in Kravaal’s lab. When the police where looking for bodies, didn’t they think of looking under the floor boards? And one assumes that there would have been a hidden door or a hatch for Kravaal to traverse through, or did he also fall through the floor to get to his lab? I find it hard to believe that a team of hardy police inspectors would miss a hidden door when searching for six missing people in a house.

Jo Ann Sayers and Roger Pryor getting warned by Ernie Adams.

Jo Ann Sayers and Roger Pryor getting warned by Ernie Adams.

And then we have the idea of the gas. This is how it goes: Back in ye olde days when Kravaal was suspected for murder, he concocted a poison in a jar, and threatened to release its gas if his inquisitors would not let him finish his treatment of the frozen man. When he is finally revived he realises that it was this gas that kept them alive in the ice. But here’s the catch: when making his poison, he carefully wrote down the measurements of the ingredients. But when brought back to life, one of the stupid authority guys burn the note. This is required, because this leads us to the meat of the story: Kravaal has to experiment on the men to find out just the right mixture. But hang on: how does this work? How did he know, without looking it up in any book, how to make the poison in the first place? If he did it from memory, why couldn’t he just make the poison again? But then, of course, we wouldn’t have a film. And furthermore, I’m getting a bit tired of all these authority men who are always so eager to tear away Karloff from a dead body, when he time after time assures them he can revive the poor sod. I mean, it’s not like the guy is gonna get any deader if they just give Karloff another hour. Really, give the authorities some credit here. Especially since Karloff always plays a very respected scientist in these films, one would think he would be given the benefit of a doubt.

Nick Grinde was a pretty anonymous director best known for directing fast-paced crime films for Columbia at the time, and today people remember him, if they do, for his three Karloff movies. Grinde has a steady hand and brings a fluent pace to his films. If there are faults to be found with The Man With Nine Lives, they won’t be found in the direction. A James Whale Nick Grinde ain’t, but the workmanlike direction is solid. Another thing that this film does right is the set design – especially the ice cave is very nice work – so nice in fact, that one almost suspects that it was borrowed from some other production. But art director Lionel Banks also makes good work with the cave/basement and the lab, creating some nice atmosphere and actually makes it look like a real place, with all its furniture, the small kitchen, the fireplace, book shelves, etc, rather than yet another spooky film set. And no wonder, Lionel Banks was nominated for an Oscar seven times.

Edward Bernds.

Edward Bernds.

Cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline made a lot of westerns, but also filmed the sci-fis The Man Who Turned to Stone, and one of our favourites on this blog, The Giant Claw (both 1957). If you want to look for a sci-fi connection out of the lot, then your best bet is actually the sound engineer Edward Bernds, who turned to directing in 1945, and went on to direct, among 100 films, Space Master X-7 (1958) and The Return of the Fly (1959).

Boris Karloff, as usual, keeps up his end of the bargain, pulling off that usual feat of his: managing to be at once lovable, benign and brooding, menacing. One must assume that Karloff started taking on these mad scientist roles in an eagerness to prove that he had a wider range than just playing the hulking Frankenstein monster, but must have become utterly frustrated by being typecast as the mad scientist, a role he reprised ad infinitum, while trying his best to get away from the genre. In these Columbia films he clearly tries to find ways to make what is basically the same role over and over again, different in each film, and to a certain extent he actually manages to do so. When watching the movies back-to-back, one can clearly see a slightly different personality in each of them – even down to the way Karloff moves and carries himself. In this one, he also sports a nice goatee, Sigmund Freud-style, which actually suits him quite well.

Roger Pryor, heartbreaker.

Roger Pryor, heartbreaker.

Roger Pryor was considered a poor man’s Clark Gable during the thirties, and actually got to play he lead in one big film, Belle of the Nineties in 1934, opposite Mae West. Although not overly handsome, he did have a slick mustachioed charm about him that earned him leading man roles up until the beginning of the forties – and he also had a slight family resemblance to famed character actor Cedric Hardwicke. Apart from Karloff, Pryor probably delivers the best performance in what is essentially the leading man role in The Man With Nine Lives. He also appeared in a large supporting role in one of the other Columbia Karloff pictures, The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review).

Jo Ann Sayers appeared in 15 films during her short stint in Hollywood from 1938 to 1940, one third of them being shorts. Apart from this film, she had one other leading lady role in a 1940 B film. The Man With Nine Lives was her last Hollywood film before moving to the Broadway stage, but quit after just a year to marry. Although she left full-time acting, she spent much of her life supporting theatre and music, co-founding a children’s theatre and serving in prominent capacities in cultural institutions, big and small, giving special consideration to orchestras and theatres. Her performance in The Man With Nine Lives is adequate, without being memorable.

Byron Foulger wearing his trademark expression.

Byron Foulger wearing his trademark expression.

The rest of the cast play their crudely written stereotypical roles as well as may be expected from a bunch of seasoned B-movie veterans. Most notable among the supporting cast is probably Byron Foulger, the small, nervous man who would play meek or irritable little men in nearly 500 films big and small throughout his career, and who’s face was familiar to all movie-goers in the forties, although few might have remembered his name. He also appeared in the serials The Spider (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), as well as the sci-fi films The Man They Could Not Hang, Man Made Monster (1941, review), Mighty Joe Young (1949), Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review), The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), The Rocket Man (1954), and as a guest star in the TV series Space Patrol (1952), The Twilight Zone (1959) and The Time Tunnel (1967).

In a small role we see Bruce Bennett, previously known as Herman Brix. Brix was a shot-put champion who rose to fame as Tarzan in 1935. He played the lead in the awful Sky Racket (1937, review) and the almost equally bad serial The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938, review). He still clinged to the leading man role in Before I Hang, but was reduced to a bit-part in The Man With Nine Lives (watch out for him as a state trooper). He appeared as a guest star in a number of episodes of the TV series Science Fiction Theatre, and in the fifties and sixties his career took a turn for the worse, when he found himself in films such as The Cosmic Man and The Alligator People (both 1959), as well as The Clones (1973), his next-to-last film.

The beautiful Jo Ann Sayer, whose movie career was short but intense.

The beautiful Jo Ann Sayer, whose movie career was short but intense.

As a small curiosity: the role of the frozen therapy patient in the beginning of the film is played by Minta Durfee, a comedienne who started her career on stage as early as 1908, and began acting in the fledgling Hollywood industry in 1914, teaming up with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, and her husband Roscoe ”Fatty” Arbuckle. Although she sometimes took decade-long breaks from films and starred mostly in uncredited bit-parts throughout her later career, she kept on making movies until her death in 1975.

All in all The Man With Nine Lives is a competently made, rather blandly acted film with a ridiculous script that more or less retells the same story we have seen in previous Columbia films, which were themselves ripoffs of previous Boris Karloff films like The Walking Dead (1936, review) and The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936, review).

Janne Wass

The Man With Nine Lives. 1940, USA. Directed by Nick Grinde. Written by Karl Brown & Harold Shumate. Starring: Boris Karloff, Roger Pryor, Jo Ann Sayers, Stanley Brown, John Dilson, Hal Taliaferro, Byron Foulger, Charles Trowbridge, Ernie Adams, Bruce Bennett/Herman Brix. Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline. Editing: Al Clark. Art direction: Lionel Banks. Second unit director: Arthur S. Black Jr. Sound: Edward Bernds. Produced by Irving Briskin & Wallace MacDonald for Columbia.

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8 thoughts on “The Man With Nine Lives

  1. First, Kravaal is clearly shown entering his subterranean lab through a secret door hidden behind a grandfather clock which is operated by using the hands of the clock as a combination lock.

    Also, the science (other than the coffee) isn’t so silly. Mason packed ice around his patient to lower the body temperature to 88 degrees – certainly far from frozen – but packing a patient in ice is EXACTLY what you would do to lower the body temperature. I’m not going to defend the revival-by-coffee bit, because that is just silly – though it was also only part of the process of re-warming the patient, which also included heat and blankets – again – exactly as would actually be done to warm a hypothermic subject. Also, the REASON for reducing the body temperature to fight cancer – because cancer cells are less resistant to the cold than healthy cells – is analogous to the reasoning behind chemo and other actual therapies for cancer – which were not yet developed in 1940. In other words, the science is merely speculating from then-current theory to what may be possible in the then near future. Isn’t that was science fiction does?

    But where this movie really shines above its peers, IMHO, is in its ideas. In particular, its exploration (whether intentional or not) of both the boundaries of ethical research, and the subsequent use of medical advances achieved though unethical means. These are significant ideas in a world as yet ignorant of both the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and the horrors of Josef Megele. In that regard, this movie is positively prescient, and it is this which elevates it to a standing among the best pre-1950 scifi.

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    • Thanks for the comment! I do think the boundaries of ethical research was explored in a number of similar films from the era though, although the Karloff ones were often better put together than lesser efforts.

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