Donovan’s Brain (1953) – By Duane L. Martin


Dr. Pat Cory (Lew Ayres) has a dream, and that dream is to be able to keep a brain alive inside of a fish tank.  Yes, I know it sounds strange, but hey…we all have our dreams, don’t we?  Actually, he wants to do it so he can save the minds of people’s whose bodies are dying, be it due to accident or illness.  So there is actually a very altruistic reasoning behind his research.  With the aid of his wife Janice (Nancy Davis, later to become Nancy Reagan), and Dr. Frank Schratt (Gene Evans), he finally manages to succeed in keeping the brain of a money alive, just as a plane crash occurs.

When he’s called to the scene of the crash to help out medically, he finds a man whose body has basically been destroyed and who’s on the verge of death.  When he dies on the operating table back at Dr. Cory’s house, he sees a great opportunity to experiment on a fresh, human brain for the first time.  To that end, he removes the man’s brain and they manage to keep it alive in a tank.  Later, through the use of machines, they even manage to allow the brain to have a rudimentary form of psychic communication.  However, that turns out to be a mistake, as the brain belonged to a man worth over a hundred million dollars who was not only a crooked tax cheat, but also a very nasty man personally.  The more Dr. Cory is in contact with the brain, the stronger the brain gets until it starts enforcing it’s will upon him.  Soon Dr. Cory is acting just like the late millionaire (Donovan), who sends him on a mission to collect money from various sources so he can have a tomb built where the brain will be kept alive in perpetuity while Dr. Cory does its bidding.  Growing ever more concerned by the developments and the changes in Dr. Cory, will Dr. Schratt and his wife Janice be able to stop the brain’s influence before it’s too late?  You’ll have to watch the film to find out.

This film is based on a novel by Curt Siodmak, and while I’ve never read the novel, I can definitely see some signs in the movie itself that it was based off of a much more detailed piece of work.  For example, part of Donovan’s plan involves dealing with his lawyer and some advisor from Washington D.C. on some crooked money stuff that’s never really explained.  I can imagine that in the book it was explained in some detail, but in the film it left me rather confused.  None of it was explained at all, and I think the story would have been well served if they’d have at least delved into that part of it in some small detail.

The relationship between Dr. Cory and his colleague Dr. Schratt actually feels really well developed.  Far more developed than his relationship with his own wife, which is full of cheek kisses and kind words (when he’s himself anyway).  Unfortunately, their relationship come off as very passionless.  He treats her like an assistant half of the time instead of a wife, and unfortunately Nancy Davis is a big part of the problem.  She plays her character more like a friend than a wife, and as such it creates a lack of depth in their relationship.  She’s not entirely at fault in that though.  Lew Ayres wasn’t exactly a steaming ball of passion either.  It’s like when you see two people who are married, but are wholly unattracted to one another, so there’s no passion at all in their relationship.  That’s how these two came off.

The scenes in the lab with the brains in the tank were quite well done, although they had the brains floating on top of the fluid in the tank instead of being submerged in it.  This was done purely for visual effect rather than out of any practicality, because first off I don’t think a brain would float, thought I could be wrong about that.  Second, the part that wasn’t in the fluid would dry out on the surface.  What would have been a cooler visual would have been the brain fully submerged in a tank with bubbles from the air pump floating up all around it.  In any case, they had a really nice set up in the lab.  So much so that you actually felt like it was a place where research could be done.

This new release from Kino Lorber has audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith, “Trailers from Hell” with Joe Dante, and the film’s original theatrical trailer.  The visual and audio quality of the restoration, as with all of these KL Classics releases are about the best you’ll find anywhere, though I will say I did notice quite a bit of grain here and there in a few scenes.  This is likely because of the original film elements that were transferred and restored, and that was the best they could do with them.  It’s not horrible by any means, nor is it common throughout the film.  It was just something I noticed in a couple of shots that were rather short and unimportant.

This film is a well known classic, and with good reason.  While I wish certain aspects of the performances had been done better, the story itself is well done, and if you’re a fan of these types of classic films, then you will definitely want to have this one in your collection.  I’ve had the old MGM DVD release in my collection for years, and as with all of the KL Classics releases, the quality is far better.

If you’d like to find out more about this release, you can check out it’s page on the Kino Lorber website here: