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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Donovan's Brain

This is the second movie based on the 1942 novel by Curt Siodmak. The first was The Lady and the Monster (1944). Some think the '53 version is better than the '44. Siodmak was no stranger to 50s sci-fi. He co-wrote Magnetic Monster ('53) and would team up with Ivan Tors again for Riders to the Stars, and some later titles as well. When much of 50s sci-fi was gravitating towards saucers, rockets and aliens, Donovan's Brain (DB) ventured back to an older sci-fi / horror tradition like Frankenstein. DB focused on biology and medical technology. It works from the archetype of the well-meaning scientist whose work turns against him (and the world).

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Patrick Cory has been experimenting extending brain activity in animals after the body dies. This, to improve mankind. Millionaire bad man Warren Donovan happens to be on a plane that crashes near Dr. Cory's home laboratory. Donovan's injuries are too great for Dr. Cory and his colleague to save him. Over the objections of his wife (Nancy Davis, future Mrs. Ronald Reagan), Cory decides to try his experiments on Donovan's brain. The brain is kept alive in a nutrient and electrical solution. The "death" of Donovan sets wheels in motion, since he was very wealthy. His former associates and his heirs have their plans. Donovan has his own. Cory tries to establish a sort of telepathic connection, in an attempt to communicate with Donovan. The brain (still the sinister Donovan) has grown abnormally strong and powerful in the nutrients. It begins to control Cory and make him do his unfinished business -- shifting around his fortune in an attempt to control the nation's economy. All this is shadowed by a tabloid reporter who senses that something is odd. Donovan's brain "takes over" the reporter and has him drive off a cliff. The brain threatens any who disobey with a similar fate. Eventually, the brain is killed by a lightening strike. Dr. Cory, in a lucid moment, left instructions for tweaking the house's lightening rod for just such an occasion. Freed from the brain, Dr. Cory faces prosecution for his misdeeds. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
DB is a more thought-provoking film than an action film. It draws from earlier story lines like Jekyll and Hyde (they even say this in the movie) as well as Frankenstein. As saucers and aliens were becoming common, a film about a "brain" is nostalgic. Lew Ayres does a good job of playing both Dr. Cory and the evil Donovan.

Cold War Angle
There isn't much of the Cold War in DB. This is because Siodmak's source story was itself a product of the pre-atomic-age ethos. As was much more common in that ethos, the focus is much more on the dangers of science, and the dangers of unchecked capitalism.

Naive Scientist -- A recurring theme in sci-fi movies is that of the well-meaning, but naive, brilliant scientist. He uses his skills for some bold, unconventional work which he feels will be for the betterment of mankind. Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll, etc. are in this lineage. As per the archetype, the cruel (and evil) realities catch up with them. Their creation harms mankind, not helps it. In this, DB is a similar cautionary tale about the dangers of naive faith in science. There is a Luddite streak in mankind which distrusts scientific "progress" as holding just as much potential for harm as for benefits.

Capitalist Monster -- Donovan, the quintessential two-dimensional evil capitalist (with NO redeeming traits) becomes magnified in Dr. Cory's nutrient solution. In this protected (science supplied) environment, the evil capitalist obtains new powers. He can control others (telepathically) to do his bidding and to kill themselves off when need be. No longer encumbered by a single human body (which is presumed to restrict the brain's potential), the "freed" brain operates somewhat omnipresently. With his "expanded" mental powers, Donovan is able to scheme manipulating a whole nation's economy. Here is the cautionary pessimism. Natural man, freed from mortal constrains, might prove to be more demon than angel.

Brain Sub-genre -- DB wasn't the first iteration of the disembodied brain motif, nor would it be the last. B-grade sci-fi had a fascination for brains without bodies. The notion of a mind without a body carries the personification of thought unencumbered with physical limitations. Some treatments will be more successful than others. DB was a fairly good attempt. It stuck to the theme without straying into pointless "action" for its own sake or cheesyness.

Cheap Telepathy? -- People who like their sci-fi to be more scientific will probably not like the telepathy angle. This is more "paranormal" than pure-science, but it's not a total sell-out to the "magic" crowd. A recurring theme in sci-fi is that the more advanced brains would communicate without need of physical bodies. Often, the "advanced" aliens are depicted using mind-to-mind communications. Even as late as 2006, the Stargate SG-1 TV series posited that the human brain could "advance" to the point of "ascending" to that all-mind existence. For Stargate and DB, the idea is that the human brain already has this potential. Dr. Cory's removal of the brain from the body, and giving it the "ideal" environment, allowed the brain to advance beyond normal human abilities. Mind-to-mind communication being one of them.

Bottom line? DB is somewhat slow paced and thoughtful, as opposed to action-packed. It has no saucers or aliens or monsters or special effects. As such, it may not appeal to some sci-fi fans who crave those things. DB is a link in a persistent chain of sci-fi movies which feature disembodied brains. In style and tenor, the film is more 40s than 50s, but for fans of 40s sci-fi, this would be a good thing.

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