Donovan's Brain (1953) **

Director: Felix E. Feist

Staring: Lew Ayres, Nancy Reagan, Gene Evans, and Steve Brodie

Runtime: 1h 24m

Categories: Brains Behaving Badly, Mad Science, and Mesmerists

The Thing From Another World (1951) was a temporary game changer for the way that Hollywood approached the sci-fi/horror genre. Producer (and director in all but name) Howard Hawkes brought his customary rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue into the world of aliens and mad scientists. Suddenly, it was acceptable for Hollywood elites to try their hands at monster movies. The trend would not last of course, within a few years serious filmmakers would be back to directing serious films, leaving sci-fi and horror once again to the b-movie workhorses and dedicated amateurs. But for a couple of years in the early 1950s it was not at all uncommon to see the styles and conventions of the majors creeping into the genre ghettos. The acting, production values, and scripts were usually a cut above the competition; but the straight-laced set could almost never match the charming zaniness of filmmakers who needed to turn out a film with a few weeks of shooting and next to no money. This was certainly the case with Donovan’s Brain, the first of the 1950s “Killer Brain” movies. While it would have more competent acting, directing, writing and special effects that its descendants, it would lack much of the charm of The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) and Fiend Without a Face (1958) as well. That’s not to say it has nothing going for it, a movie with a giant glowing brain in an aquarium cannot be entirely charmless, but connoisseurs of the subgenre will leave disappointed.

Patrick Cory is a semi-mad scientist, a species of lunatic that tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to marry the technological optimism of the 1950s with the genre conventions of the previous decades. Scientists were, more often than not, heroes in 50s sci-fi, being as they were a period of rapid technological and economic progress. But 130 years of mad scientist tropes (starting with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein of course) left an imprint on the genre that was not going to evaporate overnight, no matter how many of the fruits of scientific progress crowded the 1950s domicile. Besides, the god-forsaken abominations so necessary to formulaic horror movies weren’t going to up and create themselves. Patrick is consequently more sympathetic in his motivation, mannerism and general worldview than Frankenstein and Moreau, but his obsessive behaviors and tendency to play fast and loose with the rules that are bound to get him into trouble. As his drunken, but amiable Igor, Dr. Frank Schratt puts it: he’s “brilliant but not normal.”

Indeed, when we first meet Patrick he is hard at work extracting the brain from yet another lab monkey over the irritated complaints of his wife, Jan. Patrick’s wife invariable gets attached to the cute little poop-flingers and has trouble letting go. His goal is to preserve the brain in a glass aquarium, keeping it alive outside the body indefinitely. It appears that this time he and Frank have worked out the kinks in the operation and the monkey brain is successfully transported intact and alive into it’s new home. This is still within the realm of lawful scientific inquiry, though I suspect that more than a few of my more squeamish readers would find the job of monkey brain remover a distasteful means of employment. The problem is that Patrick simply cannot pass up a golden opportunity when one presents itself to him, ethical or moral considerations be damned! If it has the chance of advancing his research he’d risk it all, even against the desperate pleas of his wife and assistant.

Naturally, just such an opportunity presents itself in short order when a plane carrying asshole millionaire Warren H. Donovan crashes in the nearby mountains. Donovan is in bad shape, so bad that there’s no chance of him making the trip back into town, Patrick’s best bet to save him is to take him back to his remote lab and see what can be done. Even then, the situation is hopeless; the combined surgical skill of Patrick and Frank isn’t enough to save the man’s life. It’s here that Patrick sees his chance, aside from him, his wife, and his assistant there’s no one around to keep tabs on the body. The guys at the morgue won’t think twice about a few stiches in the corpse’s head given how extensive the damage from the crash was. Patrick decides that he can cut out the brain and see if what works for monkeys will also work for men. Frank thinks the whole thing is crazy and insists that his boss is “wackier sober than I ever was crocked, what an idea, stealing a man’s brain.” But the drunken assistant goes along with it anyway. Jan for her part is willing to put up with the still-living human brain in the lab, provided her husband at least consents to spend some time with her every now and then.

Though Patrick puts long hours in monitoring the brain in the lab, the situation is relatively stable before Patrick gets it into his head to try and establish psychic contact with the disembodied organ. It’s here that I really would begin to worry about Patrick, not for his sanity, or his scientific scruples but his basic reasoning skills. I mean, if it’s possible to establish psychic contact with another brain, why not try it first with one that is still inside a body: that way you can at least confirm that you’ve made contact and are not just going insane. I know that I’m a fool to expect control groups and proper rigor from movie science (and mad movie science nonetheless) but in this case it is particularly galling. There’s no reason to try this with Donovan’s brain, it’s a whole different experiment from the one that Patrick is already conducting. Patrick isn’t getting much sleep though, so it probably seems like a good idea to him, and even as they voice complaints about the whole process Jan and Frank are going out of their way to enable the daffy experiment. Sure, Frank complains about having to put up with all “this space patrol junk.” But he still diligently gathers all the background research about Warren H. Donovan that Patrick will need to get inside the millionaire’s head, so to speak.

The process is aided by the brain itself, which has grown stronger and stronger since it was separated from the body. Presumably the only thing keeping the Donovan’s mind from swelling to vast sizes and increasing its psychic powers was the confines of the skull. Every time we see a shot of the brain it has gotten larger and larger, starting off at about the size of a normal human brain and growing until its bigger than a man’s head. What’s more the damn thing starts to pulsate and glow with strange light. It isn’t long before the brain of Donovan is reaching out across the ether, turning Patrick into its willing thrall. As soon as this happens Patrick begins to ape Donovan’s mannerism and adopt his personality. He becomes more miserly, cruel and suspicious and begins to compulsively rub his kidneys feeling a phantom pain from one of Donovan’s medical conditions. It isn’t long before the brain has Patrick running errands for him, delivering threats to Donovan’s connections and picking up secret stashes of money that Donovan scattered around before dying.

Herby Yocum, a sleazy tabloid journalist makes the mistake of trying to blackmail Donovan/Patrick. Yocum took pictures of Patrick’s lab shortly after the scientist stole the brain, as well as pictures of Donovan’s body in the morgue. He figured out that Patrick has absconded with the brain, a serious crime that carries five years in jail, not to mention the almost certain loss of medical license. Yocum knows his story is worth money, but when he sees Patrick running around with thousands of dollars in spending money, he decides that it would be a more profitable idea to put the screws to the good doctor instead. Little does he know that there is nothing Donovan hates more than being swindled out of his money, and nothing that will trouble the misanthropic millionaire’s conscience less than squashing a human cockroach like Yocum.

This is probably the single most sexist film I’ve seen from the 1950s. I have consistently been surprised by the heroic roles available for women in sci-fi films of this epoch. They aren’t well written, or particularly interesting by anyone’s standards, but usually the leading ladies of 1950s sci-fi were just as much two-fisted adventurers as their male counterparts. Indeed such luminary films as Them! (1954) and The Black Scorpion (1957) even contain scenes where male characters doubt the fitness of the heroine to stand up to the dangers of the situation, only to be shouted down. What’s more it’s obvious that the men are very much in the wrong. Throughout the decade we see female astronauts, scientists, journalists, and even cowboys (The Black Scorpion again). Jan on the other hand is constantly relegated to clerical work or cooking; usually being shooed out of the lab by her husband to go and make “one of those wonderful stews.” Jan is submissively complacent with his role. When her husband compares her to Marie Curie (preposterous, given the fact that her scientific contributions are purely in the book-keeping department) she replies with the astounding line: “Well if I’m as useful to you as she was to her husband I’ll settle for that.” The fact that this absolutely epitome of the 1950s meek housewife archetype is played by future first lady and conservative icon Nancy Reagan is probably the funniest part of this entire movie.

Other than that, we’re dealing with a serious case of wasted opportunity. I understand that in a movie that is suppose to be scientifically possible you can’t very well have your brain-monster jump out of it’s aquarium and start sucking down spinal fluid. However, when you’re dealing with a giant psychic glowing brain, maybe it’s safe to discard the possible for the entertaining. Add to this the fact that Donovan, when he controls Patrick is a very mundane kind of evil; he’s a greedy, selfish businessman, the kind of man that we all run into should we ever have to speak with a lawyer or go to a meeting with people sufficiently high up on the corporate totem pole. All he wants to do is hang onto his millions, despite not having a permanent body. He is inescapably a disappointment when compared to the more flamboyant cinematic monsters of the age. The acting is very good, but those hoping for a completely unhinged performance akin to John Agar’s in The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) better prepare themselves for a letdown. Indeed, my primary complaint with Donovan’s Brain is it’s all just a little too prim and polished, and that in my mind a good brain movie cannot succeed without a great heaping portion of the ludicrous, the sleazy and the downright wrong-headed.

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