(5/10) In a nutshell: The first film adaptation of Kurt Siodmak’s influential novel Donovan’s Brain features, for the first time on screen, a disembodied brain asserting its influence on people around it. Well shot and directed for second-tier studio Republic in a gothic noir style, and good acting from Erich von Stroheim and Richard Arlen. Unfortunately the script doesn’t live up to its source material and the film contains ghastly wooden acting from Czechoslovakian ice-skater-turned-studio-boss’-girlfriend Eva Hruba Ralston in her first feature role.
The Lady and the Monster (1944). Directed by George Sherman. Written by Dane Lussier and Frederick Kohner. Based on the novel Donovan’s Brain by Kurt Siodmak. Starring: Vera Hruba Ralston, Richard Arlen, Erich von Stroheim, Helen Vinson, Mary Nash, Sidney Blackmer. Produced by George Sherman for Republic Pictures. IMDb score: 5.1
The early forties were a golden age, in a sense, for really bad B horror movies, many of them featuring German mad scientists, for obvious reasons. One of these, and not at all the worst of them, was The Lady and the Monster. Now, the title is a tad misleading since, first and foremost, the movie doesn’t primarily concern a lady, and secondly, there isn’t really a monster in it. The green one with the claws, depicted on the poster to the right, has nothing at all to do with the movie. One supposes that both the title and the poster were made up simple to lure monster movie fans to cinemas.
The Lady and the Monster is, however, based on the seminal sci-fi novel Donovan’s Brain, written by German expat, director, screewriter, playwrite and producer Kurt (or Curt) Siodmak, the writer who basically invented the modern werewolf mythology for the film The Wolf Man in 1941. The novel tells the tale of Dr. Patrick Cory, who gets his hands on the brain of a millionaire megalomaniac W.H. Donovan, who crashes his plane near the house of Cory. Cory manages to keep Donovan’s brain alive in a saline solution, but soon the brain starts influencing Cory telepathically, putting Cory in a zombie-like state, while Donovan uses his body to continue his illegal financial business, and almost killing a little girl. With the help of his elderly alcoholic assistant, Cory is finally able to destroy the brain at the end of the book.
Notably absent from the book is the lady (unless you count Cory’s rich wife, who really isn’t of much consequence in the novel) and the monster. The book was adapted for the screen by screenwriters Dane Lussier and Frederick Kohner to better suit the the conventions of the mad scientist films, despite none of them having any experience with the genre. At the time Lussier had written a handful of little-known comedies and mystery stories, and would later co-write Dick Tracy vs Cueball in 1946, which remains his most notable entry. German immigrant Kohner was an experienced writer and author, who had worked both in Germany and Hollywood, but his screen credits were mostly from romantic comedies and musical films. Kohner rose to fame in the late 50s when he wrote the first book about the teenage surfer girl Gidget, based on the experiences of his own daughter. Six more books followed, and the series was adapted into five movies and two different TV series. In 1939 he was nominated for an Oscar for Mad About Music, and he is listed as a contributor to the Laurel & Hardy film Atoll K (1951).
Lussier and Kohner play to audience expectations and invent a new character, Dr. Mueller, a club footed mad scientist experimenting on methods of keeping brains alive after the host body has died. Mueller is played by Austrian veteran actor and director Erich von Stroheim, naturally with a German accent, wide-brimmed fedora and spectacles. Von Stroheim was now down on his luck after being shunned by Hollywood as a director for constantly overriding his budgets and deadlines. Stroheim was thrice sacked by producers. He did, however, have a good reputation as an actor, especially playing sinister, tightly wound characters, often military types. His seminal role, for which he earned an Oscar nomination, came in 1950 in the classic Sunset Blvd. The club foot is naturally a nod to the hunchbacked and shuffling henchmen of Frankensteinean films of yesteryear, and a touch that is ultimately both unnecessary and a bit too obvious. A lesser actor might have needed a physical aid to sell the role, but Stroheim could easily have pulled off the sinister character without such a crutch. He scowls and commands with those squinting, evil eyes, all the while gothically lit by Academy Award winning director of photography John Alton.
This means that Patrick Cory in the film is demoted the rank of assistant. Cory is initially hesitant to ”steal” the brain of the dead W.H. Donovan, but is coaxed on by Mueller. And as in the book, it is Cory that starts receiving telepathic signals from Donovan, telling him to raise money from a false account at a bank, and using it to pay Donovan’s old lawyer to get an accused murderer out of jail, with the intent of later killing him, as he is a witness to a crime committed by Donovan – and later Donovan tries to make Cory kill a young girl who is also a witness. Trying to bring him away from the influence of both Donovan and Mueller is his girlfriend and also assistant to Mueller, Janice Farrell, who also happens to be the object of Mueller’s own affections. The fourth cog in the wheel is Mueller’s housekeeper Mrs Fame who also seems to have her own motivations. Further complicating matters are Chloe Donovan, the late Mr. Donovan’s widow, and Eugene Fulton, the lawyer.
Cory is played by Richard Arlen, a leading man somewhat past his prime, whom I liked very much as the naive, good-hearted hero of the horror classic Island of Lost Souls (1932, review). Arlen is once again very good as the naive, good-hearted Cory, but I don’t completely buy him when he is channelling Donovan. There are moments when he does a good Dwight Frye imitation, but on the whole his performance as Donovan in Cory’s meatsuit is somehow off kilter, a bit too manic, a bit too stilted. Arlen wouldn’t return to the sci-fi genre again until 1968 in the Richard Kiel vehicle The Human Duplicators.
The real problem of the film, though, is the leading lady, played by Czechoslovakian Vera Hruba Ralston. Vera Hruba was something of an ice skating sensation when she competed in the European figure skating championships and the Olympics in 1936, as well as the European championships in 1937, after which she relocated to USA. Despite her own assurances of the matter, she didn’t win the silver medal in the 1936 Olympics – she finished 17th. The gold medal went to Norwegian Sonja Henie, who became an instant star when she moved to Hollywood the same year as Hruba, often starring in ice skating films. Hruba also claims that she personally met and insulted Adolf Hitler at the Olympics, which is doubtful – other sources claim that she simply refused to perform the Nazi salute.
While in the States Hruba joined the show troupe Ice-Capades, where she was seen by the president of Republic Pictures, Herbert Yates, who was immediately infatuated with her – so much that he signed the whole Ice-Capades to do two Ice-Capade movies, after which Hruba was given an acting contract and her first acting role. However, Yates added ”Ralston” to her name, as press and cinemas kept misspelling her surname. She later dropped ”Hruba” altogether, as no-one in Hollywood was able to pronounce it correctly.
That first film Hruba Ralston was assigned to was The Lady and the Monster. Not only did Hruba Ralston not have any acting experience, she hardly spoke any English. Legend has it that she had to learn her lines phonetically and often didn’t quite understand them. That is certainly what it looks like when watching the film. Her two expressions are bewildered blandness and bewildered terror, and she never seems to quite understand what is going on (which one might say is quite suitable for her role). But there are also redeeming qualities, as it is obvious that she is trying really hard, and you can’t help but feeling a bit sorry for her. See here a young girl snatched up by a Hollywood executive 40 years older than herself, dead set on making his new love interest a movie star, despite the fact that she couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag.
Yates continued to try and build his movie empire around poor Ralston, who was miscast in film after film. After two films playing against John Wayne (Wyoming, 1945 and The Fighting Kentuckian, 1949), Wayne threatened never to work with Republic again if he had to do another film with her. He later called her ”the worst darn actress I ever worked with”. Sterling Hayden was given a huge a bonus for working with her in Timberjack, after a dozen other actors had refused. She did 12 films with director Joseph Kane, who never said a good word about her acting, but nevertheless called her ”cooperative, hard-working and eager to please”, and said she never personally took an advantage of being Yates girlfriend and later his wife. Yates, however, faced two law suits for favouring Ralston over other actresses, and showering her films with money while leaving better movies in their shadows. He was finally ousted from Republic in 1958, which also marked the end of Ralston’s acting career. His mishandling of Ralston is often cited as one of the reasons for Republic’s demise as a semi-major studio.
Much better, despite a nondescript role, is Helen Vinson as Chloe Donovan, the scheming widow of Mr. Donovan. Vinson was an established Broadway and Hollywood veteran, known for films like the thrice Oscar nominated I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934) and King Vidor’s Venice Film Festival winner The Wedding Night (1935), starring Gary Cooper and Anna Sten.
Turning in a solid performance is also noted character actor and Tony Award winner Sidney Blackmer, famous for playing Teddy Roosevelt in seven different films. This was his only sci-fi film, although he did appear in the episode The Hundred Days of the Dragon in the TV series The Outer Limits in 1963. A modern audience probably knows him best from his memorable performance as the cult leader Roman Castevet in Roman Polanski’s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby.
Another veteran of the stage was Mary Nash, as Mueller’s sinister housekeeper. Sinister and nasty roles were a bit of a staple for her, as IMDb points out: ”She is best remembered on screen for being nasty to Shirley Temple in Heidi (1937) and The Little Princess (1939), and for playing Katharine Hepburn’s elegant and proper society mother in The Philadelphia Story (1940). In addition, she gave excellent value-for-money in the role of Emma Louise in Come and Get It (1936) and as the ill-fated queen in the technicolor adventure Cobra Woman (1944).
The role of the girl who is the subject of Donovan’s murder plans is played expertly by former child actor sensation Juanita ”Baby Jane” Quigley, in her next to last credited film role before she retired. She became an all-American sweetheart when she played the 3-year old Baby Jessie Pullman in the 1934 film Imitation of Life, and movie-goers learned to recognise her in a number of films in the thirties. In the forties her career dwindled, although she was briefly involved in the Our Gang film series. Her last credited, and one of her best remembered, roles came just after The Lady and the Monster, when she played Elizabeth Taylor’s sister in National Velvet. She became a nun in the fifties, but later left the vocation and married. She was not, however, part of the film Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983), as IMDb would have you believe. Rather, she has continued to live a peaceful, private life with her husband and grandchildren and seldom talks about her movie career.
In a small role we see bit-part actor Charles Cane, who appeared in over 100 films, more often than not as a sheriff or police officer, including Invaders From Mars (1953, review), and not least the follow-up to Creature of the Black Lagoon; Revenge of the Creature (1955), where he was actually credited, and thus out-credited the uncredited Clint Eastwood.
Kurt Siodmak is an often unsung pioneer in the realm of horror and sci-fi. The Polish-born and later German jew emigrated to the United States in 1939, after a career in the German and British movie scene, including a couple of science fiction films and books in the genre. In 1942 he was tasked with bringing The Wolf Man to the screen, and in writing his the script that made Lon Chaney Jr. a star, and the follow-up Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), he single-handedly invented most of what is now the modern werewolf mythology. In 1942 he wrote the equally influential book Donovan’s Brain. The Lady and the Monster was its first film adaptation, a second one, Donovan’s Brain, came in 1953, and a third one, The Brain, in 1962. In 1968 he wrote a quasi-sequel called Hauser’s Memory, which was turned into a film with the same name in 1970. And if we look bayond the straight adaptations, dozens of films, books, comics and series have been built upon the central premise of a brain out of a body imposing its will on others. The Lady and the Monster may not be the best of the pack, but it is historically noteworthy since it appears to be the first of its kind. Of course we have had dead people imposing their will on other before, but in earlier films this was mainly done through more esoteric means, like souls or ghosts. The idea of the brain transplant is naturally central to the whole Frankensteinean lore, but as such it has always needed a body to operate. The Lady and the Monster is probably the first film where a physical brain acts without a body (although we do still move in the esoteric realm, since Donovan’s brain still has to use telepathy to influence Cory). For more on Siodmak and his sci-fi work, see my review of The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review).
One thing that makes the film stand out is the stunning lighting and photography by John Alton, who won an Oscar for his work on An American in Paris in 1951, received a Los Angeles Film Critics lifetime achievement award in 1993 and was nominated for a number of international awards. Alton was better known for film noirs inspired by German expressionism, and here he brings on a play of shadows and light rarely seen in Hollywood after the early days of the Universal horror films – sometimes to the degree that it seems as if Alton is actually trying to use the lighting to cover up the inadequacies of the script. Alton just worked on one other sci-fi film, 12 to the Moon (1960).
And while we’re at it: As mentioned, the script deviates quite a bit from the book when it comes to the characters. In effect it splits the book’s single main character into three different characters without bringing much new material to the table except for a rather inconsequential triangle drama. This means that what in the book is a complex character battling with different aspects of the scientific work and its morals, as well as the influence of Donovan, we here divedes these aspects into three different persons, making them all rather bland and one-sided. Mueller os just as un-nuanced as most mad scientists in B-films, that Janice is devoid of any personality is the fault of the script just as much as Ralston, and although Arlen does a good job with Cory, his character ultimately doesn’t reveal much character either.
At one point the film, when Donovan possesses Cory for a long stretch of time, the film morphs into a mystery crime drama, which does help alleviate some of the mad scientist tropes, but on the other hand feels a bit out of place. There’s a nice sense of mystery, though, as Donovan’s ultimate goals aren’t immediately revealed to the viewer, who can’t always be quite sure if Donovan or Cory is in the driving seat. But the many different characters who all seem to have their own agendas also make for an overly convoluted storyline, and some of the subplots never really get satisfying answers. Nevertheless, the film moves on at a steady pace, and the 70 minute running time doesn’t seem overly long, although it could probably have played just as well at 60. There is, for example, a completely uncalled for song and dance number in the first quarter of the movie, which seems to have been stuck in just to give the film a sense of glamour, perhaps for the benefit of the trailer. The dialogue is quite hokey at times, but such is almost always the case with these B films.
The score by Walter Scharf is a good piece of soundtrack, seldom overpowering the script or the actors, but underscoring the film with a sense of suspension and tension, and blowing up in full crescendo just at the right few dramatic moments. Scharf was nominated for a full 10 Oscars, but never won. He did, however, receive a Golden Globe for best original song for his work in Ben (1972) and an Emmy for his work on The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau (1968). He was even co-nominated for a Grammy for best soundtrack for the soundtrack of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He just scored the pilot, though, and one suspects that the Grammy nomination came primarily for Lalo Schifrin’s legendary theme song.
Director George Sherman shows a steady hand at the helm, often contrasting wide shots of Mueller’s gothic lab with narrow close-ups of machinery or hardly lit faces. There are some very nice pans and tracking shots of the lab, experimental low-angle shots and of course the wonderfully expressionistic lighting of the DP Alton creates a very claustrophobic and moody atmosphere. It does beg the question why Sherman didn’t do more noirs, even if he did some slight dabbling in his crime films. Of all his over 200 films, the large majority were westerns, with some crossover into crime, mystery and adventure. All but 1 were B films. His only A film as a director was the John Wayne western Big Jake (1971), but even then Wayne ultimately had to take over as Sherman’s health faltered.
The film’s sound department was in good hands: sound engineer Earl Crain Sr. had been around since the advent of sound cinema and had over 70 movies or serials under his belt. This was his first sci-fi outing although he would later go on to record and create sound for the serials King of the Rocket Men (1949), The Invisible Monster, Flying Disc Man From Mars (both 1950), and the films Lost Planet Airmen (1951), Invaders From Mars (1953) and the 1967 comedy The Reluctant Astronaut.
A mention must be given to the special effects and the props of the laboratory. One must suspect that much of the machinery of the lab was borrowed, stolen and reused, as was often the case on these films, but a man who most certainly had a hand at for example the brain itself and some of the equipment was special effects man Theodore Lydecker. Along with his brother Howard ”Babe” Lydecker, Theodore was something of a star within the special effects field in Hollywood at the time, as he helped Republic create what was probably the best special effects, ans especially miniature and miniature photography, of the Hollywood serials. (For example Universal’s special effects guru John P. Fulton was forbidden from working with Universal’s serials, as not to take him a way from movie making.)
”The Lydecker Brothers” were masters of miniature building, photographing and up-blowing. They created hyper-realistic buildings and plains, trains and automobiles, and often shot their miniature sets with natural lighting and forced perspective so that they would both look realistic and huge at the same time. They also loved big explosions and car crashes, and did elaborate wire work with airplanes, flying saucers and even styrofoam dummies in serials like Adventures of Captain Marvel and King of the Rocket Men (review). They were both nominated for two Oscars and won a Golden Globe. They worked on over 100 films or serials together, and Theodore’s IMDb credits lists over 360 productions in film and TV – many of them within the realm of science fiction. They both worked on virtually every one of Republic’s sci-fi serials, including their first one, Undersea Kingdom (1936, review), starring Ray ”Crash” Corrigan, which was Republic’s answer to Universal’s Flash Gordon, released the same year (review), as well as Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, review), Captain America (1944), Flying Disc Man From Mars (1950) and Radar Men From the Moon (1952). Theodore also created effects for two sci-fi films in the fifties, Tobor the Great (1954, review) and The Atomic Kid (1954).
All in all: Great atmosphere, lighting and filming, some very decent acting from most of he cast, and good production values make for a thoroughly enjoyable film. The movie was a minor box office hit when it was released, probably taking back its production cost, despite mixed reviews. The script suffers from bad dialogue and changes from the source novel are mostly for the worse. The crime drama/sci-fi horror crossover is a mixed blessing: it does bring some much-needed pace and vibrancy to the stuffy mad scientist plot, but there are too many subplots and loose ends for the viewer to follow. And then, of course, there’s the case of Vera Hruba Ralston, poor girl. Nevertheless, this is a must-watch for any serious sci-fi aficionado, just because of the novelty of the theme at the time it was made.
The Lady and the Monster (1944). Directed by George Sherman. Written by Dane Lussier and Frederick Kohner. Based on the novel Donovan’s Brain by Kurt Siodmak. Starring: Vera Hruba Ralston, Richard Arlen, Erich von Stroheim, Helen Vinson, Mary Nash, Sidney Blackmer, Janet Martin, William Henry, Charles Cane, Juanita Quigley, Josephine Dillon, Antonio Triana, Lola Montes. Music: Martin Scharf. Cinematography: John Alton. Editing: Arthur Roberts. Art direction: Russell Kimball. Sound: Earl Crane Sr. Special effects: Theodore Lydecker. Wardrobe supervisor: Adele Palmer. Produced by George Sherman for Republic Pictures.