Life Returns

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(2/10) If you’re into canine snuff films, then look no further. For everyone else, the final scene of this strange low-budget 1935 production will prove painful watching, as it involves actual documentary footage of a scientist trying to bring a dead terrier back to life (and succeeding!). The surrounding fictional plot is of little to no importance. Even horror powerhouse Universal thought this was too macabre stuff and sat on the prints until they were quietly sold off a few years later. Onslow Stevens and Valerie Hobson are wasted on a terrible script. 

Life Returns. USA, 1935. Directed by Eugene Frenke, James P. Hogan. Written by L. Wolfe Gilbert, John F. Goodrich, Eugene Frenke, James P. Hogan, et. al. Starring: Onslow Stevens, Lois Wilson, George P. Breakston, Valerie Hobson, Robert E. Cornish. Produced by Lou L. Ostrow. IMDb: 4.0/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

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Poster.

This is one of the most bizarre movies I have ever seen, and I’ve watched quite a few oddities in my day. It could be described as a Great Depression melodrama-cum-kids’ adventure-cum-exploitation film with a science fiction twist and a mad scientist horror tagline that is never realised. The whole thing is built around 10 minutes of actual documentary footage of a team of scientists resuscitating a dead dog. This clumsily filmed documentary footage turns out to be the disappointing grande finale of a film that for 50 minutes has been building up tension around the theme of “mad scientist trying to raise the dead”. It plays like a Poverty Row exploitation film that’s trying to ride the coat-tails of Universal’s successful horror franchise, but oddly enough this is a Universal production — and not one from the horror franchise’s sad swansong in the mid-forties, but from its heyday in 1935, the same year the studio released the fantastic Bride of Frankenstein (review).

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Valerie Hobson and Onslow Stevens.

And yes, despite the faulty information on IMDb and a number of other sources on the internet, this IS a Universal production. Apparently the film is listed on a number of websites as produced by Scienart Pictures, and just distributed by Universal, but according to The American Film Institute’s Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States, Scienart Pictures didn’t acquire the rights to Life Returns before 1938, and the movie was produced in 1935. According to the AFI’s online catalog Universal spent 40,000 dollars on the movie, but never gave it an official release, which is probably why it is listed as “released” by Scienart Pictures in 1938. However, again according to the AFI, Universal did give it a limited roadshow release in 1935, so technically that’s the year it premiered. And if further proof is needed, the film’s producer Lou Ostrow was under contract with Universal, it is partly filmed on sets from Universal’s Dracula (1931) and it uses Universal stock players. To be fair, Universal has done very little to advertise its involvement with this picture. The studio was apparently so embarrassed with it that it preferred to lose its 40,000 dollar investment to releasing it, and when director Eugene Frenke finally managed to work out a deal with Scienart and Grand National Pictures, they were happy to quietly sell away the rights. Since then, Universal has never bothered to renew the rights to the film, but instead let it slip unnoticed into the public domain.

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Robert Cornish (right) demonstrating his life-giving see-saw technique. The “model” (who didn’t actually take part in the experiment) wears heating pads on his arms and legs to aid blood circulation.

Before we get to the actual plot, some setup is required. In 1932 the apparently highly eccentric medical prodigy Robert E. Cornish at the University of Southern California started researching ways to resuscitate victims of a sudden death — this was at a time when the standard resuscitation techniques we use today such as cardiac massage, mouth-to-mouth and defibrillation were still not in wide use. Modern CPR techniques weren’t standardised until the sixties. Cornish claimed that with his techniques, he would be able to return life to victims that had been dead, that is: without a heartbeat, for up to six minutes, which was pure science fiction at the time. He tried his techniques on a number of victims of accidents or sudden fatal illness, but without success. In order to refine his methods he figured that he needed to take his research into laboratory conditions, and decided that the humane thing to do was to start killing dogs in order to see what was the best method of bringing them back to life. This he called the Lazarus project, after the mythical man brought back to life by Jesus according to Christian lore. He eventually managed to revive at least two dogs that he had clinically put to death, but not after them being dead six, but rather two minutes. One of them died again after eight hours, the other was blind and severely brain-damaged. He filmed his attempts, and the resuscitation of the dog that lived for eight hours is the one that is portrayed in Life Returns.

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A demonstration of Cornish’s teeter-board.

Cornish’s method wasn’t far removed from modern clinical resuscitation techniques — it involved injecting the victim with adrenaline and an anticoagulant as well as giving them oxygen. His main invention was a sort of see-saw or “teeter-board” with which he rocked his patients up and down in order to continue the blood circulation through the body. The main problem with CPR being that the human brain can only survive for a very short period without the oxygen provided by continuous blood-flow. Of course, modern CPR has replaced the see-saw with cardiac massage.

While there were hardly any animal rights groups in the thirties, there was still some public outcry against Cornish’s research methods, and his experiments were condemned by the University of Southern California, which refused to finance any more experiments on animals. And this is where Russian-German producer-director Eugene Frenke enters the picture. Frenke had been a production manager and producer in Berlin, and had been flown in to Hollywood in 1932 along with his wife, Ukrainian-born movie star Anna Sten, whom Sam Goldwyn hoped to groom into the new Greta Garbo, ultimately with little success. Frenke had yet to make his mark in Hollywood. He was originally supposed to be involved in reprising his German success with a proposed Anna Sten vehicle, The Brothers Karamazov, but that fell through, as the studio instead decided to introduce Sten to US audiences via an adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel Nana. Frenke was then slated to adapt Lev Tolstoy’s novel Father Sergius for Universal, but the studio ultimately decided that it was not right for their audience. When Frenke read a Time magazine article on Dr. Cornish’s experiments, he immediately saw the potential for a film. Pitching it as a horror movie, he proposed to split costs and profits with Universal, and ended up investing around 48,000 dollars in the project. Cornish, on the other hand, now needed publicity in order to secure funding for his research and was happy to be involved in the project. And he was probably economically compensated for the usage of his documentary footage.

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Anna Sten and Eugene Frenke.

Frenke worked out the story with Universal mainstay James P. Hogan, who would later revive the idea of raising the dead in his directorial effort The Mad Ghoul. Hogan also co-directed Life Returns, perhaps as Frenke had no previous directing experience. The screenplay was finished by John F. Goodrich, who also worked on the early post-apocalypse film Deluge (1933, review), and oddly enough, Tin Pan Alley songwriter L. Wolfe Gilbert. Production duties were assigned to B movie man Lou L. Ostrow, best known for producing a number of Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare films. The central roles were filled from Universal’s stock company. The lead was given to Onslow Stevens, a young-ish but seasoned stage and film actor who already had a dozen B movie leads under his belt. The female leads were played by Lois Wilson and Valerie Hobson. Wilson was a silent movie star whose career was in decline, but whose name still had some pull with audiences — although at 40 she was perhaps a tad long in the tooth to play a starry-eyed medical school graduate (not that her age shows). For 17-year-old starlet Valerie Hobson, conversely, this was the first big(ish) role in a major studio production. She needn’t worry that the film didn’t get a proper release: A few months later she found fame as Henry Frankenstein’s wife in Bride of Frankenstein (his real wife that is, not the titular Bride, which was of course played to perfection by Elsa Lanchester).

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Onslow Stevens and Valerie Hobson.

The plot itself is as schizophrenic as it is dull. The film opens with a dramatic title card that assures the viewer that the movie is based on true events and contains actual footage of a medical doctor bringing a dead creature back to life. We are then treated to a second title crawl, oddly inserted on top of a collage of a horse-pulled plough and wheat fields, which have nothing to do with the film. This title crawl has apparently been inserted in 1938, as it identifies Scienart Pictures as presenting the movie. The purpose of this new title crawl remains somewhat hazy, as it basically rehashes the first title card, with the addition that the film is dedicated to “the genius and determination of all those men who have devoted their lives to humanity”.

In the opening scenes we are introduced to three of our main characters: John Kendrick (Onslow Stevens), Louise Stone (Lois Wilson) and Robert E. Cornish (himself?), graduating from medical school, and being invited to continue their research with bringing the dead back to life at the Arnold Research Center. This invitation is the catalyst for the tragedy in the film, as Cornish and Stone refuse the offer, opting instead to keep control over their work by working alone, and receive the credit for the whole process. Kendrick cares little for credit and is more interested in the good their invention will do humanity, and points out that with the staff and facilities provided by the private-sector research centre, they can give humanity the gift of life in one, rather than five years. And while Cornish and Wilson warn Kendrick that Arnold Research is interested in profit, not humanitarian causes, Kendrick stubbornly breaks up the team and decides to take up Arnold’s offer without his friends.

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Onslow Stevens and Valerie Hobson.

Kendrick’s friends’ doubts about Arnold Research’s commitment to the project turn out to be well-founded: After some period of unfruitful experiments and expensive equipment down the drain, Arnold pull the plug on Kendrick’s project. When they instead suggest that he focus on creating the world’s finest brushes from pigs’ bristles, he quits. Kendrick, already so absorbed in the research that he neglects his private practice, his wife (Valerie Hobson) and his little son Danny (eventually George Breakston), has a mental breakdown. The film fast-forwards ten years into the future, when next tragedy strikes: Kendrick’s wife dies. It is now we expect the movie to hit its stride, with Kendrick trying to bring her back to life, creating some sort of ill-fated zombie. No such luck. Her death is simply a plot convenience, allowing for the authorities to deny Kendrick custody of his son, because he has lost his private practice and spends his days walking around in his apartment with his hair in a tangle and his clothes dishevelled, staring into the distance with glassy eyes, while apparently trying to figure out the magical formula for the anticoagulant needed for his experiment.

We are now about twenty minutes into the film, and this is when the focus completely shifts, and young Danny becomes the main character. Danny, threatened with the prospect of being put into a boys’ home, runs away with his dog Scooter and joins a gang of street kids living in a shack. For the next 30 minutes we are treated to Danny’s struggles with becoming accepted by his new “family”, scenes which are interspersed with him taking the odd trip back to his dad’s house, trying to convince him of pulling himself together and getting a job so Danny can move back home. But by this time Kendrick is already walking around in full zombie mode, and and isn’t even aroused when one of Danny’s friends fall and break a leg, which he refuses to set. Similarly unhelpful is a visit from Kendrick’s old friend Louise, who tries to convince him to resume his work with her and Dr. Cornish, which he for some bizarre reason refuses to do, still maintaining that he has almost worked out the formula for the anticoagulant.

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Onslow Stevens.

Through a series of complications, the film reaches it final twenty out of sixty-three minutes when Danny’s dog Scooter is caught and put down by animal control. Danny’s desperate pleas for Kendrick to bring Scooter back to life is what finally awakes our hero from his stupor, as he springs into action by collecting the dead pooch from the kennel and rushing it to Dr. Cornish and his colleagues. Now we expect to see Kendrick finally become the man of the hour, reviving his son’s best friend. No such luck. The last ten minutes consist primarily of the afore-mentioned documentary footage of Cornish’s real-life experiment on the dog Lazarus II, the one that lived for eight hours (which is incidentally of a completely different breed than Scooter). Unfortunately Onslow Stevens wasn’t present that day, so his final heroics consist of providing an enthusiastic running commentary of Cornish’s procedure in cutaways.

The film leaves you scratching your head, wondering what it was you just watched. From the poster, the taglines, and the first 20 minutes of the plot, it is set up as a typical low-budget SF horror B movie. But this promise is never delivered upon, basically because there really is no plot attached to this notion. The first scene in the film basically sets us up for the last scene, but promises the last scene to be a lot more exciting than it finally is. The last scene, where scientists are testing their theory of bringing humans back from the dead on animals, would normally be the first or second scene in a horror film, and not the grande finale. But of course, with Dr. Cornish actually involved in the film, the filmmakers couldn’t go all mad scientist on him. That leads them to a situation where they somehow have to try and build a whole film around what are basically the first and second scenes of a normal horror movie, only they have to find something to pad out 45 minutes in between these two scenes with.

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George Breakston.

So, in between these two scenes the writers have added an ill-fitting mix of Great Depression melodrama and Little Rascals-style kiddie adventure. The problem with the melodrama is that its central character wins no sympathy from the audience. It’s like the script-wrights haven’t been able to decide whether to make him a victim or a perpetrator. Beside the death of his wife, everything that befalls him is his own fault. And yes, the same thing is basically true of Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein, but in James Whale’s 1931 film (review) Frankenstein was at least an active participant in his own life, he drove the plot forward and was able to articulate complete sentences. He was an interesting character. Dr. Kendrick is not. Poor Onslow Stevens apparently hasn’t the faintest idea of what to do with the role, other than to stare glassy-eyed into the distance and mumble incoherently. Furthermore, Kendrick apparently spends the entire movie trying to perfect his anticoagulant agent, but we never actually see him invent it. By the time Kendrick finally springs into action, all he does is pick up the dog and rush it to Cornish. This either implies that he has at some point discovered the anticoagulant off-screen, or that Cornish has discovered it on his own. If the first is true, it means that the film leaves out its central turning-point. If the second is true, it means that the film’s central character is completely redundant. And that is, unfortunately, the way the movie plays.

The film portrays Kendrick as a socially awkward genius, so wrapped up in his work that he ignores everything else going on: his wife, son, health, his economy and personal hygiene. His inability to get ahead with his research seems to send him into a near-catatonic state of depression. This might have worked, if the writers were able to give him any lines that would somehow put his inner struggle into words or had him articulate his ambitions and misgivings. As it stands, Kendrick simply comes off as a highly unfit father, a man with no ability to take control of his life, let alone save the lives of others, and as thoroughly unsympathetic. Again, this might have worked if in the end Kendrick would have had to confront himself and learned a moral lesson. Nothing like this happens. He just suddenly zooms back to sanity and is apparently redeemed for a dozen years of neglect by picking up a dead dog and taking it to a surgeon. As John T. Soister writes in his book Of Gods and Monsters: “The cheek of all this is breathtaking. We are asked to settle for Kendrick’s schlepping the late Scooter cross town and merely handing him over to Cornish as the film’s much needed catharsis. Even if one were disposed to give Kendrick any of the credit he’s angling for while Cornish is giving the pooch mouth-to-mouth, this is a textbook example of too little and too late.”

And now we have said nothing of the forty minutes of the film when we are treated to “Little Rascals Raid a Kennel”. And the less said, the better.

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Robert Cornish and one of his Lazarus terriers.

The movie’s budget of around 90,000 dollars was low even by B movie standards, but it still had the benefit of major studio facilities and personnel. In fact, the film’s production values are not especially problematic. It’s competently filmed by Universal pro Robert Planck, who was Oscar nominated four times, the lighting is decent and the sets are convincing enough, even if a bit cramped from time to time. Most scenes are done with several camera setups, alternating between different angles, close-ups and medium shots and even a couple of dolly shots. Editor Harry Marker was also a seasoned Universal professional, and thus the editing is competent, if uninspired. The movie has a low-budget studio-bound feel, but is not painful to watch in regards to its visuals in any way.

Neither is the problem that the film would be inhabited by bad actors. The three adult main characters are all played by perfectly competent, even good, actors. Stevens, Wilson and Hobson are all actors who on a normal day can save an otherwise crappy film from disaster. But Life Returns is not a normal day. Even the kid actor George Breakston is completely bearable, as far as kid actors go, and Cornish isn’t on screen long enough for his acting abilities to matter.

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The title segment of the movie. Notice that Cornish is first-billed.

The problems begin and end with the script. Not only is it plagued by all the plot peculiarities that I have listed above, the dialogue is also one of the worst ever put on screen. It’s like straight out of an Ed Wood movie, but without everything that makes Wood’s films so endearing. It’s not remotely childish, crazy or naive enough to become campy, it’s mostly just tedious, over-explanatory, unimaginative and frankly stupid. The dialogue is really the worst enemy of the character of Kendrick. The way Kendrick responds to questions and situations eventually just makes you think that this poor man is intellectually challenged and should probably be enrolled in a care program. Either that or he should seriously consider cutting down on the weed. If this man was trying to give me CPR, I’d probably just snap back to life out of sheer terror and run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. Cheering is the only appropriate reaction when he is denied custody of his son: the filmmakers want us to believe that he is so preoccupied with his formula that he can’t even pay attention at the custody hearing. To be fair, Onslow Stevens’ lethargic performance in this movie does little to remedy the situation. Soister writes: “Admittedly, it’s impossible at this late date to determine whether Stevens’ non-performance was an act of professional defiance, the result of amateurish character delineation and inept direction or merely the case of an actor letting the punishment fit the crime. No matter which might have been true, never has a character meant to represent so fierce a genius been enacted in so vapid and listless a fashion.”

Unfortunately, Danny fares little better. Hal C.F. Astell at Apocalypse Later writes: “It’s painful to watch Danny in despair, not because he’s a cleverly written parallel to his dad, but because they’re both tiring to watch. Every shot is an attempt to rend our heartstrings and make us tear up for the poor little blighter with the weight of the world pressing down on his shoulders. His eyes plead in every shot. Yet it’s so overdone that it’s simply embarrassing to watch and we cringe at each inept attempt at our sympathy.”

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Onslow Stevens and Valerie Hobson.

Hobson is only on screen for about ten minutes all put together, which is still enough for her to be forced to utter lines like “What about Danny? He needs me, he’s MY great experiment”. Wilson probably comes out the best of all the actors, despite lines like “Oh John! Don’t let your false pride make you unreasonable. We’re your friends! We wanna help you!” But the main problem of the dialogue is that nobody ever reacts to another person’s lines in the way that a normal person would. While this is a mainstay of films, the sheer number of times Kendrick has a negative reaction to anything anybody says in order for the screenwriters to force some drama into the movie finally just sucks any remaining suspension of disbelief from the proceedings.

In their book Universal Horrors. The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931–1946 the authors Tom Weaver et. al. write: “Life Returns is a hopeless, exasperating conglomeration of events and images masquerading as a motion picture. […] a depressingly cheap, incoherent flick built around a questionable scientific achievement.” Soister continues: “Life Returns is a cheerless obscurity better left lying fallow in an unmarked grave”.

Still, director Frenke was apparently quite happy with the way the movie turned out, and even petitioned Universal to let him make a sequel. And to be fair, not all reviews during the film’s roadshow run in 1935 were negative. This bearing in mind that not all industry papers at the time were necessarily objective, and sometimes more interested in providing films with positive blurbs than in making any real critical assessment. This said, according to Weaver et. al., Film Daily wrote “The direction by Dr. Eugene Frenke is excellent. Onslow Stevens and George Breakston give fine performances.” Harrison’s Report claimed that the film was “a fair human interest program entertainment”, although the paper did conclude that “it is slow and stilted”. Variety, in 1939, was less forgiving: “Every performance is plodding, colorless, and it’s a pic much longer to the audience than its accredited running time would indicate.”

Eugene Frenke was born in Russia in 1895 and moved to Germany after the October Revolution in 1917. Here he soon got into the booming film industry, primarily working as an uncredited production manager. In the late twenties he was involved in a minor car accident. The passenger in the other car was none other than Ukrainan film star Anna Sten, at the time married to emigrated film director Fyodor Otsep. Very much like in the movies, Sten and Frenke fell in love on the spot of the accident, and Sten quickly divorced Otsep and remarried. She was born Anna Petrovna Fesak in 1906 i Kiev, Sten was her Swedish mother’s maiden name. Sten made a career for herself in the young Soviet film industry in the mid-twenties, especially well remembered for her sprightly performance in the titular role Boris Barnet’s urban comedy The Girl with the Hatbox (1927). With husband Otsep she relocated to Germany in 1929, as Otsep found it difficult to make the films he wanted in Stalin’s Russia. Almost immediately they divorced and Sten eloped with Frenke. In 1931 Frenke produced what was to become the turning-point both their lives, an adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov called Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff, with Sten as the female lead. This was the film that Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn saw the first reel of when it got its low-profile release in the US, and decided on the spot that he was going to turn Anna Sten into the new Greta Garbo. 

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Anna Sten and Lionel Atwill in Nana (1932).

The Frenke-Sten couple were able to live rather comfortably on the salary that Sten earned from Goldwyn for her four-year contract, which was running on its third in 1935. The salary was nothing compared to the money that Goldwyn himself spent on grooming the actress, who spoke not a word of English when she arrived in the States, and on expensive PR campaigns, wardrobe and makeup tests, glamour shoots, camera tests, newspaper ads, etc. Over the course of two years the magazines and papers were full of articles about Goldwyn’s new Garbo, the “first” movie star from the Soviet Union to appear in Hollywood, and both the industry and the audience waited breathlessly for this new phenomenon to sweep them off their feet. Finally, after a year of script adaptation, a reshoot of the entire film and an ever inflating budget, the film Nana was released in 1934 to a resounding … meh. Audiences and critics found the expensive film ordinary and its leading lady beautiful and capable, but miscast and certainly no Garbo. Nana made decent box-office numbers, but came nowhere near recuperating its nigh one million dollar budget. Goldwyn didn’t give up on his investment, though, and firmly believed in Sten’s box-office potential, but the next two pictures he made with her followed the same formula; about the second one, Goldwyn famously stated that the audience “stayed away in droves”. When Sten’s four-year contract ended, Goldwyn reluctantly had to let her go.

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Left: Anna Sten pre-Goldwyn in The Girl with the Hat Box. Right: Anna Sten post-Goldwyn in Nana.

Frenke, who had been the “silent partner” of the marriage during Sten’s mismanaged early Hollywood career now tried to salvage what was left of it. Life Returns was his directorial debut, and in 1936 the couple briefly moved to England to try to re-establish Sten on the European market, but their film A Woman Alone made no great waves, and they returned to Hollywood. Frenke’s motion picture career was, with the words of Weaver et.al., “spotty”. He made a few mid-budget films in late thirties and early forties with Sten in the leading roles, with little success — she was already burned by Hollywood and still struggled with her English. Frenke, on the other hand, fared a bit better, as he made a name for himself as a “packager of film deals”, as Larry Ceplair describes it in his book Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical: “he would find a story, hire a writer to develop it, hire stars to play the roles and then sell the package to a studio”. His greatest successes came with his two collaborations with director John Huston: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958). By this time Sten had already once dropped out of the film business to study at the Actors Studio, and returned, primarily to TV, but also appeared in a few small roles in a few of the films that her husband produced. Frenke only directed one more film and produced around 15, his last one in 1969.

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Real-life photo of Dr. Cornish.

As for Dr. Robert E. Cornish, he was forced to continue to devote himself with more mundane areas of research, as the UCLA terminated his canine activities, although he did continue his life-saving attempts in his own abode, but now with pigs, which are a closer analogue to humans anyway. He popped up in the public eye again in 1948, when he had finally managed to secure a willing human test subject after years of search. The man in question was sentenced to death for the murder of a 14-year-old girl. Unfortunately for both men, the State of California denied Cornish’s petition to try to resuscitate the murderer after he had been killed in the gas chamber. This was in part because it was impractical — the gas chamber was usually kept sealed for an hour after death for the fumes to clear. But more importantly, the state would possibly had been forced to release the condemned murderer if he survived. Having, in the eyes of the law, served his sentence by by being killed, he would in all probability have been a free man. And because of the so-called double jeopardy clause, a prosecutor wouldn’t have been able to have him tried a second time for the same crime. According to Frank Swain’s book How to Make a Zombie, Cornish finally made a public call for volunteers to agree to take part in a human trial, and to his own surprise received a staggering amount of answers. Finally he decided that not to go through with the experiments after all, and eventually gave up the research in the late 1950’s, perhaps because modern CPR involving cardiac massage was then being developed, rendering his see-saw obsolete. He retired from medical research to market his own brand of toothpaste. At least it wasn’t brushes. Cornish’s dog experiments were brought to a new audience in 2015, with the release of the low-budget horror movie The Lazarus Effect, inspired by his work. 

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Robert Cornish(?) in Ed Wood-style angora sweater, Lois Wilson and Onslow Stevens.

There is some debate online as to the extent of Cornish’s involvement in the film. While it is most certainly Cornish appearing in the documentary footage, some commentators doubt that he was on set for any of the filming of the fictional story. There is one scene where “Dr. Cornish” and Dr. Stone are discussing how to help Dr. Kendrick, in which a body double is most certainly used, as the whole scene is shot in sharp backlight, showing only the silhouettes of the two actors, an odd choice for shooting an otherwise  mundane conversation scene. The only other time wee see “Dr. Cornish” are in the two first scenes, first in the university cafeteria, then at the university grounds after graduating. In both scenes he talks to Stone and Kendrick. And it certainly looks like the real doctor, but oddly enough, there is not a single shot in either of the scenes where you’d get a good look at his face. In both scenes, the camera shoots Wilson and Onslow from the front, while “Cornish” is always shot from either over his shoulder or in profile. Some critics speculate that this was done to disguise the fact that Frenke used a body double for Cornish. But on the other hand, there are publicity shots of him with Wilson and Onslow in the cafeteria scene (see above), and I doubt that Universal would have had the balls to pass off a stand-in as the real Dr. Cornish in a press still, considering the press had recently been full of pictures of him. Plus, Cornish did have a pretty distinct face, and in the profile shots it does look very much like him. But making a positive identification is tricky, because he is smiling and laughing throughout all these shots, and all press images of him show him with a very serious look on his face. Still, I’m willing to bet that it is really Cornish on screen at least in the profile shots.

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Onslow Stevens on a lobby card for the 1932 serial The Vanishing Shadow.

With good looks, a deep voice, a natural charisma, stage experience from the age of 3, and some serious acting chops, Onslow Stevens was slated to become a movie star. However, for some reason or the other he never quite achieved the celebrity promised to him. Perhaps it was because he was already 30 when he made his film debut, perhaps he was just hampered by the hierarchic pecking order of the studio system. Perhaps because he didn’t see himself as the romantic lead type of actor, as reported by his co-workers. Despite this, Stevens had a good career, appearing in over 80 films and playing on stage all his life, he did rack up a serious amount of leading man roles in B-movies in the thirties and forties. He became a reliable supporting actor in his later life, although his later career was hampered by alcoholism and bipolar disorder, for which he received electric shock treatment. However, Stevens’ immortality was made in 1945, when he returned to mad scientist territory in Universal’s final golden age horror movie House of Dracula. While far from the most successful or prestigious role he did, his inclusion in the Frankenstein-Dracula canon will make him cherished by horror aficionados for ages eternal, just like his co-star in Life Returns, Valerie Hobson. He also had a small role in the seminal giant bug film Them! in 1954.

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Onslow Stevens in House of Dracula (1945).

UK-based Valerie Hobson mainly acted in British spy and thriller films, but did also star in the 1935 film Werewolf of London, Hollywood’s first werewolf film, and the Oscar-winning drama film Great Expectations (1946). Another memorable appearance was in the classic Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), although she was certainly out-acted by Alec Guinness, who famously played eight roles in the movie. And as mentioned earlier, her greatest claim to fame in Hollywood is the role of Dr. Frankenstein’s wife in Bride of Frankenstein. In Britain she is perhaps best remembered as the wife of the British MP John Profumo, whose affair with model Christine Keeler created a scandal of national proportions in 1963. Profumo was at the time minister of war, and Keeler was simultaneously involved in a relationship with the senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy.

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Valerie Hobson with Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Former kid actor George Brekston broke into directing and producing in the late forties, with … let’s say varied success, as his most famous creation is the so-bad-it’s-good 1959 mad scientist horror film The Manster.

Life Returns is not an unwatchable film, but it does feel like an exercise in lost opportunities. Its biggest sin is that in trying to please everyone, it ends up pleasing no-one. One cardinal sin is trying to set up its documentary footage as the draw, which almost never works in a fictional movie. While Cornish’s dog experiments might have made a viral video on the days of Youtube, but an audience being promised zombies and mad scientists is not going to be wowed by dog CPR. This is the same reason as to why Harry Houdini’s escapes never quite captured the audience when he pulled them off in his fictional films. Because we know that everything in a movie can be faked, the genuine loses its novelty. In fact, because we know that the dog resuscitation sequence could have been achieved without hurting the dogs, it just makes the whole thing distasteful when you know the story behind the real footage.

Janne Wass

Life Returns. USA, 1935. Directed by Eugene Frenke, James P. Hogan. Written by L. Wolfe Gilbert, John F. Goodrich, Eugene Frenke, James P. Hogan, Mary McCarthy, Arthur T. Horman. Starring: Onslow Stevens, Lois Wilson, George P. Breakston, Valerie Hobson, Robert E. Cornish, Stanley Fields, Frank Reicher, Richard Carle, Dean Benton, Lois January, Richard Quine, Maidel Turner, George MacQuarrie, Otis Harlan, Mario Margutti, William Black, Ralph Colmar, Roderic Krider. Music: Clifford Vaughan, Oliver Wallace. Cinematography: Robert H. Planck. Editing: Harry Marker. Art direction: Ralph Berger. Produced by Lou L. Ostrow for Universal Pictures. 

 

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