“Would it not be the achievement of all time to keep the brains of great thinkers, scientists, authors, statesmen, alive? To derive benefit from their wisdom and thinking power, even after their death — to make them literally immortal?”
A mad scientist (Erich von Stroheim) and his assistant (Richard Arlen) preserve the brain of a dead millionaire named Donovan; soon Donovan’s brain begins to take control of Arlen, and Arlen’s girlfriend (Vera Hruba Ralston) fears for his safety.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Disembodied Parts
- Erich von Stroheim Films
- Mad Doctors and Scientists
- Mind Control and Hypnosis
- Science Fiction
Screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s science fiction novel Donovan’s Brain was adapted for the screen no less than three times; The Lady and the Monster is the earliest of the three versions, and — though it’s not as well-known as its 1952 original-title remake — it’s the only one included in Peary’s book. The trope of a disembodied brain is one that has been exploited numerous times in both literature and film: Roald Dahl had morbid fun with it in his short story “William and Mary”, while the Medved Brothers devoted an entire category to it in their Golden Turkey Awards book (justifiably awarding a Turkey prize to the atrocious They Saved Hitler’s Brain). Here, the subject is handled with relative taste, with “the brain” itself never making much of a gruesomely graphic appearance — instead, we become caught up in a surprisingly compelling mystery story, as Arlen (giving a solid performance) becomes more and more obsessed by Donovan’s brain, and increasingly compelled to follow the dead man’s telepathic dictates.
Part of the success of the screenplay (which eventually becomes too confusing for its own good) is in the way we’re never quite sure who’s “good” or “bad”: we know that Donovan was a fraudulent financier and an overall not-nice person, but is his motivation in getting a convicted murderer out of jail completely self-serving or not? And how far will Professor Mueller (von Stroheim) go with his project, even if it means placing Arlen’s life at increased risk? Meanwhile, the film is surprisingly hypnotic to look at (see stills below), with creepy, shadow-filled gothic sets and stunning noir cinematography by Oscar-winning D.P. John Alton. Film fanatics will likely enjoy seeing von Stroheim in a semi-leading role as mad (but-not-too-mad) Prof. Mueller, while Czech figure-skater-turned-actress Vera Hruba Ralston delivers a notoriously awful performance — fun for laughs if nothing else. The Lady and the Monster isn’t must-see viewing, but it’s certainly worth a look if you can find a copy.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Atmospheric sets
- John Alton’s remarkably effective noir cinematography
- Vera Hruba Ralston’s laughably awful acting
No, but it’s worth a look simply for Alton’s impressive cinematography. Listed as a film with historical relevance in Peary’s book, but I’m not exactly sure why.