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Friday, November 16, 2018

Donovan’s Brain (1953)




Don’t look now but it is Friday again. That means another in my series of movie reviews covering the decade of the fifties. This time I dug out an old favorite that is fairly unique in that it is the only movie I’ve ever covered that stars a future first lady of the United States. Yep Nancy Davis who would be Nancy Reagan stars in Donovan’s Brain.

Dr. Cory is studying how to keep brains alive in a liquid solution. We know this because we are introduced to a monkey that he promptly kills and puts its grey matter into a fish tank. Immediately after that he is called to an airplane crash. The only surviving passenger is named Donovan, though he doesn’t last long with his severe injuries. Well a human brain that still is alive is just too much to resist and Dr. Cory soon has it in its own fish tank! It lives and starts to grow from the nutrients provided by the tank. Things seem fine until the good doctor decides to try and contact it using telepathy.

While in one-piece Donovan was a nasty bit of work. When Dr. Cory makes contact he soon loses himself to the stronger personality of Donovan. He starts limping like the man and even gets suits tailored in his style. Before you know it, he is just a puppet as the brain starts conducting his business with Cory as his proxy. Only his loyal wife, played by Davis, and the local drunk doctor know what is happening. But will they act in time to save him and put an end to Donovan’s plans? 

This is a solid low budget entry into the mad scientist subgenre that was as popular as the aliens and atomic horrors the fifties spawned. The monster here is just a prop brain in a jar, so they were able to save cash on special effects. Imagine a creature feature without the creature! But it works here for a couple of reasons. First is a great script and story based on a novel by the legendary Curt Siodmak who wrote classics like the Wolfman and many other Universal monster movies as well as I Walked with a Zombie from the Val Lewton run of legendary genre flicks. Siodmak delivered more often than he missed, and Donovan’s Brain works in spite of a cheesy setup.

The cast sells this one.
The solid writing is aided by the great cast that was assembled to bring it to screen. I’ve already mentioned Davis, who was an underrated actress. Dr. Cory is played by Lew Ayres who had an amazing career in Hollywood before landing in the T.V. movie Salem’s Lot where most genre fans will recognize him from. He worked a lot and that was because he had skills which are on display here. He has to sell the transformation from Cory to Donovan and back without any makeup effects. He does an excellent job. The other main character is the drunken doctor Frank Schratt, played by character actor Gene Evans. You might not recognize the name, but you will have seen him in a lot of movies and television. This movie required good actors to sell what is an otherwise silly idea. Without them Donovan’s Brain would not work.

The only thing this movie is missing would be the memorable monster to hang its hat on. That is what in my mind puts this solidly in the second tier of fifties science fiction movies. I enjoy this one and watch it every few years, but not as often as say Them! or The Deadly Mantis. Still there is a lot to like here and I recommend it.


© Copyright 2018 John Shatzer

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