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The tag line from the movie poster for Donovan's Brain (1953) succinctly sums up the plot: "A dead man's brain told him to kill! kill! kill! kill!" And who wouldn't want to see that? We're not talking about just any dead man's brain here but a brilliant mass of gray matter that once governed the thoughts and actions of Tom Donovan, a powerful and ruthless millionaire. When Donovan dies shortly after surviving a plane crash, scientist Dr. Cory (Lew Ayres) manages to revive the dead man's brain and keep it alive in a tank. Why? Because the brain has a genius for cheating the IRS and playing the stock market. It also has the power to telepathically control and possess the well-intentioned scientist who shares laboratory space with it. So, in the course of the film, Dr. Cory becomes a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type personality who begins to view his assistant, Dr. Schratt (Gene Evans), and even his wife, Janice (Nancy Davis), as annoying obstacles in his path to world domination.
Previously filmed in 1944 as The Lady and the Monster, with Erich von Stroheim as the scientist, Donovan's Brain is much more faithful to the original novel by Curt Siodmak, whose brother Robert Siodmak had directed a string of great film noirs at Universal (The Killers, 1946; The Dark Mirror, 1946; Criss Cross, 1949). Curt, unfortunately, didn't share his brother's prestigious rank in the industry. Instead, he toiled on low-grade programmers like Bride of the Gorilla (1951) and Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956). But he almost directed Donovan's Brain, a situation that quickly soured. According to film editor Herbert L. Stock in Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers by Tom Weaver, "it seems that in discussions of how things were going to be done, Curt became the stiff, Germanic, immobile person, and would not listen. [Tom] Gries and the producer, Allan Dowling, became very upset; I pleaded with them to keep Curt on, that I would guide him through, but behind my back they bumped him. And it was too bad, because Curt did feel very badly hurt." So, Felix Feist was brought in as Siodmak's replacement and filming proceeded smoothly.
For his part, Siodmak was proud of the fact that he had never seen any of the film versions of his novel, remarking to Tom Weaver in the aforementioned book, "...in this one [Donovan's Brain] God destroys the brain with a lightning bolt! So I didn't see it. Then they did it again in England. The title was The Brain, with Peter Van Eyck. In that one, he invented a cancer cure. Why a cancer cure?....I never wrote any of those Donovan's Brain scripts -- they wouldn't let me. I had a contract to direct the Allan Dowling version, but they paid me off. There was a guy over there, Tom Gries, that didn't like me. He had these advertisements made for the film saying, 'Based on the famous book.' Period. He didn't want to mention my name!"
Despite Siodmak's negative attitude toward Donovan's Brain, the film is a superior B-movie thriller that features one of the greatest laboratory props of all time -- a big, rubbery-looking human brain, suspended in a tank of liquid. And whenever the title monstrosity is plotting something evil, it glows from within like some phosphorescent sea creature from the ocean's depths. Of course, one prop brain can't carry a whole movie and the film is greatly aided by Lew Ayres' performance as the half-mad scientist. This was the last starring role for the actor, whose film career was adversely affected by his political beliefs during WWII (he was a conscientious objector). Ayres returned to the screen in smaller character roles in the sixties but his co-star in Donovan's Brain, future First Lady Nancy Davis and wife of Ronald Reagan, was at the end of her movie career (she would only make two more films before retiring from the screen). Her strongest memory of making Donovan's Brain was leaving home at four-thirty a.m. one morning for makeup and wardrobe tests at the studio. On her way there, she was stopped by two Beverly Hills cops who checked her identification before releasing her. Later, her husband pointed out that she had probably been stopped because "a young lady in a nice-looking convertible wheeling through town at that hour" was most likely a professional hooker. They certainly weren't expecting a hardworking actress on her way to film Donovan's Brain.
Producer: Tom Gries
Director: Felix Feist
Screenplay: Hugh Brooke, Felix E. Feist, based on a novel by Curt Siodmak
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Film Editing: Herbert L. Strock
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Music: Eddie Dunstedter
Principal Cast: Lew Ayres (Dr. Patrick Cory), Gene Evans (Dr. Frank Schratt), Nancy Davis (Janice Cory), Steve Brodie (Herbie Yocum), Lisa Howard (Chloe Donovan), Tom Powers (Advisor).
by Jeff Stafford