Braaaaaiiiins! The first adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s cult novel Donovan’s Brain turns up the mad scientist factor to eleven. The 1944 film sees Erich von Stroheim as the resident Frankenstein, as a disembodied brain takes control over his assistant’s mind. Atmospheric cinematography and an overall strong cast compensates for ice skater Vera Hruba Ralston’s lack of acting experience in the female lead. 5/10
The Lady and the Monster. 1944, USA. Directed by George Sherman. Written by Dane Lussier and Frederick Kohner. Based on novel by Curt Siodmak. Starring: Vera Hruba Ralston, Richard Arlen, Erich von Stroheim, Helen Vinson, Mary Nash, Sidney Blackmer. Produced by George Sherman. IMDb: 5.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
The early forties were a golden age for 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 based on the seminal sci-fi novel Donovan’s Brain, written by German expat, director, screenwriter, playwrite and producer Curt Siodmak in 1942. The novel tells the tale of Dr. Patrick Cory, who gets his hands on the brain of a millionaire megalomaniac W.H. Donovan, whose plane crashes near the small, remote town where he has his laboratory, and he is sent to help as the primary physician in the area. While Donovan dies of his injuries, Cory manages to keep his brain alive in a saline solution. However, soon the brain starts influencing Cory telepathically, putting him 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 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 50’s 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. 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. But it is also a throwback to the source novel, in which Dr. Cory affects the limp of Mr. Donovan when he is under his influence. Stroheim 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, but still retains the role of leading man. 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, his 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,. He is also on his A game as Donovan’s meat suit, going off kilter just enough to make hin genuinely menacing. Arlen wouldn’t return to the sci-fi genre again until 1968 in the Richard Kiel vehicle The Human Duplicators.
The weak link in a strong cast 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 on 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 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. But there are also redeeming qualities, as it is obvious that she is trying really hard, and you can’t help but feel 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. But boy does she try, and gets an A for effort. The film also develops what I suspect is some unintentional comedy as it chooses to cut to a gasping Ralston every time someone mentions the “Gigli saw”, which happens quite a few times.
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).
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. Now, character nuance was never quite Kurt Siodmak’s forte, as most of his books are rather pulpy potboiler. But still, in the novel Donovan’s Brain he makes a point of having his main character battle with different aspects of the scientific work and its morals, as well as the influence of Donovan. However, the screenwriters divide these aspects into three different people, making them all rather one-dimensional. Mueller is 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 — or Dr. Mueller. 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. To be fair, this is not so much the film’s fault as it is the novel’s. In fact, the movie trims down much of the convoluted legal and financial goings on, which take up the better part of the latter half of the book.
I’m not sure how I feel about the choice to turn what is essentially a psychological crime story in the novel into a clean-cut mad scientist yarn. The creation of Dr. Mueller does give the film a clear villain, and Dr. Cory gets to play the part of the victim, which helps clarify the story for the screen — much of the book consists of inner dialogue, which would be cumbersome to film. However, I do think that the 1953 adaptation did a better job with this, without the need for Karloffian antics. Still, seeing Erich von Stroheim in full Lionel Atwill mode is highly gratifying. The film also relocates much of the action to a creepy mansion, which serves as Dr. Mueller’s lab — it’s even called “The Castle”. The interiors match the exteriors, and in combination with the splendid Expressionist cinematography does much to enhance the creepy atmosphere of the movie. The problem here is that much of the atmosphere drops away in the second half of the film, where it gets stuck in bank offices and nondescript lawyer’s firms. But as noted, this problem stems from the literary source, and I’ve yet to see a film adaptation that manages to solve this problem.
Nevertheless, the film moves along 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. But despite the changes, The Lady and the Monster still hits all the major beats of the novel, and neatly trims down some of the overly complicated crime story twists of the source. Republic was best known for its serials, but the studio also turned out a fair number of decent B movie potboilers in the forties, and The Lady and the Monster is proof that they were not wholly without class.
AllMovie goes as far as awarding Lady and the Monster with 4/5 stars, and Richard Scheib at Moria gives it 3/5. Scheib writes that the movie “feels like a prestige production and is certainly better budgeted than most of the others films that Republic put out. Eventually it gets a good deal of atmosphere out of the brain sitting in the tank glowing ominously.” Still Scheib notes the absurdity in having an old Gothic mansion in the middle of Arizona, and the fact that much of the atmosphere dissipates in the second half of the film: “Nevertheless, [director] George Sherman gives [the later scenes] much effect, particularly in the way the brain’s control is denoted by a series of closeups on Richard Arlen lit from beneath.” Another 3/5 rating comes from Geoff Rosengren at The Telltale Mind, who writes that “Republic’s The Lady and the Monster had some good moments and an intriguing storyline to carry it through”.
Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster says that “while the film does slow down a bit in the middle, its greatest flaw is its rather odd spurts of narration, which contribute very little to the film and impose a morally correct ending”. Still he concludes: “Despite its flaws, this is an elegant effort”. Sylvia Bagley at Film Fanatic writes that the movie “isn’t must-see viewing, but it’s certainly worth a look if you can find a copy”. Finally there’s Derek Winnert who gives the movie 2/5 stars, and writes: “Producer-director George Sherman’s 1944 horror movie is overlong and consistently ludicrous, and it is disgraced with several lip-smackingly bad performances. Yet it still delivers a nice cluster of unnerving moments when nearing its climax, and von Stroheim’s hugely over-the-top portrayal is sheer delight.”
Curt 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 1941 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 almost 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 (review), 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 beyond 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 influence of Curt Siodmak on the genre of science fiction is not to be underestimated. He has been directly involved, primarily as writer, in close to 25 different films, and has often promoted ideas that have been on the pioneering edge in the. Back in Germany, he co-wrote the 1932 film F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer (review), the first movie about what was essentially an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, and in 1937 he was involved in the scripting of the British potboiler Non-Stop New York (review), about a luxury airplane at a time when comfortable trans-Atlantic flights were still years away. In 1940 he premiered the idea of personality transfer, this time through means of brain transplant, in the film Black Friday (review), an idea he perfected in Donovan’s Brain, a novel that has far exceeded its literary merits in terms of its influence on the movie business.
Still, Siodmak’s “creation” of the brain-in-a-vat trope has been somewhat overstated, not least by himself in interviews given in the latter years of his life to eager biographers and reporters not necessarily too familiar with the literary origins of the theme. While his adaptation of the trope was certainly inventive, the brain-in-a-vat or brain-in-a-box trope had been around for a good 30 years before Donovan’s Brain, if not longer. Gustave Le Rouge’s Le Prisonnier de la Planête Mars (1908) featured a great brain on Mars and in Guy Dent’s Emperor of the If (1926) a brain in a jar is used to create alternate realities. Furthermore, Siodmak would have been aware, from his days in Germany, of the works of French SF pioneer Maurice Renard, author of novels like Le docteur Lerne, sous-dieu (1908) and Le mains d’Orlac (1921). The first features actual brain transplants, exploring the relationship between body, brain, will and personality. The second doesn’t feature a brain transplant, but rather hand transplant, but is one of the defining works in pioneering the idea of another person’s mind and will invading the body of a protagonist — and Renard’s ideas are clearly reflected in the way Siodmak describes Cory’s strange predicament. Siodmak, however, never admitted to being influenced by any other SF authors.
Director George Sherman shows a steady hand at the helm of The Lady and the Monster, often contrasting wide shots of Mueller’s gothic lab with narrow close-ups of machinery or harshly lit faces. There are some very nice pans and tracking shots of the lab, experimental low-angle shots and the wonderfully Expressionistic lighting by 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 one were B movies. 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 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 suspense 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.
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 suspects 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. 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, review), 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) and The Atomic Kid (1954).
Herbert Yates continued to try and build his movie empire around poor Vera 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. However, I do concur with Michael Popham at Horror Inc, who writes: “in fact, while Ralston isn’t great, she isn’t terrible either. She does not embody an Acquanetta-level amateurishness, but is in fact on a par with a moderately talented but forgettable college thespian. She does all right as Cory’s worried girlfriend, but seems somewhat out of her depth as a lab assistant, flailing around in a flustered sort of way every time Dr. Mueller shouts for a gigli saw”.
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.
The movie has been distributed and reissued under a number of odd titles. For some bizarre reason it has been reissued in the States as Tiger Man and Monster & Tiger Man. In Sweden the film was distributed as Hypnos, which, considering the content of the movie, is probably more accurate than the original title.
The Lady and the Monster. 1944, USA. 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.