Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Movies Every Day 8: Donovan's Brain (1953)

"You're wackier sober than I ever was crocked. What an idea...stealing a man's brain."

Why I'm Watching

The Gist

Dr. Patrick J. Cory steals a brain from a millionaire's body and keeps it alive in his lab for experimentation purposes. He ends up learning the valuable lesson that you shouldn't mess with other people's minds.

Things I Like

  • Impossible science scenario from the 1950s.
  • Pulsating, glowing brain in a fish tank that wobbles when excited.
  • Lew Ayres believably acting the part of two characters.

Things I Don't Like

  • Surgical excision of a cute baby monkey's brain. 
  • Wasting cute baby monkey brain because the mad doctor found a big human brain he liked better.

Interesting Moments

  • Donovan has no pulse and is legally dead, yet his brain is still alive. What a frightening prospect. Too bad for him that CPR had not been invented yet.
  • It's strange that Dr. Cory thinks it's cool to steal the brain out of someone's head and thinks nobody will notice.
  • Dr. Schratt drinks often and a lot, even when he's at home on duty for emergencies. A truly frightening scenario.
  • Donovan's kids don't seem too broken up.
  • Dr. Cory doesn't have much of a brain himself to let Yocum take photos inside his lab, where he also has Donovan's brain sitting in a fish tank, especially after the same guy asked about the stitches in the corpse's head.
  • Dr. Cory notes that the brain is growing and pulsating after only a week.
  • Dr. Cory asks his alcoholic friend if he's sober enough to drive his wife down to the store to pick up any articles on Donovan.
  • Donovan takes control of Cory and runs him all over the city, getting money from the bank and buying new suits for himself. 
  • Yocum tails Cory and blackmails him with photos of Donovan's brain in his lab.
  • Donovan's brain is getting fat, it lights up and pulsates, and rocks back and forth in the tank when it's especially active.  

Notable Quotes

Dr. Cory: C'mon, Frank, I think we have time enough.
Dr. Schratt: Time for what?
Dr. Cory: Donovan's dead, isn't he? Beyond all help?
Dr. Schratt: So?
Dr. Cory: Science can use Donovan's brain. Hurry, or we'll never make it.
Dr. Schratt: You're crazy! Count me out!
Janice: It's against the law to operate on a corpse. It could mean jail.
Dr. Schratt: And for what? What do you hope to prove?
Dr. Cory: There's no time to talk now, either help me or leave me on my own.
Janice: Please, darling, don't do this.
Dr. Cory: Believe in me, will ya' baby. Get the instruments out of the sterilizer quickly–the bottom tray.
Dr. Schratt: You're wackier sober than I ever was crocked. What an idea...stealing a man's brain.

Dr. Cory: It's simple, Frank. We have blood banks, bone banks, eye banks, corneal transplants from dead to living. Jan– [dictates notes] Arteries resuming preoperative state at the time.
Dr. Schratt: So what? Preservation of tissue's nothing new. Why risk a jail sentence for that?
Dr. Cory: If this brain lives maybe we can discover how it thinks.
Dr. Schratt: Impossible, it can't see, it can't hear and it can't feel.
Dr. Cory: That's correct. The brain itself can't. That's why this one feels no pain even though it's still alive. But this brain contains all the knowledge and experience of Warren Donovan's entire life. In other words, all his thoughts. The impulses of these thoughts then must still be alive.
Janice: You're just guessing aren't you?
Dr. Cory: Am I? What do you think is registering on the oscillograph?
Dr. Schratt: I'm a doctor not an electrician. For all I know that thing would move even without the brain.

Janice: Why don't you discourage Frank from drinking?
Dr. Cory: Oh, perhaps I'll cure Frank and every other alcoholic if I can solve the mystery of Donovan's brain. I think it's a matter of chemistry–how the brain thinks. The problem is to find out what chemical combinations are responsible for success...failure...happiness...misery.

Janice: Honey, you really interested in reactions?
Dr. Cory: Are you kidding? Of course!
Janice: Well, what about mine? It looks like we're gonna spend the rest of lives here in this room. Alright. I don't miss the fresh air, and my cooking smells like carbolic acid, but there's no place in here for you to warm my cold feet on these long winter nights.

Dr. Cory: But human emotions exist way deep in the mind. So far I've only managed a superficial communication with the brain.
Dr. Schratt: Oh, you're off your rocker, pal. You're way past the brain. You're looking for the soul. You're out of your department. That's why I tell you you're kidding yourself, and if you're not, if you are on the level, then you're trying to play God.
Dr. Cory: Oh, Frank, you know I couldn't have gotten this far without God's help.

Dr. Cory: Jan, I went into this with my eyes open, but it got out of hand and I did many foolish things–things that made other people suffer.

Memorable Moments

Love It or Leave It

How could I not love it? It's horrible! It may seem a silly movie on the surface, but underlying the ridiculousness is the prospect of cheating death by keeping the brain alive. Dr. Cory is channeling a bit of Victor Frankenstein in his mad drive to further scientific understanding of the brain with his cranial graverobbing, and seems to justify his immoral actions by believing his work will save human lives. The suggestion that mental telepathy could enable Donovan to take over Dr. Cory is extreme, but that's what makes science fiction fun. It may have been the nutrient medium that gave Donovan's brain exceptional power. What makes this film truly enjoyable is watching Lew Ayres convincingly display a difference in manner and appearance when possessed by Donovan that has the viewer believing it's an entirely separate character, without the use of makeup or special effects.

It's interesting to see Nancy (Davis) Reagan playing the enabling wife. She was a bit of a dull housewife except for the part when she suggested she didn't want to sacrifice hanky panky time to babysit Donovan's brain. Even more interesting is alcoholic doctor pal, Schratt, who you wouldn't want removing your appendix after he's been enjoying his Pabst Blue Ribbon, though by Dr. Cory's account, he's so awesome he can still outperform other doctors at surgery even when he's wasted. Then there's sleazy Yocum, taking photos of the corpse and table where Donovan died. Basically, there's not much to like about any of the characters in this film. There are no heroes and we're left with the impression that Dr. Cory believes he'll escape any real consequences for his actions. He'd better hope Caesar doesn't catch up to him.

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