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Monday, October 15, 2012

The Man Who Lived Again

Boris Karloff's 1936 film with British-Gaumont, The Man Who Changed his Mind (MWCM) has many things in common with the last sci-fi of 1971 (The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler. Both deal with one man's obsession with cheating death, allowing people to live forever by replacing worn out bodies (or parts). Both were directed by men who did extensive work in television (though Robert Stevenson's TV career came much later, of course). An alternate title on some prints was The Man Who Lived Again. MWCM is a "cousin" of Frankenstein ('31) in several ways, but is also a clear ancestor of '71's Wheeler.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Clare Wyatt leaves her surgical career to assist the famous, but recently discredited, Dr. Laurience (Karloff) She believes in his brilliance and a chance to do ground-breaking work. Clare's boyfriend, Dick, persists in proposing marriage, but she good-naturedly says her career comes first. He follows her to the remote English manor in which Laurience has set up his lab. Clayton, crippled and in a wheelchair for 30 years, is Laurience's only assistant. Laurience explains his work in isolating and capturing the "soul" inside the brain, storing it, for transfer into another brain. He demonstrates with two chimps. One well-behaved, one unruly. His machine works! Dick, a journalist, writes about Laurience's mysterious research. Dick's father, Lord Haselwood, runs several newspapers and a prestigious research institute. On Dick's suggestion, Lord Haselwood offers to sponsor Laurience's work at the institute, provided his papers get the scoop. Laurience agrees. Clare finds out that he plans to use his brain-swapping process on humans, so quits the project. She comes to say goodbye, but he thinks she might have romantic feelings for him. He does for her. No. She loves Dick. Haselwood pressures Laurience to give a lecture about his mind-body theories, but he is mocked by the establishment science types. Embarrassed and angry, Haselwood says Laurience must go. Laurience, however, puts him into the change booth, with crippled Clayton on the other side. They change "minds". Haselwood-in-Clayton tries to walk, but dies. Claytin-in-Haselwood rather enjoys the trade. With Clayton now playing Haselwood, Laurience can stay. Clayton-Haselwood gets a bit too full of himself, but finds out that Haselwood's body had a bad heart. Laurience strangles Clayton-Haselwood, but leaves obvious clues that he did it. He lures Dick to his lab where he makes the "mind" swap. His plan is to have Dick-in-Laurience take the blame and get hung, and he, Laurience-in-Dick can have Clare. She sees through all this immediately. Dick-in-Laurience staggers from the booth, falls from a window to be mortally injured in the fall. Clare enlists the aid of her former surgical partner to get the two men back into the booths. She makes the switch back. Dick is Dick again. Laurience is himself. As he dies, he regrets all he's done and takes his secret to the grave. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Boris Karloff, alone, is worth watching the movie for. He's just great as the unfairly maligned genius, the evil schemer and even the tragic victim of his own hubris. The screenplay's dialogue is fun too. Sometimes it comes too fast, but there are a great many exchanges. For example: Laurience accuses Clayton of leaking info to the papers (Dick's story) and threatens to withhold his injections. Clayton snips back. "I don't mind dying, but to be accused of journalism…" Later, when Lord Haselwood scoffs at the dingy lab in the remote manor. "How can you work in these conditions?" Clayton retorts, "If you're referring to the smell of bacon, it poses no obstacle to research."

Cultural Connection
The mad scientist / Frankenstein story was too powerful to be contained in just Universal's Frankenstein series. The story would be continued (and repeated) in the Universal sequels (Bride of, Son of…) Many other movies would recast the basic Frankenstein trope into differing stories -- keeping the essentials of a "mad" scientist creating a monster. MWCM would be one of the earlier recasts, with the added bonus of Boris Karloff.

Visual Arts -- Despite the low budget, director Robert Stevenson manages far more visual artistry in MWCM, than Robert Wynn did in Zachary Wheeler ('71). The camera work and lighting add much more visual appeal.

Canned Soul -- Where the usual Frankenstein trope involved transplanting brains, the twist to MWCM is the transferring of the "contents", the soul, from the brain, into a neutral-electronic storage container so it can be transferred into a similarly emptied other brain (still inside the body). No grizzly surgeries. This trope would be repeated in Hammer's Frankenstein series in Frankenstein Creates Woman ('66). This was the literary device used in the Star Trek (TOS) episode, "Turnabout Intruder" in '69. Kirk and Janice Lester swap 'essences' into each others' bodies.

Tortured Triangles -- The soap opera plot gets complicated at the end, so the last 15 minutes or so really move fast. Dick loves Clare, but Dr. Laurience (pronounced Lorenz) is also taken with Clare. He mistakes her professional interest as personal. (It's pretty clear he didn't get many dating opportunities) It's the classic love triangle. Overlay this with a power triangle. Clayton is subservient to Laurience who is subservient to Lord Haselwood. When Clayton's mind is transferred into Haselwood, the triangle exists within just the two actors. The plot gets complex where the two triangles meet. Laurience wants Lord Haselwood's money (to continue his research) and wants Dick's body so he can have Clare. If he kills Haselwood and frames himself (with Dick's mind inside), he gets rid of a rival AND inherits the needed resources. Too bad for him that there was more to Dick than just his body. Clare could tell the change right away.

The Eyes Have It -- An interesting bit of directing art is how the "essences" of the men are portrayed. Clayton, the 30-year cripple is played by Donald Calthrop with squinting eyes and a rat-ish voice. When Frank Cellier (who mostly played Lord Haselwood) "becomes" Clayton, he assumes the squinting eyes and rat-ish voice. The use of distinctive eyes is reminiscent of Bridget Helm's squinty eye to mark Evil Maria in Metropolis. The more obvious distinction between Dick and Laurience was that the latter smoked (rather a lot), where the former did not at all.

Bottom line? MWCM is not one of Karloff's better known films, but it is definitely worth finding and watching. He is quite captivating in his performance. Happily, the movie is in public domain and can be viewed online at the Internet Archive here. It is a great example of pre-atomic sci-fi.


KaBluie said...

Frankenstien, Bride Of, Son Of are all Universal not Paramount.

Randall Landers said...

Fascinating you should bring up "Turnabout Intruder." I've long suspected this movie was the basis of that episode.

Nightowl said...

You're quite right. Universal. No idea why I typed Paramount (twice!). Perhaps the altitude got to me.

Nightowl said...

I've been amused by how many "modern" tropes have such old precedents.