Donovan’s Brain

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Based on The Wolf Man creator Curt Siodmak’s influential novel, this is the first real sentient-brain-in-a-vat film. It’s hampered by a rather dull tax fraud subplot and the generic mad scientist storyline, which was quite passé in 1953 – even though the scientist, played by Lew Ayres, isn’t mad at all. On the plus side, the direction feels modern and grounded and the acting is primarily good. Holes in logic abound, and the ending is a cop-out. Stars future First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Donovan’s Brain (1953). Directed by Felix E. Feist. Written by Hugh Brooke & Felix E. Feist. Based on the novel Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak. Starring: Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, Nancy Reagan, Steve Brodie. Produced by Tom Gries for Dowling Productions. Tomatometer: 50 %. IMDb score: 6.0/10.

The original brain in a vat.

The original brain in a vat.

There are tropes in science fiction that have become so commonplace today, that they are reduced to clichés. The time machine, the UFO, the mad scientist, the lunar landing, the killer robot, the invisibility serum, and of course the disembodied brain. The ”brain in a vat” has become a staple villain of sci-fi comics, the best known are probably Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Brain in DC Comics. The disembodied brain has also turned up in a number of TV series and films, and the basic concept has been drawn upon for cyborgs like Robocop. But the one film that people keep referring to as the essential brain-in-a-vat film is the independently produced Donovan’s Brain, made in 1953, based on Curt Siodmak’s novel of the same name.

Poster.

Poster.

This wasn’t even the first adaptation of Siodmak’s book. That was Orson Welles’ radio spoof in 1944. That was followed quickly by Republic’s horror film The Lady and the Monster (1944, review), starring a slumming Erich von Stroheim and ice skater Vera Hruba Ralston. It was later remade again as the British film The Brain (1962). Donovan’s Brain, the novel written by Siodmak in 1942, is likewise considered as the ultimate brain novel, and Siodmak is often credited as the inventor of the brain-in-a-vat trope. It is true that he popularised the idea in the anglophone world in the forties, and cemented many of the ideas identified with the trope, but he was hardly the first.

The fascination with the brain as an organ that might survive without a body started in the late 18th century when scientists slowly gained a better understanding of the functions of the human body and the central nervous system. In the early 19th century there was widespread experimentation going on with dead bodies in efforts to understand how they worked, some rather grotesque, and even rumours about mad scientists reviving bodies from the dead, leading Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein in 1818. The brain played a pivotal role in the 1931 film adaptation of the novel, thanks to that famous scene in which Dwight Frye drops a jar with a brain in it. And who knows how many brains the Frankenstein creature housed over the coming twenty years in Universal films (some written by Siodmak himself).

The abnormal brain from Frankenstein in 1931.

The abnormal brain from Frankenstein in 1931.

Lauded sci-fi author H.G. Wells didn’t quite go as far as having brains in vats, but he describes his Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898) more or less as big, leathery brains with a few life-supporting organs and tentacles, and the Grand Selenite in his novel First Men in the Moon (1901) ruled the moon with his giant, overgrown brain, stimulated by a big, pulsating ”jar”, creating the trope of the big-headed alien.

Krang in TMNT cirka 1990.

Krang in TMNT cirka 1990.

As far as actual brains in vats go, one of the first fictional examples is Alexander Belyaev’s novel Head of Prof. Dowell (1925), in which the protagonist experiments with ways of keeping the heads of dead people alive. H.P. Lovecraft’s Mi-go aliens in The Whisperer in the Darkness (1931) transport people’s brains between planets in jars. The first example of a disembodied brain with superpowers came two years before Siodmak’s novel. The comic magazine More Fun published a story in 1940 which the superhero Spectre battles a human brain in a vat that becomes mobile and even sprouts an arm. One does wonder if Siodmak didn’t read comic books …

So while Siodmak can’t really be credited with inventing the trope all on his own, he did refine into the form we are familiar with today, which he deserves kudos for. And with that we finally get to the film at hand, which follows the basic plot of the novel fairly closely.

Nancy Davis Reagan as Janice Cory and Lew Ayres and Dr. Cory.

Nancy Davis Reagan as Janice Cory and Lew Ayres and Dr. Cory and a test monkey.

Dr. Patrick Cory (Lew Ayres) has a breakthrough, when on the fifth try, he manages to keep a monkey brain alive by attaching electrodes to it and placing it in a fish-tank with an oxygenated saline solution, aided by his wife Janice (Nancy Reagan, yes that Nancy Reagan, then Nancy Davis) and the alcoholic but stalwart town doctor Dr. Schratt (Gene Evans). When a plane crashes nearby his country home/lab he takes in a survivor who dies at the operating table. But against all laws and regulations, Cory decides to to see if he can keep the dead man’s brain alive – and naturally succeeds, or else there would be no movie.

Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan.

Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan.

But it later turns out that the dead man is not just any tourist, but the ruthless and strong-willed millionaire W.H. Donovan, a notorious embezzler who hasn’t left a will behind. As Donovan’s Brain emits brainwaves, Cory surmises it must also have thoughts, and becomes obsessed with finding ways to decode them. Finally he settles on telepathy, and after doing extensive research on Donovan, spends the night trying to get in sync with his brain. When he awakes the next morning, he finds a note on his desk written in Donovan’s handwriting, telling him to contact Donovan’s lawyer in the city. Donovan has apparently taken control over his body during the night. And here our real story begins.

Donovan soon starts taking control over Cory when he’s awake as well, and essentially turns Cory into Donovan, as the doctor affects the millionaire’s cold, ruthless air, and even his stiff limp. Through Cory, Donovan continues his criminal tax evation activities in a number of banks, and seeks up his old ”business partners”, while the police and a nosy reporter Herbie Yocum (Steve Brodie) follows at his heals. The reporter also gets a glimpse of the brain in Cory’s lab, and has some questions about the strange surgical scar across the head of Donovan’s corpse, and soon starts smelling a rat.

Gene Evans as Dr. Schratt and Nancy Reagan as Janice.

Gene Evans as Dr. Schratt and Nancy Reagan as Janice.

Back in the lab, the brain is growing, pulsating and glowing as it gains power over Cory, who is soon only able to retain his real self when the brain is ”sleeping”. However, for the longest time, he just decides to go with the flow, hoping to gain important scientific knowledge. Janice and Schratt, however, become increasingly worried, and at one point Schratt tries to cut the power to the brain, only to be nearly killed by Cory/Donovan. Things take a turn for the worse when Donovan takes control over the reporter, and has him drive off a cliff in his car. For some reason or the other, Cory is unable to get through to Janice on the phone, to tell her to finally pull the plug on the brain, which seems almost impossible to kill, for some reason. It’s all set for a showdown as ”Donovan” returns to the lab, now set on killing the two people who stand in his way, Schratt and Janice. I guess there’s no real doubt as to how the fight finally ends, but I’ll leave the details for you to find out for yourselves.

Lew Ayres, Gene Evans and Nancy Reagan.

Lew Ayres, Gene Evans and Nancy Reagan in a promotional still.

Although the basic plot of the book is the same as in the film, they differ on a number of accounts. In the book Cory is described as just as ruthlessly single-minded in his pursuit of science as Donovan is in pursuit of money, and really as a rather unpleasant and cold-hearted bastard. In the film, Lew Ayres portrays Cory as a kind-hearted, if driven, man, and as an all-round great guy. The change was probably made because the filmmakers thought the story would pack a bigger punch if the audience sympathised with Cory. The book draws parallels between Cory and Donovan, whereas the film draws more on the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde trope, and certainly the distinctly different personalities of Cory and Donovan makes the movie more interesting from an audience perspective.

Erich von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston.

Erich von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston in The Lady and the Monster (1944).

In the book Cory’s work is funded by his estranged, rich wife, who he has come to loathe. In the film he and Janice are happily married, and Nancy Reagan’s character is more of a traditional ”love interest”, emblematic for these kinds of films. The ending is also radically different (small spoiler alert). The book portrays an epic battle of minds between Donovan and Cory, whereas the film opts for a cheesy deus-ex-machina, almost making the ending look like ”an act of god”, something Siodmak protested profusely against. Siodmak was originally slated to direct the movie, but apparently had a major falling-out with producer Tom Gries. In fact, Siodmak said in interviews that he hated all the three script adaptations of the book. In Tom Weaver’s book Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes Siodmak blaims Republic boss Herbert Yates for ruining The Lady and the Monster: ”He put a damn castle in the story and von Stroheim running around it like a rat!” He also loathed the idea that Vera Hruba Ralston was playing a romantic interest that was never in the book: ”Vera Hruba Ralston, the ice-skater, Yates’ girlfriend. So I quit. And I never saw the picture.”

Curt SIodmak.

Curt SIodmak.

Kurt Siodmak started out as a journalist, author and screenwriter in Germany, and contributed to the German/British/French sci-fi film F.P.1. Does Not Answer (1934, review), and the British movies The Tunnel (1935) and Non-Stop New York (1938, review). In 1939 he made the move to Hollywood, and would soon gain fame as horror and science fiction writer and changed the first letter in his name to C.

He also wrote the sci-fi horrors Black Friday (1940, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) and The Ape (1941, starring Karloff). With his script for The Wolf Man (1941) Siodmak invented a whole new mythology for the werewolf. It was Siodmak that first came up with the idea that only silver can kill a werewolf. He was also the first to tie in the werewolf with the wolfbane plant.

Curt Siodmak went on to write scripts or novels that inspired scripts of a whole host of horror and sci-fi films. These included Invisible Agent (1942, review), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). In the fifties he contributed to the scripts for The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), Riders to the Stars (1954, review), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, review), and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). In 1968 he wrote a pseudo-sequel to Donovan’s Brain called Hauser’s Memory, which became the film Hauser’s Memory (1970).

The original cover for Siodmaks novel.

The original cover for Siodmaks novel.

Siodmak lamented the fact that people siphoned off his works into their movies without giving him credit. Such a case was the Steve Martin comedy The Man with Two Brains (1983), which not only spoofs Donovan’s Brain, but Martin’s character at one point watches it on TV and calls it his ”favourite film”. Siodmak thus said to Patrick McGilligan in his book Backstory 2: ”they showed cuts of the film Donovan’s Brain on a television screen, but they never asked my permission.” However, Siodmak never took legal action. It’s also worth remembering that these interviews were made late in Siodmak’s life, when he had trouble getting his books published in the US, and lived a rather secluded life on his Hollywood ranch. However, one great accolade which seemed to fill him with joy was the fact that Stephen King praised Donovan’s Brain in his book Danse Macabre (1981). He tells McGilligan: ”He gave me the greatest write-up I’ve ever seen. ‘Nobody has ever written a book like that.’ So I write to him, ‘Please send me your autograph, to put in that book of yours.’ Big case came with all of the books he had ever written, everyone with a dedication!”

In 1951 Siodmak tried his hand at directing, with the film Bride of the Gorilla, according to his interview with Weaver because he wanted to show his famous director brother Robert that he could direct as well. He nominally directed The Magnetic Monster in 1953, but it is common knowledge that it was in fact editor Herbert L. Strock who directed most of the film. In the book Interviews Too Shocking To Print! Strock told author Justin Humphries that he was called down on set one day, and told that Siodmak had been fired, and that producer Ivan Tors had arranged to put Strock’s name in the directors guild, and wanted him to take over. The movie used about ten minutes of special effects from a German film called Gold (1934, review), which Strock had been editing, so Tors figured Strock was the only one who really knew how the rest of the movie should be shot around it.

Herbert L. Strock.

Herbert L. Strock.

In fact, Strock also edited Donovan’s Brain, and tried to talk Tom Gries out of firing Siodmak. Strock tells Humphries that he knew how to handle Siodmak, who apparently had a bit of an attitude problem: ”I said, ‘Don’t do this. I’ll guide him through. I can control him. He’s okay.” The producers then hired Felix Feist, but according to Strock, there was a problem with him as well, so Strock was once again called in, this time to direct the second unit. Strock actually replaced Siodmak a third time when Siodmak had written and directed a TV series in Sweden, called 13 Demon Street (1959). However, when the episodes were finished, the studio thought most of them were too bad to release. So Strock got called in again, to re-edit three of them into a feature film called The Devil’s Messenger (1961). Strock told Humphries that he hated every time he replaced Siodmak: ”Curt has never forgiven me. He thinks I did all this on purpose. He thinks I backstabbed him. And I liked him. I really tried to save his job, but he’ll never believe it.”

So there’s the story of Siodmak and Strock. Strock later ended up directing parts of Riders to the Stars (1954, review), again uncredited, when star and director Richard Carlson felt uneasy about directing the scenes he appeared in himself. The robot film Gog (1954, review) was Strock’s first credited feature film direction. He later directed a number of B horror films and did a lot of TV work. The actual director of Donovan’s Brain, Felix Feist, was an undistinguished, but competent, journeyman director who also moved into TV after this film.

Felix E. Feist.

Felix E. Feist.

Feist was best known for his film noirs (some of them pretty good), and Donovan’s Brain does have the feel of a crime noir, rather than a straight-up sci-fi film, or a mad scientist yarn, like The Lady and the Monster. But a problem is that the movie is so clearly divided in two, so it almost feels like two different films threaded together. One is the happenings in the home of Cory, and of course his lab, which occasionally does take the viewers down a more campy Frankensteinean path. The other is the crime thriller involving a rather convoluted tax evasion fraud cooked up by Donovan. The divide is made even clearer by the fact that the crime thriller episodes all take place in the city, and have a very different feel to them. Reviewers seem to be divided on which of the two stories that work the best. Personally I really can’t work up much enthusiasm for the tax fraud storyline, partly because I still don’t really understand exactly what it is really all about, despite watching the film twice. For me these long stretches of double- and triple-crossing and long discussions in offices with people who have very little to do with anything else in the movie leave the pace of the film dragging. It’s not that they’re badly directed or acted, but the script just makes the thing too elaborate, as we all know that the tax thing really won’t be of any importance to the actual climax of the film.

Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan.

Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan.

However, I like the way the three-way relationship between the residents of Cory house (Schratt almost seems to live there) is written. There a nice dynamic between the driven, but ultimately caring Cory, the alcoholic, but smart and responsible Schratt and the loving, worried Janice, even if her character is the thinnest of them. It’s cool how nobody seems to mind that Schratt passes out on the living room floor during a binge, and he makes up for it by going fishing for breakfast. And I love that Schratt can be the hero of the film without having to go through some redemption for his alcoholism. Cory even says that he would rather have a drunk Schratt performing a surgery than any other sober doctor, and that seems to be the end of the discussion.

Gene Evans in The Steel Helmet in 1951.

Gene Evans in The Steel Helmet in 1951.

Gene Evans turns in a highly sympathetic and very good performance as Schratt, and acts as a sort of moral compass in the film. His good energy may stem from the fact that this was the first film he made when he was allowed to wear eye-glasses, and said it was a revelation to actually be able to see his co-stars for the first time in his career. Evans was a valued leading and supporting actor, who often appeared as a tough gunslinger in westerns. He is probably best known for playing the lead in Samuel Fuller’s lauded war movie The Steel Helmet (1951). He had a key role in Blake Edward’s Operation Petticoat (1959) and another starring role in Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963). He became a TV star when appearing in the groundbreaking family series My Friend Flicka (1955-1956), the first TV series in colour. He played the lead in Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959) and appeared in a small role in Split (1989), which turned out to be his last film. Evans was awarded with a Golden Boot in 1988 for his work in westerns.

Lew Ayres as Donovan, conducting business.

Lew Ayres as Donovan, conducting business.

It’s a slight stroke of genius to put Lew Ayres in the role as Dr. Cory, instead of some well-known name in the mad scientist business, like John Carradine or Boris Karloff. Ayres’ light, friendly and slightly clerk-like habitus pulls the film straight out of its Frankensteinean origins and goes well with the absence of castles and arc-generators. His lab isn’t filled with bubbling, smoking fluids in beakers, but instead holds normal surgical equipment, electrical appliances and of course that fishtank. Ayres is convincing both as the loving husband and charming friend, and as the ruthless, malicious Donovan, and skilfully bounces back and forth between the dual roles.

Ayres had been a very popular movie star in the thirties and early forties. He starred opposite Greta Garbo in The Kiss (1929), but is probably best known for playing the lead in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), an experience that had a lasting effect on him, as he refused to bear arms when he was drafted into WWII in 1942. Another successful turn came in 1931, when he played the lead as a boxer in Universal’s Iron Man. He reached the height of his popularity when he played the title role in Young Dr. Kildare in 1938, and reprised it in seven subsequent films up until he got drafted in 1942. Shaken by the anti-war message of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, he requested to be allowed to serve as a non-combatant medic. But since the army informed him that one could not request where one served, he had to register as a consciential objecter, which raised an avalanche of criticism. However, the army granted him his wish of serving as a medic, which he did for four years, and returned to the States in 1946, thrice awarded for his courage on the battlefield, which silenced most of his critics.

Nancy Reagan and Lew Ayres.

Nancy Reagan and Lew Ayres.

However, the debacle had hurt his career, and he had difficulties finding roles, and only did handful of films between 1946 and 1955. These were mostly noirs and B movies, with the exception of Johnny Belinda, a drama about a doctor who cares for a deaf-mute woman and is falsely accused of raping her. Ayres’ portrayal of the doctor earned him an Oscar nomination. If you see a pattern emerging in Ayres’ choice of roles and army postings, it is no coincidence. Ayres was drawn to the medical profession since childhood, but dropped out of high school before being able to pursue the profession, and instead focused on his other passion, music. Ayres spent the best part of the twenties playing banjo and guitar for big bands, including the Henry Halstead Orchestra, and gradually transitioned into film acting in the end of the decade.

Lew Ayres’ film career wasn’t busted, but he never reached the same level of popularity as before the war, and slowly transitioned into TV in the mid-fifties, where he became a popular guest star on a number of prominent anthologies and serials, and he never completely quit film acting. Sci-fi fans may know him from his role as the elderly ape Mandemus in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Commodore Beckerman in the Christopher Lee film End of the World (1977), or as President of the Galaxy in the original Battlestar Galactica TV series (1978). He was nominated for an Emmy for his guest appearance on the TV series Kung Fu in 1972, and has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for his work on films and radio. In 1955 he directed a documentary on Eastern philosophy called Altars of the East. He did a follow-up on this in 1976, called Altars of the World, which won the Golden Globe for best documentary feature.

Nany Reagan.

Nany Reagan.

The draw of the film for a lot of people may be that it features future First Lady Nancy Reagan, then still going by her stepfather’s surname Nancy Davis. Reagan’s acting abilities have been the butt of many a joke during the years, and it is probably safe to say that it was no great loss to Hollywood when she quit acting in 1962, as her husband transitioned into politics. Nancy Reagan appeared in about a dozen B films from the late forties to the late sixties. Best known today is probably Hellcats of the Navy (1957), since it is the only film where Ronald and Nancy Reagan appeared together. Reagan often portrayed rather cold characters, and thus Donovan’s Brain is a slight departure from her usual routine, and a welcome one. She doesn’t exactly shine in the film, but holds up her end of the story decently. She is best when she has Ayres or Evans as support. Like her husband, Nancy Reagan transitioned into TV in the fifties, where the two appeared on screen together from time to time. She dropped out of acting when Ronald Reagan was convinced to run in the California gubernatorial race in 1962.

Steve Brodie.

Steve Brodie.

Another notable actor is Steve Brodie, who does a good turn as the nosy reporter. Brodie’s best known as a heavy in westerns from the forties. We have covered him before, in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review). Then I wrote that Brodie also appeared ”in a couple of episodes of Science Fiction Theatre (1955), and /…/ in three of the worst sci-fi films ever made. He had a starring role in the sci-fi comedy The Wild World of Batwoman, that holds the place of the 40th worst film in history on IMDb. He played on of the leads in The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), and had another leading role in the truly awful Frankenstein Island (1981). He sort of made up for it in a role in the low-budget fireworks that was The Wizard of Speed and Time in 1988.”

Tom Powers who plays Donovan’s adviser previously did a smashing job in Destination Moon (1950, review), as the general who masterminds the first moon flight. Here he works well as well, but is relegated to a substantial, but rather uninteresting supporting part. Another fine actor in the film is James Anderson, who plays the stern town sheriff with a bad eye to the drunken town doctor. Anderson did one of the best performances of his career in Arch Oboler’s post-apocalyptic yarn Five in 1951 (review), as the meddling pseudo-Nazi who turns life in the little colony of survivors on end with his arrival. Often playing heavies, he is mostly remembered for his turn as the nasty Bob Ewell in How to Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Lisa Howard as Chloe Donovan.

Lisa Howard as Chloe Donovan.

Peter Adams, here in a small supporting role, also appeared in The War of the Worlds (1953, review), and Project Moon Base (1953, review). Victor Sutherland had a bit-part as a US senator in Them! (1954, review). Harlan Warde showed up in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review) and The Monster that Challenged the Word (1957). Shimen Ruskin, who turns up as a tailor, was a Russian emigrée born in Vilnius, present-day Lithuania, who did a number of bit parts in the forties and early fifties. Branded as a communist in 1953, Donovan’s Brain was his last film for over 10 years, but he continued to work in theatre. When he did return to the screen in the sixties and seventies, it was for films like Mel BrooksThe Producers (1967) Shaft (1971), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975).

Among the supporting players are also John Hamilton, known for playing Perry White in the TV series Adventures of Superman (1952-1958). Also on-board was noted bit-part actor Frank McLure, who can be seen in A films like Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), and Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution.

Lew Ayres, Nancy Reagan and the brain.

Lew Ayres, Nancy Reagan and the brain.

Cinematographer Joseph. F. Biroc was one of the best in the business, and had previously worked on Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life. He had a prolific career, but got something of a second coming in the seventies and later with Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Superman (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974), where he photographed the action sequences and was awarded an Oscar for the effort. Biroc also did comedy blockbusters like Blazing Saddles (1974), Airplane! (1980), and Airplane II: The Sequel (1982). He photographed a number of episodes of Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), as well as the sci-fi films Red Planet Mars (1952, review), The Twonky (1953, review) , (1953), Riders to the Stars (1954), The Unknown Terror (1957), and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957).

The brain, constructed by Harry Redmond Jr.

The brain, constructed by Harry Redmond Jr.

Biroc’s work on Donovan’s Brain is, for lack of a better word, professional. He eschews the thirties-inspired gothic darkness, rain and thunderstorm, although this would certainly have been a tempting direction to go in on a film like this. Not until the brain really starts to wreak havoc do we get the sort of expressionistic style that one might expect from the subject-matter at hand, and then he also neatly restricts it to the lab and the growing, pulsating brain, shot in deep shadows, dark contrasts and unusual angles.

Harry Redmond Jr.

Harry Redmond Jr.

Speaking of the brain, it’s the one part of the film that threatens to throw this movie into campy schlock territory. It all starts out with a realistic enough looking human brain for a fifties low-budget film. But as the movie progresses and Donovan grows stronger, the brain starts growing into absurd proportions – not only that, but it starts glowing from the inside and, pulsating, heaving and flopping around in the fishtank! You half expect it to grow a pair of legs and arms and climb out of the vat. The rubber brain, working almost like a balloon at times, was designed by special effects creator Harry Redmond Jr. Redmond is one of the rather unsung heroes of special effects, as he was never nominated for any major awards, despite working for some of the greatest directors of Hollywood in the thirties and forties. Redmond’s practical effects for King Kong (1933, review), are mostly overlooked because of the groundbreaking work done by Willis O’Brien. He worked for directors like Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, David O’Selznick, Fritz Lang, and many others, mostly uncredited. In the fifties he became producer Ivan Tors’ go to-guy, working an all of Tors‘ Office of Scientific Investigation films: The Magnetic Monster, Riders to the Stars and Gog, as well as the TV series Sea Hunt (1958-1960) and The Aquanauts. He also worked as the principal special effects creator on the anthology series Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957) and The Outer Limits (1963-1964). He retired in the late sixties.

Colorised production still of Lew Ayres and Steve Brodie.

Colorised production still of Lew Ayres and Steve Brodie.

The production design follows the tone of the film well, keeping it modern and realistic. There’s nothing much special about it, but it feels real and keeps the film grounded in reality. Production designer Boris Leven was an up-and-coming guy in Hollywood who had previously worked on William Cameron Menzies’ surrealistic cult classic Invaders from Mars (1953, review). Leven later became one of the most sought-after production designers in Hollywood, and is perhaps best known for his work with The Day the Earth Stood Still director Robert Wise, on pictures like West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) and the stylish, claustrophobic sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain (1971). He won one Oscar and was nominated for eight more.

The melodramatic music by Eddie Dunstedter helps tremendously with the mood, setting the tome for when we are supposed to be scared or excited, even if the script and visuals don’t always manage to keep up with the soundtrack. The music is devoid of any of the science fiction tropes that were already becoming clichés at this time, and instead goes for a more classic film noir soundscape with brass-heavy big band scores and light classical music, which again works nicely for the kind of modern and realistic atmosphere the filmmakers were trying to create.

Tom Gries.

Tom Gries.

Producer Tom Gries would later transition into writing and directing, first for TV and later films. He did a few well-regarded westerns, such as Will Penny (1967) with Charlton Heston, 100 Rifles (1969), starring Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds, as well as Breakheart Pass (1975) with Charles Bronson. He is perhaps best remembered today for his TV film Helter Skelter (1976) about the investigation of the Charles Manson murders, and The Greatest, a fictionalised biopic about, and starring, Muhammad Ali.

Donovan’s Brain will never make anyone’s top list, but neither should it appear on those lists of horribly bad films. It’s a decent middle-of-the-road science fiction movie that’s well-made on a small budget, and has a refreshing cleanness to it. As stated earlier, I thing the convoluted tax fraud and inheritance scheme makes the film sag in the middle and end of the movie, and I concur with Curt Siodmak that the deus ex machina ending is something of a let-down. It’s fraught with logical inconsistencies. Such as: how hard can it be to kill a brain that you are using every scientific trick in the book to keep alive, and that sleeps for several hours of the day? Just take the thing out of the fishtank and throw it in the fireplace. That should do the trick. Or empty the tank of its life-sustaining fluids. Shouldn’t be too hard. And of course, when you stop to think about it: why did Donovan suddenly develop mind-control techniques and telepathy after he died? This is never explained, and perhaps it is for the better. As I have written earlier, when a film deals with magic science, it’s often better to just state the facts at hand, rather than try to justify them with badly argumented ”science”.

Gene Evans and Nancy Reagan,

Gene Evans and Nancy Reagan,

Contemporary critics didn’t think too much of the movie, with The New York Times calling it ”utterly silly” although reviewer Bosley Crowther praised Ayres’ performance and the creepy brain. But in his opinion, the realistic settings hurt the film. In his opinion ”Mr. Feist has not drenched [the film] in sufficient visual fantasy to make it overwhelm.”

Nancy and Ronald Reagan in 1953.

Nancy and Ronald Reagan in 1953.

Modern critics tend to harbour rather lukewarm feelings toward the movie. Donovan’s Brain has a 50 % Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but that’s a lot higher most of the real clunkers of the fifties. That it even has garnered reviews by more than 10 ”top critics” (required for a Tomatometer score) is a statement that it should be regarded as a minor classic, and its 6.0/10 IMDb score corroborates the notion. However: all that is new really comes from that one central idea of Siodmak’s, and despite the brain-in-a-vat theme, the whole plot really feels like a throwback to the mad scientist movies of the thirties. The parallel between Donovan and Cory isn’t really explored in enough depth to give the film that moral-philosophical punch that the book delivers, perhaps because the filmmakerrs decided to make Cory such a charming fellow. The telepathy solution simply turns it into another Jekyll & Hyde adaptation, and that notion could have made a good finale, but as stated above, it is simply thrown by the wayside. The film is well worth a watch, and as such quite entertaining and even thrilling at times. It’s, in my opinion, nice to see a modern, sober take on the theme without castles and ape-men in dungeons, but nevertheless, it’s not a film I will be returning to any time soon.

Janne Wass

Donovan’s Brain (1953). Directed by Felix E. Feist. Written by Hugh Brooke & Felix E. Feist. Based on the novel Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak. Starring: Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, Nancy Reagan, Steve Brodie, Tom Powers, Lisa Howard, James Anderson, Victor Sutherland, Michael Colgan, Peter Adams, Harlan Warde, Shimen Ruskin, John Hamilton, Frank McLure, Max Wagner. Music: Eddie Dunstedter. Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc. Editing: Herbert L. Strock. Production design: Boris Leven. Set decoration: Edward G. Boyle. Makeup artist: Terry Miles. Sound mixer: Earl Snyder. Sound effects editor: Bill Naylor. Special effects: Harry Redmond Jr. Wardrobe: Chuck Keehne. Produced by Tom Gries for Dowling Productions. Executive Producer: Allan Dowling for United Artists.

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7 thoughts on “Donovan’s Brain

  1. Pingback: Gold | Scifist

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